101 Days of Mindful Meditation

A few months ago, I was standing in a supermarket checkout line. The cashier in our lane was moving at a glacial pace. She meticulously scanned each item, while chatting incessantly with customers and co-workers. The customer she was ringing up had dozens of items. This was going to take a while. I could feel my stress and frustration escalating.

Meanwhile, I noticed that the person just ahead of me had a mere two items. I leaned in and said: “Looks like we chose the wrong cashier. You should go to the express lane– it will be much faster.” The woman smiled at me and replied: “that’s all right. I meditated this morning, so I’m good. Normally a situation like this would totally annoy me, but not any longer. Now I am calm and relaxed– plus, I get to talk to a nice person like you.”

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Wait, what? Was this person for real? She was perfectly content to stand in line an extra 15 minutes when she didn’t have to? And she attributed her Zen-like aura to having meditated earlier that day? I was intrigued.

I had heard a lot about meditation over the years and had even tried it a few times. I once attended a meditation class, had bought several meditation CDs (back when we had CDs!), and had also downloaded popular apps like Headspace and Calm. But when I closed my eyes and tried to focus on deep breathing, it just didn’t work for me. My mind kept wandering and I began to stress that I couldn’t master a simple exercise like meditation. After I few attempts, I rationalized not doing it anymore because I didn’t have time to meditate. That’s right– I couldn’t find 10 minutes a day for myself.

Back to that day at the supermarket. After seeing the benefits of meditation first-hand, I resolved to try again. The next morning, I opened up the Calm app (which had lay dormant for close to a year) on my phone. I was immediately greeted with the soothing, peaceful sounds of falling rain. I opened a chapter called Daily Calm and listened.

To be honest, I did not have a huge epiphany on that first day. Throughout the guided meditation, I found my mind wandering, as I thought about all the important tasks I needed to complete that day, emails I needed to send, people I needed to reach. I did manage a few moments in which I was able to focus solely on breathing and being present. But it was difficult. And uncomfortable. Yet, I was determined to keep going.

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About a week into this “experiment,” something shifted. I woke up and discovered I was actually looking forward to my morning meditation. But first I had to walk the dog. During the entire the dog walk, I couldn’t wait to get home and start meditating. This excitement was new– and welcome. Since then, I have practiced mindful meditation for 101 days straight. Most days, I meditate for just 10-15 minutes early in the morning. During that time, I am “all in,” focused on deep breathing, clearing my mind and being here. It is a liberating and exhilarating experience. This is now part of my daily routine and I cannot live without it.

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My adult children are tired of hearing about my meditation practice and how it has changed my life. They, like so many others who have not experienced mindfulness, think I am involved in some weird, spiritual, crunchy granola waste of time. I promise you, it is not that. This is something very real and meaningful that is making a profound difference to me.

Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations without judgment.”  Mindfulness, which includes the practice of meditation, forces you to slow down and pay attention to the here and now, which is challenging in today’s frenetic world.

We refer to meditation as a “practice” because, like most things in life, the more you do it, the more adept you become. And, it can take some time to feel comfortable. As adults, there are so many things we have literally been ‘practicing’ for years– whether it be our careers, sports and hobbies, or even relationships. Yet despite all the years of practice, we still have not fully mastered these things. I love that my meditation practice is a continual work-in-progress. Each day I meditate I learn a little more.

In just over three months, I have noticed subtle changes in the way I view the world and in how I react to situations. I am definitely calmer and more patient, and I tend not to stress as much over the little things that typically set me off.

“We have little power to choose what happens, but we have complete power over how we respond.”–– Arianna Huffington

My daily guided meditations force me to listen carefully to the inspirational messages imparted within, covering a gamut of topics including: confidence, understanding, obstacles, perfectionism, FOMO, everyday judgments, relationships, nesting, cravings, dreaming and more. They help me to reflect on important aspects of my life in new and different ways. 

There is definitive medical research showing a positive correlation between meditation and brain function. MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ center, the amygdala, shrinks. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – thickens. The ‘functional connectivity’ between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain weakens, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration strengthen. According to a study at the University of Pittsburgh, the scale of these changes correlates positively to hours of meditation practice.

