Tips to Create Habits that Serve

Today is February 19…the 50th day of the year. How do I know this? Because today I’m celebrating 50 days in a row of meditating, doing yoga, and walking. Woo hoo!

Why make an effort to do something everyday? At the beginning of this year, I got to thinking that over the years I have glimpsed different practices that really work for me. By “work for me,” I mean that these practices help me to feel good inside and out, and when I’m feeling better and stronger, this make me more able to handle my life and whatever life throws at me. Meditation is one of these things. Tending to my body regularly by stretching and moving is one of these things. Getting lots of time outdoors is one of these things.

So clearly, I have a sense of the types of practices that help me. And yet there are times when I find it really hard to keep consistency. The very times when I MOST need these practices in my life, the times when I am MOST in need of the peace, grounding, and strength that they give me, are the times when it feels like like I have no time or energy to do them.

I had the thought that I would like to see what it feels like to live in my optimum state. What would it feel like to be taking care of my mind, body, and spirit in ways that are healthy and beneficial…and sustainable? I need to make a note here– a note that I have needed to remind myself all along the way: I am not talking about perfection. Perfectionism leads me to set really high expectations and throw myself into them in a way that is not sustainable in the long term. I have a sneaky tendency toward perfectionism, and knowing this, I am cultivating self-compassion, lightness, gentleness, and patience all along the way. I’m simply setting my intentions toward wellness and following through to the best of my ability.

How?

I’m not an expert on habits, but I can share what I am learning. Some of these “tips” are personal, but a lot of them show the truth of the common wisdom that we hear about habits and resolutions.

Are you wondering how I know it’s been 50 days or that I walk 5,000 steps? Monitoring is very helpful when habits are forming. For steps, I use the “Health” app that is built into my phone. For my other habits, I use the app, “Productive,” which is free to use for up to five habits. It’s simple and satisfying to use, and it keeps track of things for me. Is technology essential here? No. This is simply what feels easiest to me right now, and keeping track helps to motivate me because…

Streaks can be powerfully motivating. Doing yoga from time to time gives me constant choices to make– is this the day that I will do yoga? Am I too tired? Is there something else I should be doing? Gretchen Rubin talks about this in “Better than Before,” the idea that habits eliminate the need for self-control and reduce the fatigue of decision-making. Setting the intention to do it every day helps…and then once I’ve done it a few days in a row, a kind of momentum is established. A week in a row! 15 days in a row! The longer it goes, the less I’m inclined to break the chain.

If you want to build a habit that you can do every day, small and consistent is better than large and impressive. Large and impressive is fun for when things are going well, when you have plenty of time and energy, when you’re feeling excited about your brand new habit. But then you wake up late, or you’re sick or injured…and it becomes overwhelming. Guess how many minutes of yoga or meditation “counts” for me? Ten minutes. That’s it. That isn’t a very long time, and that’s the point. I can always find a way to fit ten minutes into my day. Even if I don’t really feel like doing it, I can convince myself to spend just ten minutes. And lots of times, I spend a lot longer than ten minutes…but the promise of “just ten minutes” is enough to get me started. This protects me again the dreaded “all or nothing” mentality that says, “30 minutes of meditation is great, and less than that doesn’t count.” John Berardi, PhD, wrote, “The ‘all or nothing’ mentality rarely gets us ‘all.’ It usually gets us ‘nothing.’” Along the same lines, with walking, people have really been talking about 10,000 steps lately as a daily goal. Guess how much counts for me? 5,000. Last January I tried 10,000. I made it into February, and it was difficult! I often found myself walking around my neighborhood in the dark just before bedtime when I realized I hadn’t done my steps. This got really annoying and maybe I went on a tip or got sick or something…but the next thing I knew, I was barely walking at all again. So for me, for now, 5,000 is my baseline. Sometimes I do hit 10,000, but my goal works for me– it feels good and is manageable for me.

