For many of us the countdown to the Christmas holidays has begun. The traffic is congesting, the queues are growing and expectations for that break are taking shape in our minds. For some this is a much-loved time of year. But for others, it's one of the most challenging - financially and emotionally not at all merry and bright. No matter which side of this fence you tend toward, here are some tips for staying mindful during this time of the year:
Let me know how it goes!
It's Mental Health Awareness Week in NZ (Oct 9-15), and all this talk about it politically and on social media makes we wonder, what exactly is mental health? We may think we know what isn’t healthy on the one hand- chronic anxiety and suicidal tendencies for instance. But is anyone the picture of perfect mental health? Do you fit the bill when you're happy 100% of the time? Or when you seem to have it all sorted out and are humming along in life? What exactly does the picture of "good" mental health look like?
I meet a lot of people in my meditation work who, on the outside, might very well seem "the picture of perfection". But what I've learned, both as a meditation teacher and in my personal life dealing with depression, is that everyone is going through something. Just because they make you laugh, are the life of the party, or seem successful in all the right ways does not mean they are exempt from suffering.
Does mental health mean having no problems, living happily ever after, or finally mastering the art of positive thinking? Society and media may want us to believe that. I would say otherwise. The reality is that some stresses, anxieties and depressive thoughts may be with as as travelling companions throughout our lives. Although we all have habitual ways of relating to life that don't necessarily serve us - keep us mired in the mud of negative thinking or caught in spirals of thought and behaviour that limit us in some way - we can learn to see through them, to defuse from them without having to get rid of or control them.
It can be a comfort for us to think we’re at the helm controlling life, even our thoughts, but the reality is we are not. When’s the last time you planned a thought? Isn’t it more accurate to say that thinking is just happening? Try it for yourself if you’d like - spend some time watching your thoughts and see how they just arise without the asking, the planning. And isn’t it the case that we don’t get to choose our biology, our upbringing, whether we were bullied in the past or will get cancer in the future?
Life dishes out what it will whether we want this to be the case or not. In fact, the need to control life is often the dialogue running in the background of someone who has lost their ground. Worry and panic arise when we fail, or think we might not be able to divert circumstance to our favour.
But there is a flip side: we can all re-negotiate our contract with life by acknowledging how we will live with what is given. We can make a vow with ourselves to stay open to what arises. And respond compassionately when we do not. This is where meditation can help.
Many of my students and clients have heard me say that iRest has changed my life. It has, profoundly. This doesn’t mean I live blissed out because I meditate. This is a false perception that only feeds into the idea that some people always have it figured out - living in paradise baby! (And by the way, there must be something wrong with you because you don’t.) “Yeah nah”, as the Kiwis say. Quite the opposite.
My life is actually exactly the same. All those negative thoughts, stresses and depressive episodes still make their way over to visit. But now I know I don’t have to make them go away or bury them in positivity. I don’t have to be happy all the time. There is a powerful freedom in knowing you’re perfect in your imperfection. The mind, this mind, tends toward depression. OK. These things are all still the case, but I don’t have to fuse with them. They are here, yes, but not what I am, who I am. And for me, this is what mental health looks like.
You know that moment at the end of a long day when you've come home from work, you get to sit down in a comfortable chair, and let yourself relax? You take a long breath, a sigh of relief, lingering into your exhale.
This lingering breath at the point of letting go is no coincidence. The breath and the nervous system are intimately intertwined. We know that deep diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (a system that allows for rest and overall healing). In contrast, the fight or flight response of the sympathetic system becomes engaged in a highly charged situation. And in today's world, it seems we're asked to be "switched on" more than we get to switch off. This means that the sympathetic nervous system remains at a heightened level of alertness for longer and longer periods of time. Stress hormones like cortisol continually flood the body. And we see mental health issues like anxiety and depression on the rise.
