How’s Your Heart?

Back in December I wrote about gifts to give yourself and the first one was a peaceful heart. What were your thoughts on that? Did you pause and wonder what I was talking about?

I’m using the word ‘heart’ for convenience, but I don’t mean the organ that pumps your blood. I mean your emotions or even just the general feeling tone in your body. I’ll use the word ‘heart’ to represent all this.

The mind and body are deeply interconnected which means if you’re on a healing journey, it’s useful to develop your awareness of your emotions and how they impact you. In other words, notice how your heart reacts to things like conversations with other people or your own thoughts and memories.

For example, if you think of a painful memory, what goes on in your body? Maybe your chest tightens or your belly contracts? Or what if you’re in a conversation with a person who intimidates you? I usually feel like there’s a rock in my belly. Start tracking these sensations. How often does this happen in a normal day?

And what about the happy times? When something makes you laugh, do you notice your body? Do puppies, even the thought of puppies, make your heart all warm and fuzzy? How about baby penguins? This is important information even if it seems trivial. The path to a peaceful heart begins with awareness.

Researcher Kelly Turner, Ph.D. found that healing suppressed emotions was one of the nine key factors in radical remission of cancer. In fact, only two of the nine factors were actually physical. The rest were emotional and spiritual in nature. You can read about her findings in her book, Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds.

Even if you’re not ready to dive into your deepest, darkest memories, you can still pay attention to your heart messages now and start understanding your patterns. You can also cultivate more positive experiences through heart practices like gratitude and lovingkindness.

For a gratitude practice, think of something you’re grateful for–it can be big or small. Hold it in your awareness for a moment. Notice if you sense anything in your heart. I tend to experience this as a sense of opening or softening in my chest, but you may experience something else. Above all else, just experience your gratitude.

Similarly, with lovingkindness, think of someone you really like, it could even be your pet, and send them kind thoughts like, May you be well and happy. May you be healthy and strong. Use whatever words work for you. Again, notice what you feel in your chest area as you continue to send them these kind thoughts.

Then see if you can practice this kindness with everyone you encounter in your day, even the pesky people. You could be grateful that they are helping you to cultivate more patience and kindness.

So it’s a two-part process:
1. Develop emotional awareness
2. Create more positive heart experiences

Rinse and repeat.

These are steps to a peaceful heart. There are more to consider like compassion and forgiveness, but those can come later.

Ultimately aren’t we all looking for peace, happiness and contentment in our lives? And even if we just become 10% happier through our efforts, isn’t that a great accomplishment?

My religion is kindness – His Holiness the Dalai Lama

THIS is the Best Part!

I just returned from a short vacation. Before going, I created a mantra – “THIS is the best part!” What’s that about? Let me explain…

A mantra can be a word or phrase used for concentration in meditation or, in my case, this mantra was a statement repeated frequently to remind me of an intention. The intention was to not cling to the vacation. “Clinging” is a term used in Buddhism to describe our tendency to want the good stuff to last, to never end. Clinging leads to anxiety about the ending of this good stuff. I was concerned that the vacation was too short, just a long weekend, and that I would feel deprived for not having a more substantial  vacation. I wanted it to be great and to fulfill all of my vacation needs – to get enough rest, to explore new territories, to laugh/eat/dance with friends, to get absorbed in a book, to get a different perspective on my life – and all the other great things that come when you get away. I wanted it to be longer and I was clinging to it before it even started (thus, I was anxious). I wanted my mantra to help me recognize each moment for the beautiful thing that it was – and there were so many!

I was aware that this “clinging” was also about the end of summer. The end of the glorious weather that takes us outdoors; the end of playtime; the end of flowering gardens (though we still have some time with that); the end of barbecues and beach days. I love summer. I get depressed when it ends. This depression is really grief – the loss of the season. Grief only happens when we are not in this moment, not present with what’s right in front of us. I’ve been aware for a while that I cling to summer. I start clinging to it in May. So this mantra was to help me with that also – this is the best part! This one right here where I appreciating the moment!IMG_0123

And really, to keep it all in perspective, my end-of-summer depression ends around September 10th, and then I fall in love with Autumn – crisp air, colorful fall leaves, soups, sweaters and boots, pumpkin pie. What’s not to love?

I used my mantra well on my vacation and explained it to my friends so that when I said it out loud – over a fabulous tapas dinner, in a treehouse with a bunch of kids, enjoying affection from a big happy dog, playing “I spy” on the long drive – they would all smile knowingly. Yes, THIS IS the best part. Somehow naming all the great times helped me to realize how many wonderful moments there were, to acknowledge and appreciate each one fully and then to let it go. There are so many great moments in any given day. We just don’t usually acknowledge them because we’re often swept up in thinking about the future or past. And truly, this moment right here – the one where you’re reading this line – is the only one we have.

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Meditation and the Relaxation Response

Meditation is garnering impressive scientific backing as well as much media attention in recent years. I enjoy teaching meditation in my yoga classes and feel that it’s equally important to understand what is happening in the body when one meditates – the changes are so beneficial! Below is a synopsis of what I teach.

Meditation elicits the “relaxation response,” a term coined by researcher Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School in the early 70s, to describe a phenomenon in which the following physiological changes take place:

Heart rate lowers
Muscles tension is reduced
Brain waves slow down
Blood pressure decreases
Metabolism decreases
Chemicals associated with stress, cortisol and adrenalin, are reduced

Meditation calms the sympathetic nervous system and engages the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” process of the limbic brain. It sends adrenalin and cortisol through the body, which in turn sends blood to the extremities – arms and legs – leaving the organs at the core of the body functioning with less blood and interfering with their efficient functioning. In this situation the digestive and reproductive systems are suppressed and the immune system altered.

The parasympathetic nervous system tells the body that everything is okay, that it can relax. It returns the blood to the core organs so they can operate efficiently. If stress is prolonged and the body is continuously exposed to the stress hormones, one becomes at risk for heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems, depression and memory impairment.

A simple meditation technique is to watch the breath. Settle into a comfortable position (not lying down – you might fall asleep!). Notice how the breath is moving in the body. Hold your attention on the most prominent sensation of the breath. If you like, you can use your inner voice to label the breath “in” and “out.” If the mind wanders, don’t worry, it’s natural. Just bring it back to the breath. Try doing this for 3-5 minutes. You can build up to a longer practice over time.

Know that the mind is a powerful tool. Use it to bring yourself into full, vibrant health.