Find a time that works for you. Morning is my best time, period. I am a morning person, so I feel excited to start the day. Because my husband isn’t a morning person, it also means that morning is a quiet and focused time of the day for me to do my yoga and meditation. And when I start the day with these calming practices, I feel better going into whatever comes next. Finally, when I don’t do these practices in the morning, I find it a bit harder to find time later in the day, or I risk forgetting about them until bedtime. So for me, morning is when I gravitate toward these practices. I’m not trying to push for mornings, just for choosing a time that works well for you.

img_9367Know what’s important. I have other habits that I am working to build as well. I’m making more mindful food choices, I’m hiking, biking, and swimming somewhat regularly, and more. But I can’t do everything all the time. So, when I can’t do them all, I focus on yoga, meditation, and walking. I keep building these three core habits. Again, I’m not trying to convince anyone that these are the three most important habits to build. I’m saying that whatever is MOST important to you…know it. Know what your baseline is, what practices you will pare down to when time and energy and motivation are in short supply. (Again, this is a rejection of the unhelpful “all or nothing” mentality.)

Know why it’s important. There are many times in the past 50 days that I’ve needed to come back to the why of all of this. Why am I doing this? One was when my back was injured for a few days. Before that, I had been doing a LOT more yoga and when I hurt my back, all of a sudden I thought I might need to quit because “how can I do 30 minutes of ‘serious’ yoga” with an injured back? I didn’t like the idea of quitting, and I also knew that pushing through pain would be dangerous. So I went back to why. What made me want to do yoga every day? Because I am tired of ignoring my body. I’m tired of being in pain with muscle tension, trying to ignore the pain, and just continuing to let the pain and tension increase day by day. I want to take time every day to listen to what my body needs and address these needs. Once I reiterated these thoughts, the question of “do I need to quit?” was simple. Yes, I needed to quit doing 30 minutes of “serious” yoga while my back was injured. But no, I didn’t need to quit tending to my body with gentle stretching and movement. This kind of careful movement is highly recommended to recover from back injuries, and the honoring of my back injury is a big part of listening to the needs of my body. (This goes along with the idea of adjusting our idea of what an accomplishment is.) Same with walking. I had to quit doing longer walks for those few days, but with more frequent short walks, I was able to continue walking 5,000 steps and stay attentive to the needs of my back. In the past, an injury like this would totally derail me from my habits because I refused to adjust the habits at all. But going back to the why of it helped me to respond wisely when obstacles arose.

This brings me to my last thought: be nimble. Don’t let yourself get frustrated and blocked by made-up limitations. This is just life, after all, and everything changes. Have the mindset of a scientist or an anthropologist who is just running some different experiments to see what works. If you’re seeking to learn and grow, don’t be afraid to make some changes. Sometimes, on a really busy day, I find myself pacing around the house before bedtime to get in my steps. This is annoying. And when this happens, the next day, I remember to pack my walking shoes, to take the stairs, to park further away…whatever. I don’t let myself get frustrated about how today went, I just move forward. Sometimes I find myself meditating late at night when I feel half-asleep. It isn’t ideal, and the next morning I am more motivated to get up earlier and meditate when I’m fresh. Like Aaliyah sang, “If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.”

img_9369And finally, to use the words of a friend, wallow in your accomplishments. We find it easy to wallow in a sense of failure, but what will help here is to congratulate yourself! Celebrate! Brag to someone who cares about you! Let yourself enjoy what you’ve done. There is a particular sense of joy in following through with something– that feeling of congruence between what you WANT to do and what you DO. Savor it. Here’s to you, and here’s to me!