Research has also shown that mindfulness helps reduce anxiety and depression. Mindfulness teaches us to respond to stress with awareness of what is happening in the present moment, rather than to simply act instinctively, without understanding the emotions or motives that may be driving a decision.

It is comforting to know that my meditation practice is helping to improve my brain function and to reduce stress and anxiety. But even more importantly, I love the way it has shifted my view of daily life… I am now living more in the present, learning to be more flexible, letting go of perfectionism and relinquishing control over things I know I cannot control. Mindfulness makes me feel more like my true self… and I like that real self a lot more. I am less judgmental, less angry and more tolerant these days.

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The other necessary aspect of meditation is that it is an act of self-preservation. As we age, it becomes more and more important to take care of ourselves, both physically and mentally. I try to work out daily but if I miss a day, I become grumpy and irritable– just ask my husband! Now I find that missing a morning meditation has the same result– I just don’t feel quite right. For example, if I am traveling early, and cannot meditate, I force myself to do a bedtime meditation, just to help re-align my psyche. (And, what could be bad about Matthew McConaughey reading me a sleep story?)

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As adults, it is challenging and sometimes onerous to learn new skills and even more difficult to master these skills. At first, a mindfulness practice may feel strange and uncomfortable. You may get frustrated or impatient, as I did. But stick with it anyway… it definitely gets better. For me, meditation has already proven to be well worth the investment of time and effort. I feel more open to whatever life throws my way.

While I would love the opportunity to reconnect with the stranger from the supermarket and thank her for changing my life, since that is an unlikely option, the best I can do is pay it forward to others. I have many friends and family whom I know would benefit immensely from meditation, so I am sharing this gift with all of you. However, like me, each of you will experience your own personal mindfulness journey and determine how meditation may fit into your life.

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Everyday Gratitude

With the hustle and bustle of modern-day life, it is easy to lose sight of how fortunate we are. We have so much to be grateful for. Most people are grateful when good things happen to them: they get a promotion, a new job, a home, a new car, a raise or a nice gift. But this is actually backward. The first step to achieving true happiness is to be grateful for the many things we already have– that is, adopting an attitude of gratitude. This means making it a habit to express thankfulness and appreciation in all parts of our lives, on a regular basis.

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Thanksgiving is a day that causes us to hit the pause button and bring all that gratitude to the forefront. But why focus on gratitude only on Thanksgiving?

According to Tamara Levitt, Head of Content at the meditation app, Calm, “gratitude is not always easy to access on a daily basis because our minds have a natural negativity bias.” Once we are aware of this, we can develop our ‘gratitude muscle’ and train it to notice the positive.

“Gratitude, like faith, is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows, and the more power you have to use it on your behalf. If you do not practice gratefulness, its benefaction will go unnoticed, and your capacity to draw on its gifts will be diminished. To be grateful is to find blessings in everything.”— Alan Cohen

Levitt suggests we start with what is working in our lives, like, for example, our health. Even if we are sick or injured, we can still be grateful for the body parts that are working and for all the things we are still able to do… We can be grateful for our senses– our eyesight, hearing, touch– which allow us to connect with and enjoy the world around us… We can be grateful for family and friends, the people who brighten our existence, support us, and enrich our lives with laughter and love… We can be grateful for a warm home, delicious food on the table and creature comforts… And we can be grateful for our job or career, our passions, our talents, our creativity– all that brings meaning and purpose to our lives.

 

Gratitude can be found anywhere and everywhere, if we look for it. We can even find gratitude in the pain and loss we experience, in the challenges and obstacles we face. We can choose to view these struggles as gifts that broaden our experience, that teach us invaluable lessons, that open the door to new possibilities and that deepen our resilience, compassion and wisdom. It is not easy, but we can find gratitude for everything, large or small, in our lives. And this gratitude is readily available– not just on Thanksgiving Day, but every day.

The snow falling outside that is causing dangerous roads and activities to be cancelled is, simultaneously, creating a beautiful, peaceful, winter wonderland outside my home. Today, I choose to be grateful for the snow.

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Pet Therapy

When I mention that I am a pet therapist, people imagine cats and dogs reclined on my couch while I listen to their problems. While that sounds like an appealing way to spend my days, I am actually referring to a different type of pet therapy.