An anxious mind = anxious body. A cyclical pattern of stress becomes the new norm: anxious thoughts trigger a spike in the nervous system, shallow breath, release of more stress hormones, decreased heart rate variability* (see below), less sleep, and an overall sense of less resilience until everything seems to get on your nerves, right?
All this begs the question - when do we get to reset? And how do we reset?
Here's your breath. Have you met it yet?
Try this 5 minute meditation to befriend your breath (in any position that's comfortable for you).
This simple exercise, done once a day, or even several times a day (whenever you catch yourself feeling tense, stressed out, or out of physical and emotional alignment in some way), is a very powerful way of resetting the nervous system. Your breath is like a doorway into the energetic system of the body - it's prana, so attending to breath is a direct way of working with the energy of the body. All that's required is that you take an interest in it - spend time with your breath as you would a friend over a five minute coffee break.
What we pay attention to grows, so start attending to your breath by meeting all the sensations it creates within. This allows you to step out of the cycle of switched on, anxious thinking/anxious body into your natural baseline of ease and well-being.
Let me know how it goes!
*Heart rate variability (HRV) is the measure of variation between heart beat intervals. A greater HRV is associated with increased vagal nerve tone and overall emotional/psychological resilience and adaptability in life.
I keep seeing an article from Scientific American pop up in my Facebook feed. The title says it all - "Negative Emotions are Key to Well-Being". And here we are (in the southern hemisphere), moving into autumn when thoughts have a tendency, perhaps, to become a bit darker, emotions a bit heavier - not coincidentally morphing in this way as summer fades away.
Speaking from experience, fall and winter can be particularly challenging times of year for those who tend toward depression and for those who live with them. Over decades with chronic depression, I have often heard comments like these from people in my life: "Cheer up. You have so much to be thankful and happy for." Another favourite is something along the lines of, " Just think positively. It will get better soon." This advice, although well-intentioned, has a way of sending a different message to the listener - "You're feeling this way in life because you're not positive or grateful enough." And so it becomes just another way that you feel you've failed and that you aren't good enough. Here's another "F" on your life's report card.
There can be tremendous pressure from friends, family and society as a whole to be positive. There seems to be a consensus that only positive thoughts are OK and only happiness is acceptable. Think about it, don't we want to help those who feel depressed by showing them how to be positive again or by showing them they have so much to live for? In other words, by changing how they are in some way? We've somehow bought into the idea in our Western world that the negative is not to be tolerated, that it needs to be dealt with and buried once and for all. Perfection is synonymous with happiness. And it shows up in the small things, like having to put on a smile in public because only a smile will do. Or in the way that: "How are you?" must be followed by "I'm great. Thanks."
We all buy into it. We all want to be happy. This is normal human nature and there's nothing wrong with it. There's also nothing wrong with wanting the best for those we love. But, as this article is suggesting, we need to feel all of it - the dark and the light, the smooth and the rough, in order to really be here fully. We don't have to make these so called negative thoughts and emotions go away. What I have found to be far more potent is the ability to sit with and welcome all emotion, all thought, regardless of the ego's tendency to prefer one over another. When I can be with ALL of this, feel all of this, experience all of life's ups and downs as the Presence it which it arises - then I am truly empowered. I am not overcome. Life is simply living itself through me, and I find that there is room here for the totality of it, just as it is.
I'll never forget my first encounter with iRest® founder - Richard Miller. I was in the Gold Coast at the first wave of teacher trainings to come to this part of the world, feeling very much out of my depth and wondering if I should even be there - I mean, who was I to think I could teach people to meditate? But there I was, and so was Richard Miller. I wasn't at all sure what to make of him, but I walked over and, with all my nervousness, the first thing I said was, "Hi, I recognise you!" And he said, "Ah, but do you recognise yourself?" And I knew I was in for something, and in the presence of someone, well, different.
Years later, after completing the two levels of iRest teacher trainings, and an immersive retreat on a ranch in Montana, I found myself talking to Richard again. This time we were about to embark on seven days of silent meditation in Sydney. I told him about our first encounter and he laughed. So did I, because now, after steeping in these non-dual practices day in, day out since that first training, I got the joke (could see the humour in all of it), and could finally give him an answer: "Yes, yes I do recognise my SELF."