 

 

 

Expanding Definitions of Productivity & Accomplishment

Ever since I received a diary for my birthday when I was about 8 years old, I’ve had a journal in my possession. There have been times in my life when I wrote less or more frequently, but I have always loved taking the time to note what’s happening in my life and in my head. I like the idea of having a record to look back on– to see what the struggles and triumphs were of a certain age. It’s like reading a book whose ending I already know– I get a sense of perspective. The writing itself helps me in the moment, too. Writing down my thoughts and feelings helps me to work through things, to puzzle things out. In the past couple of years, I have been writing much more regularly. I’ve been paying much more attention to my internal self– the way that my mind and heart work, and the ways that I grow. I write at least once a week, sometimes every few days.

As we came to the end of 2016, I realized that my current journal was about to be finished, and that it contained just over a year’s worth of writing.  I was about to leave on a long trip for the holidays, and I decided to read through my journal– my year in record. As I read, I took notes at the beginning of my new journal to synthesize (I am, at heart, someone who would like to be in school all their life– hence, the assigned reading and notetaking!).

I noted what I learned over the year, and as I did this, I soon realized that I need to expand this category to “What did I learn and/or struggle with?” Saying “What did I learn?” made things feel a bit too finished, when actually, I am still learning and working with the things I began to learn in 2016. I’m going to dig into these learnings, one post for each. So here we go!

Expand Definitions of Productivity & Accomplishment

I am drawn to (driven to?) productivity, as many of us are. It comes through our culture, this emphasis on doing, doing, doing. It feels good then, to be productive and to accomplish a lot in a day. It feels gratifying, as if all of this doing means something. If I dig way down deep, achieving seems to mean that I am enough– good enough, hardworking enough. At the same time, this can feel like a kind of tyranny– that I MUST accomplish a lot, and if not, it could mean that I failed in some way– ethically or morally by being lazy. (Usually, these feelings are really vague and fuzzy, just under the surface and unconscious, yet permeating everything. When I really start spelling out this if/then logic, it doesn’t hold up. But so it goes.)

But what if I’m tired? What if I’m not feeling well? Well, I already made the list of what needs to be done today, so time to get cracking! And if it turns out that I am not able to do all of those things on this list? Perhaps the list for the day wasn’t even realistic? Now it’s time for me to feel guilty about what I didn’t accomplish. Add those tasks to the long list for tomorrow. Writing this out, it seems so sad. What an inescapable, unsustainable rat race.

I spoke about this with my therapist, and we kept coming to somewhat of a barrier. It felt like she was saying (in a really oversimplified way), “Stop doing all those things. Relax. Just rest and be happy.” I responded to this sentiment with disbelief and maybe a little scorn. Sure…I’ll just not get things done then. (Getting things done is part of my identity!) It just didn’t seem possible, desirable, or wise to take this approach. I can’t change on a dime to think that accomplishments are NOT important, and I feel that getting things done is part of what makes me successful.

And yet…my default way of doing things doesn’t feel so wise either. That feeling of never being able to get quite enough done (because you can never get it ALL done) puts a bit of a dark cloud over life. It robs some of the joy. It’s unsustainable, and because it’s unsustainable, it eventually breaks down and I turn to food or excessive phone use– something to distract me and numb me from the painful fact that I can’t get the whole list done at once, and that I need to rest.

So clearly a different approach is needed. What we eventually came to was this: yes, accomplishments are good, and yes, I value accomplishing things. It will do no good for now to deny the value of accomplishment. But (and this felt revolutionary) what if I expand the idea of what accomplishment means?

What if what I got done today was to grieve? What if what I achieved was making art? What if my accomplishment was feeding myself well and taking a walk?

All of these things actually do have their benefits. Taking time to grieve releases the pressure that builds imperceptibly when we’re holding sadness at bay. Making art feeds the soul. It is play and wonder and beauty…all of these things that we need so crucially, and yet which are not so concrete. My physical health is the building block on which everything else rests…and yet, why does taking care of the body often feel like the last priority?

Allowing these areas of life (and others) to “count” as areas of accomplishment lets my life have a sense of balance where all is included, nourished, and valued– body, mind, and spirit… or work, play, and rest.