My golden retriever, Casper, and I are a certified pet therapy team. We were licensed by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs after completing a six-week training program, followed by several supervised hands-on visits. As a dog team, we visit nursing homes, special needs programs, veteran’s organizations, college campuses, hospitals, schools and libraries. Our mission is to share Casper’s unconditional love with those in need, thereby brightening their lives.fullsizeoutput_4711

Clinical studies have proven that animals help people heal. Therapy dogs provide comfort to those who are ill, anxious and disabled. Simply petting, touching or talking to animals can improve physical health and emotional well-being. Interacting with a friendly pet can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It can also accelerate the release of endorphins which produces a calming effect and literally soothes the brain, resulting in an increased ability to learn and interact with others.

Pet therapy can also help children with learning difficulties. For such children, it can be extremely stressful to try to read, write or participate in an intellectual activity that does not come naturally. Often a child who is unsure of him/herself will relax and read to a dog, who is non-judgmental. This enables the child to gain the necessary self-confidence to keep practicing their reading. Our handlers act as the catalyst between the dog and child.

Likewise, therapy dogs can help children and adults with special needs to engage in social interactions. Casper & I regularly visit a daycare facility for adults with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities. The facility offers programs to help patients live fuller lives with “opportunities for learning, working and loving,” with pet therapy being one of the patients’ favorite activities. Each time we visit, I am awed by Casper’s impact on the patients. Just minutes after petting or snuggling Casper, fearful and confused faces light up with smiles and peaceful serenity. At one point during last week’s visit, two patients grinned broadly as they sandwiched Casper, simultaneously kissing his head and rubbing his chest.

Another important benefit of pet therapy involves stress relief. Each semester, we visit college campuses during exam weeks for “de-stress days.” Students stop by in between studying and exams to pet and snuggle the dogs, which helps students relax and recharge their batteries. Despite the rigors of exam week, many look forward to their campus de-stress days all year long! We run similar programs for employees in corporate offices.

 

In preparation for a pet therapy visit, I tie a special Red Cross bandana around Casper’s neck and pack his bag with treats and water. Casper instinctively knows that when he’s wearing his red bandana it is ‘time to go to work.’ And he is always up for the task! Being a good pet therapy team requires that I remain calm and focused (as Casper takes his cue from my demeanor,) so we can save our energy and empathy for those we are serving. The work is physically and emotionally challenging– and sometimes exhausting (see post-therapy nap photo below)– yet equally rewarding and fulfilling.

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Post-therapy nap time

 

It is empowering to know that Casper and I can positively impact the human spirit. And, it is especially poignant that Casper– a rescue dog who came to us off the streets of Istanbul, Turkey and who, himself, was given a new lease on life– is now ‘paying it forward’ and helping others to live a fuller, happier life. 

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Road Trip– Part Deux

Just in time for Mother’s Day, I was given the best gift any mom could hope for– quality time with her children. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to take a long road trip with my young adult son, I jumped at the chance. (Note: The last time I wrote about a long road trip was four years ago, when my daughter and I drove 15 hours from New York to Nashville.)

Not the most glamorous of travel routes, to be certain, this latest road trip would take us from Mooresville, North Carolina to Armonk, New York, span approximately 663 miles and pass through seven states.

Fortunately, my son inherited his dad’s packing skills (earning him the nickname “Packman Jr,”) and had expertly filled every crevice of our Honda CRV with clothing, bedding, work files, printers and assorted household items he had amassed during a year in the Tar Heel state.

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Packman Jr. expertly filled the car

Our 6:30 a.m. departure was typical “action” time for me, but not so much for my son. As could be anticipated, the trip began with some disagreement over music selection. Much to my surprise– and delight– we settled upon Tom Petty and actually listened to most of the Full Moon Fever album before my son fell asleep.

Stop #1 was about three hours into the drive at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Roanoke, Virginia. Coffee recharge for mom, accompanied by some surprisingly delicious egg white & turkey sausage breakfast sandwiches on multigrain flatbread. Unfortunately, the meals would go downhill from there.

The other big excitement in Roanoke, VA was son instructing mom in how to operate Cruise Control.  It now seems unfathomable that I’ve been driving for over four decades and had never before used this amazing car feature. After a brief tutorial, I was ready to roll and discovered cruise control to be a game-changer for a long drive on the open road!