Too often, mind and work take the top spots in what is valued, and this is reflected in how time is spent. When only work is seen as a desirable and necessary accomplishment, any time spent in play, or in maintaining the body and nourishing the spirit is seen as “stolen” time, guilty pleasure. When the amount of work done is the only measure that counts, any time spent resting is seen as weakness.

Conversely, this new learning is a more complex understanding of myself and how I function– that body, mind, and spirit are all part of me, and that wellness and “accomplishment” in only one area is incomplete. Body, mind, and spirit each have their mysterious role to play in the functioning as ME– a healthy and flourishing human.

For me, this shift in perspective is huge. It’s still something that I’m learning and working with, and it has already made a difference for me. I’ll give a couple of examples of how this  shift shows up in my life:

I prioritized going to a physical therapist for my chronic neck/back/shoulder pain. For years, I let it fester, suffering and working hard, approaching my life with tension and trying to ignore the pain that resulted. Now I’m making time for this– two hours a week at appointments, plus exercises to do at home regularly. This can feel, every once in awhile, like a waste of time. But each moment that I spend on this is an investment in the health of my body– which I will need my whole life! And just like it was worthwhile for me to spend time and money sending my brain to college, it is worthwhile for me to spend time and money sending my body to physical therapy.

Another example is in how I’ve been spending my mornings. Rather than get up and get straight to work on emails, I now start with yoga, meditation, and breakfast every day. (I used to do this in theory…but mostly work took over.)  It doesn’t have to be long, but what it reinforces every day is that I can prioritize the care of my body, mind, and spirit– that the rest of the world can wait until I am charged up and nourished. Guess what? The world can wait.

So my learning is that life with only one kind of accomplishments is an unbalanced life. By expanding my definitions of productivity and accomplishment, there is a sense of more freedom and wellness– I feel better, period.

 

“Good fences make good neighbors”

The way growth works for me is that an idea is sparked– by an experience, an interaction, a problem– and this idea or question becomes so interesting that I need to turn it over and over, like kneading dough. And like the dough, there are in-between times, when the question needs to rest and rise anew on its own. As I turn over this idea, I write about it, I ask my friends or family for their opinions, I do some internet research, I meditate on it. And slowly, in fits and starts, meaning grows, a satisfying plateau is reached that feels right. Rilke wrote:

…I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear Sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

– from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (translation by M.D. Herter Norton)

So this “kneading the dough” feels very much like living the question, living along into the answer…or some part of an answer. For me, the interesting idea du jour is about boundaries and protection.

IMG_6847Some background: I have found over the course of my life that I am a pretty sensitive person, perhaps even a Highly Sensitive Person (that’s a thing!). I know this because I have been told many times that I am sensitive or “too sensitive.” And I know this because I feel deeply and am affected a lot by other people’s words and moods. Often this is wonderful, because is has to do with having sensitivity to other people’s needs and feelings, and being intuitive about what is required in certain situations. And often it feels terrible, as if I am walking out into the world each day with skin that is much too thin, being so easily affected, confused, and overwhelmed by what’s around me.

As I think about this, I can see a pattern in my life where I have been very affected by other people. I have had intense friends, dynamic family members, co-workers with strong personalities, and while none of this is bad (these relationships have often been very rewarding), I see a pattern of myself suffering in these relationships. This suffering can feel like being overtaken, smothered, or continuously poked, and can lead to anxiety, panic, and resentment…and then, often to feelings of guilt and frustration– “Why am I like this? Why are they like this? Why can’t things be easier than this?!” In these times, it’s easy for me to feel like I am a victim, like I’m being attacked. Because I feel attacked, it can be difficult to remember that most times, no one has any intention of hurting or overwhelming me. They are just being the way they are, and I’m being the way I am…and the combination of our default styles of behavior happens to be tough for me.

AND…I can’t change other people. No matter what I think or how attractive that idea sounds, it isn’t right and it isn’t productive to try to change the way other people are. Soooooo, that leaves me! It is in my hands to reflect on and be curious about my own reactions and responses.

In my reading, in my kneading, I have often worked on being more assertive, on communicating my needs, on setting boundaries and saying no. All of these methods have helped. And at the same time, for me, there is sometimes a sense of rigidity around this– like I am building a wall and guarding it tightly. It can be exhausting.

Recently I’ve become interested in the idea of taking time and intention to simply engage what I already know: that I am safe within myself, that I am integrated and whole just as I am…no matter what comes my way on purpose or inadvertently. I am usually not big on visualizations, but in reading about shielding meditations, I have found some ideas that speak to me. The concept of a shielding meditation is to imagine a protective shield, egg, or bubble around you. This shield is seamless and unbreakable. Its material allows love, empathy, understanding, and all good energies to pass through. Anything that is not for you and all negative energies glide harmlessly off its surface into the earth.

IMG_1454I’m sharing about this because I’ve used this visualization a few times now, and felt very positive effects. At first I felt a little guilty about this– as if I was building protection against someone. But actually, it is simply for me, in support of me and my own energy. Rather than feeling this shield as a barrier between me and the person I’m interacting with, I walk into the situation feeling whole and safe already. This allows me to interact fully and warmly, without holding back for fear of being overtaken or attacked. It has me feeling self-assured so that there isn’t a need for defensiveness. So this protection for me, this engaging of my own sense of agency and sufficiency, helps improve my relationships, rather than setting up a wall. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Robert Frost might not agree, but that’s ok. 😉

Here’s how I’ve been using this: In my formal meditation practice, I have been leaning toward compassion for others and self-compassion. I’ve been doing this on my own mostly in the morning, or listening to guided meditations by Dr. Christopher Germer and Dr. Kristen Neff. Then, before I leave for a meeting or other interaction, or in the car when I’m parked, I spend a few minutes with a meditation that I wrote:

Breathing in and breathing out.

am right here, supported by the earth underneath me, beloved by so many on earth and in my heart. I am enough, just as I am.

IMG_6866

I sense now my shield of protection, a beautiful, seamless bubble that cannot be broken, within which I am safe. 

I am safe.

Love can freely pass here, compassion and understanding, too.

Anything that is not for me cannot pass. Any damaging energy harmlessly glides off the surface of my shield and is neutralized by the earth.

I am safe and strong.

For me, this meditation is effective partly because it begins by bringing me into this space and time (“I am right here”), and reminds me of the bigger picture of support in my life, that I am not alone (“Beloved by so many”). I recorded this on my phone and I like to just close my eyes and let it play. It’s definitely not a professional recording, but I want to share it here in case it’s useful. I’m really excited about this new tool in my “happiness and wellbeing toolkit!”

My Highest Ambition is to Be What I Already Am

I’ve started re-reading “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s a great primer for mindfulness training. This book is a perfect companion to the course, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which was created by Kabat-Zinn and is now taught all offer the United States. I happen to be a Qualified Teacher of this lovely curriculum, and I teach it at our community hospital in Monterey, but the book is also a great resource for those who may not be able to find/afford such a course.
One of the first few chapters concentrates on the qualities or states that are beneficial for mindfulness training, and the one that struck a chord in me was trust:
“Developing a sense of trust in yourself and your feelings is an integral part of meditation training…if at any time something doesn’t feel right to you, why not honor your feelings? Why should you discount them or write them off as invalid because some authority or some group of people think or say differently? The attitude of trusting yourself and your own basic wisdom and goodness is very important in all aspects of the meditation practice.”
“It is impossible to become like someone else. Your only hope is to become more fully yourself.”
“In practicing mindfulness, you are taking responsibility for being yourself and learning to listen to and trust your own being. The more you cultivate this trust in your own being, the easier you will find it will be to trust other people more and to see their basic goodness as well.”
(All quotes are from Chapter 2.)
TODAY I TRUST MYSELF-2

Indeed, why not honor our own feelings? Why does it ever occur to us to doubt ourselves and question ourselves as much as we do?