After breakfast, my son went back to sleep. As the miles rolled on, I glanced over to find him curled up, fully enveloped in a “pillow fort” with his baseball cap pulled halfway down over his head. I felt a pang of  nostalgia, recalling the days when my sweet, innocent, little boy regularly conked out in cars, at dinners out, at the beach, or anytime and anywhere he felt tired. Just then, Crosby Still Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children came on the radio, and I smiled at the irony of the perfect song playing at this moment. How had this small boy suddenly become a full-grown adult man? Where had the years gone? fullsizeoutput_4b36

 

Stop #2 was for a gas fill-up and an eagerly-anticipated lunch at Chick-Fil-A in Winchester, Virginia. I had fond memories of eating at this establishment about 10 years prior during our daughter’s soccer tournament in Virginia Beach. What I neglected to factor in was that, during my prior visit to Chick-Fil-A, I was still eating fried foods and gluten. Nowadays, both mom and son are very healthy eaters, so instead of ordering the restaurant’s famed chicken nuggets & waffle fries, we opted instead for market salads, which basically consisted of wilted greens covered with ice cold chicken strips and a few overripe berries. A huge disappointment, to be sure. Fortunately, we had a large bag of Terra chips to supplement the meal.

At this point, my son (whom I thankfully discovered is an excellent driver!) took over the wheel and I settled into the cozy pillow fort to relax. I was torn between wanting to maximize our mother-son bonding time with needing to catch up on my sleep. I opted for a brief nap. We then talked, listened to music and rode in peaceful silence. I realized that the best part about traveling with my son across all these miles was just being  in the moment, feeling his comforting presence beside me.

I knew it would be a long while before we would have another opportunity to spend 12 straight hours together, so I wanted to relish this time. We continued through the remainder of Virginia, then West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, making a final pit stop in the town of Hamburg. Then it was on to conquer New Jersey and New York.

We entered the last leg of our road trip. Despite being tired and sweaty, with aching backs and legs, I wasn’t quite ready to get out of the car, knowing that our ride together would soon be coming to a close. If life is about the journey– and not the destination– then I would have to say that we successfully mastered this chapter…. although I think both mother and son were happy to arrive at home in time for dinner– and the NBA playoff games!

fullsizeoutput_4b33Our road trip in a nutshell:

1 mom, 1 son, 1 jam-packed Honda CRV, 663 miles, 1-1/2 tanks of gas, 2 coffees for mom, 1 tasty meal & 1 crappy meal, good tunes, cruise control, 7 states, 12 hours travel time in car together… priceless.

A Happy Mother’s Day, indeed.

 

 

Happy Light– Happy Winter

There’s a reason animals hibernate. Bears generally enter their dens in September or October and emerge around April. As we battle the polar vortex, a bear’s life sounds quite appealing. But, for those who remain awake during the harsh northern winters, the days are often bitingly cold, dark and bleak. fullsizeoutput_4892

Some people enjoy the winter cold and are unfazed by frigid temperatures. These hardy souls relish outdoor sports like skiing, ice skating and snow-shoeing. My friend, Vivien, actually gets a thrill from shoveling snow and finds it to be a great workout. I, on the other hand, prefer to avoid the cold, grey weather and mostly remain indoors in the winter. I am one of millions of people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly nicknamed “SAD,”) a type of depression that is thought to be caused by lack of sufficient daylight. Symptoms of SAD begin in the fall and run through the winter, and range from mild irritability or feeling ‘out of sorts,’ to more severe depression. The affliction can sap your energy, cause you to lose interest in activities you usually enjoy, generate mood swings, affect your appetite and mess with your sleep patterns.

I have suffered from SAD for many years, without realizing it had a name. I would brush off the negative feelings that crept up in late fall as simply a case of the ‘winter blues,’ or a seasonal funk that I had to tough out on my own. I now realize that there are steps I can take to keep my mood, energy and motivation steady throughout the year.

Aside from escaping to California for a few weeks each winter– which always boosts my psyche, mood and energy level– I have found a new best friend: the HappyLight. The HappyLight, a white light therapy lamp, comes in a variety of styles which range in price from $30 to upwards of $250. The lower-end model I purchased consists of a 7”x9” light box that emits white light to simulate the natural sunlight (without the dangerous UV rays) we normally receive during the spring/summer months.