I love and need this idea that it is our responsibility to be ourselves, listen to ourselves, and trust ourselves. No one will do this for us, yet sometimes it feels like it should be someone else’s job. Sometimes we want to entrust the care of ourselves to our friends, our family, our spouse– surely they love us enough to anticipate our needs, consider our unspoken needs before their own, right? If this thought process sounds very familiar, then disappointment might feel familiar as well. No matter how caring our loved ones might be, it is our responsibility to believe in ourselves, to speak for ourselves, to advocate for ourselves, and to identify and implement all that we need in order to be comfortable and happy in our world.

Thomas Merton gave us this remarkable brain bender which ends up making a whole lot of sense. “Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself.”

May we accept and trust ourselves fully today.

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EVENT: Drop-In Qigong & Meditation

Mondays, January 4, 11, 18, and 25

5:00-6:00 pm

411 Pacific Street, McGowan Building room 215 (on the campus of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies)

The first event of the year is on Monday, January 4 and then each Monday in January!  I’ll lead 20-30 minutes of gentle qigong movement, followed by a 20-30 minute guided meditation. Qigong will begin at 5pm and meditation will begin at 5:30pm. It is possible to attend one or both parts, as fits your needs.

Chairs and meditation cushions are provided. Qigong can be practiced standing or sitting, and meditation can be practiced sitting, lying, or standing. Please bring whatever you need in order to be comfortable.

No registration necessary; just drop in! If you wish, a $5 donation is appreciated.

EVENT– “Reflection: Meditation & Writing”

Saturday, January 9, 2016, 9:00  am – 12:00 pm

Downtown Pacific Grove, suggested donation $10-20

Katie Dutcher with Flourish & Bloom invites you to take some quiet time to reflect and refresh, and start the year off well. I (Katie) will lead guided meditation and mindful walking, with time for solo reflection and writing. Bring a journal, notebook…or whatever you’d like to use for writing. Sketching or other artwork is great too– this is your time. Chairs are provided. Please bring a cushion if you prefer it.

Because of the nature of the venue, the number of participants is limited to 10.

While each element is guided, there will not be explicit teaching incorporated. This makes the events ideal for those who have learned about mindfulness and would like another opportunity to practice in a group setting. All are welcome!

Register here:  https://goo.gl/Utp11S

Self-Compassion

I recently listened to the audiobook of “10% Happier” by Dan Harris at the recommendation of a colleague. As I did dishes, cooked, and puttered around the house, I listened to the 7+ hours of the book and I really liked it. It is approachable and funny, and it gives a good introduction to mindfulness, refreshingly from the perspective of a person who never thought they would be into such things as meditation, retreats, etc. A lot of the book is about Harris’ career in news, setting the stage for his exploration of mindfulness, and some of the best gems come at the end of the book– all the way through the epilogue.

Somewhere near the end of the book, Harris mentions that self-compassion meditation has been linked to greater success in weight loss and in cessation of smoking. This finding is very interesting to me, and self compassion in general has been a particular focus of mine this year, so I decided to find out more about it.

IMG_2176One study found that combining weight loss with self compassion led to greater overall weight loss in soldiers– greater than even pairing with “regular” meditation. This article also compiles a lot of great information on the subject and discusses probably the most common obstacle to self compassion: the fear of becoming self indulgent.

I definitely have this fear, whether pertaining to weight loss, working hard, or working on any goals. I am exploring this question of being compassionate and yet not indulgent, of having intention and discipline without going overboard into an unsustainable over-drive. Balance.

Inspired by the research and by my own wish for more self love and less judgement, I am doing self compassion meditation. With just a little searching, I found this set of guided meditations that I’m liking very much so far. It feels comforting and nourishing to practice compassion for myself in this way…and it feels pretty novel!