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Some of these lamps promise to make you feel like “you’re at the beach all winter long.” For a $45 investment, I figured it was worth a try. For the past two weeks, I have been sitting in front of my HappyLight for 30-45 minutes a day as I work or answer emails. So far, I am thrilled to report that sitting in front of this lamp has both stabilized my mood and upped my energy level. And, although I still detest the cold, I am starting to feel more like my spring/summer self.

Even today, as the thermometer hit zero degrees (with wind chills of -16°,) I felt fine. I walked the dog for 20 minutes, then played with him outside in our yard. I am not going to lie: the bitter cold felt extremely harsh. But I bundled up in layers and handled it. And my mood remains upbeat. Perhaps that’s because I leave tomorrow for California. But I like to think it’s due, at least in part, to my HappyLight.

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Happy Light… Happy Winter.

 

Glass Half Full

The glass-half-full person views most situations hopefully or optimistically. There is always a bright side or a silver lining. By contrast, the glass-half-empty person views life pessimistically. I know plenty of people in each of these camps. Neither vantage point paints a complete picture, as real life is a series of ups and downs. Our daily challenge is to relish the ups and manage the downs as best we can.

I am generally a glass-half-full person. I firmly believe that keeping an optimistic outlook begets actions that produce positive results; expecting bad things to happen prevents one from taking actions to mitigate or avoid those negative outcomes. The word “optimism” actually derives from the Latin word “optima,” meaning the best outcome or belief in the greatest good.

However, even optimistic people like me occasionally lapse into negative thinking. It is easy during the holidays, and especially on New Year’s, to fall into the glass-half-empty mode. We may look back on the past year and on what we set out to achieve and realize that we fell short. Instead of focusing on these shortcomings, I find it far more beneficial to look back and take stock of all I’ve done– how I’ve challenged myself and grown. Even though I haven’t accomplished all I had hoped to, I remain grateful for all I have and am proud of my successes. Each small accomplishment or victory feels like a positive and productive step forward.

So, as 2018 draws to a close and we usher in a new year, I challenge everyone to embrace and learn from our disappointments, setbacks and challenges, and to remember the happy times, the positive events and the good we’ve done. A new year is an opportunity to start over, to move forward and put the past where it belongs. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to regenerate and renew our lives.

In closing, I raise a glass-half-full  of cool, crisp Sauvignon Blanc (I am not a champagne person,) and toast my beloved friends and family… I wish each of you a happy and healthy 2019. My inspiration for the new year is credited to Oprah:

“If you look at what you have in life, you’ll always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough.”–– Oprah Winfrey

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Full House

Once again, during this season of giving thanks and acknowledging gratitude, I am reminded of what is most important in life. Although my children are now in their 20’s, it is still wonderful when they return to the nest. I forget how much I crave just hanging in our warm, cozy house– with the immediate family intact– until everyone comes home.

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The last time we were all together was in mid-August, so this has been a long stretch, during which our frenetic lives have continued on. Yet, once we’re reunited it seems like no time has passed. Within minutes, the familiar dinner table banter returns. We sprawl across the couch watching Monday night football, NBA basketball and movies laced with sophomoric humor. We play board games, take neighborhood walks and snuggle with the dog. We live in the moment and enjoy life’s simple pleasures that seem so elusive these days.

 

Never mind the multiple trips to the supermarket, health food store, fish market and other local purveyors to ensure that the refrigerator is always filled with healthy foods that meet everyone’s culinary preferences. Never mind my role as a short-order cook, serving up 3-course breakfasts and home-cooked dinners with the dishwasher working overtime. Never mind the piles of clothing and wet towels on the floor and the beds that will remain unmade for days. And never mind the daily loads of laundry. This is but a small price to pay to have the band back together.

When our house is full, I experience a completeness and peaceful comfort that stirs my soul. My sleep is deeper than usual. I am reminded of a TV public service announcement from my childhood: “It’s 10:00 pm. Do you know where your children are?” During four brief nights, the answer is “yes, I do.” They’re home. Right where they’re supposed to be. And everything feels right with the world. My heart is full.

In closing, I am inspired by the lyrics of Homegrown, a song by my favorite musician that also happens to be my cell phone ring tone…

“I’ve got everything I need and nothing that I don’t.” –– Zac Brown Band

Full house… full fridge… full heart.