I feel so passionate about offering iRest teachings to my students now because I know, first-hand, the potential this yoga nidra practice has to transform. For me, there was life before, and life after, iRest - and, in the immortal words of Sesame Street, one of these things is definitely not like the other. So, how, exactly, has it made a difference?
Before iRest , I was at war with myself. Today, I look back and can see how I was always drawn to yoga, to meditation, because of such deep misalignment (and not of the anatomical kind). I was so off-centre, regularly engaged in self-judgement and self-hatred to the extent that I was emotionally and spiritually dried up and completely fed up. I was severely depressed.
I can see that I needed an -'adjustment'- I needed a compassionate teacher to come over and, instead of saying, "You might try moving your hip over here to free up the pose", they would offer, "Here's how you can lay your ego to rest. Here's how to reconnect with your True Nature of whole, already complete, loving Presence. Here's how to breathe and live again - to free yourself up. And the key is simply in Being, just as you are."
For me, the practice of iRest is one of wholehearted, unadulterated, welcoming - of yourself and of life. At first you may feel like you are doing or practising welcoming as you ask, can I welcome it all in - welcome the body, the breath, the mind and all these thoughts? Not just accept, as acceptance can veil a subtle rejection if you feel into it long enough, but unconditionally welcome. Can I be with my beliefs and doubts, my fears and sense of not enough? Can I meet my anger and ugliness and not push them away or cling on to them until my knuckles are white and stiff from the clinging? And if, today, I feel like all there is is rejection, all there is is pushing, can I welcome this in, too?
With iRest and in welcoming, we're meeting ourselves and the realm of the koshas - the many layers or sheaths of identification that we learn to dress ourselves in over the years. You may have heard about the koshas in yoga nidra practice. I think of them as layers we put on and wear like badges, or a pair of trousers (sometimes even a cloak of invisibility!): "I'm a mother, a lover. I'm 34 and a yoga teacher. I'm happy, focused", or "I'm angry and anxious", " I'm worthy. I'm not worthy" etc...."
You might try this on and see if it fits: we take on identity as an -'I/me/ego'- and invest in it to completion. We believe in ourselves as a body, an intellect, and we not only feel our emotions, beliefs and thoughts, we become them. We fight for these beliefs, go to war for them, fight battles with our loved ones just to get that point across. We see life as something -'out there'- to seize and make work for us or to control, and the body/ourselves as something to manipulate, to fix and make better. I need to achieve a better pose, because that means, somehow, I am better. Ego says, "Look at me! Look at how amazing I am now!"
Self-help becomes subtle self-hatred.
iRest gives us tools to safely meet and greet and be with all of this - the good the bad and the ugly - as the witnessing presence of all of this. We learn to step away from our involvement in self, while simultaneously compassionately embracing this involvement with self. Nothing rejected, nothing left behind.
What I've found (and the paradox of what I'm about to say isn't lost on me), is the more this -'I'- sits down to practise, the more transparent this -'I'- becomes. Because eventually, if you practise long enough, you come face-to-face with your sense of -'I-ness'-, or the doer. The question often then becomes: "What is it that is witnessing this -"I"- thought anyway?" When -'I"- practises long enough, the emotions and the thoughts melt away, even -'I'- melts away, and all there is left is the stillness of welcoming, witnessing, loving presence. No one doing the welcoming, no one doing the witnessing. And we come into ourselves as, not the doer of welcoming, but Welcoming Presence itself.
iRest is my yoga practice now and it's changed my life. What began as a journey to re-align in all ways imaginable with hatha yoga, led to a deep understanding (and I'm talking deep down in my bones kind of understanding) that there is nothing that needs fixing and there is nothing to judge. It's taught me that, actually, life isn't something that needs fixing, and I'm not someone who needs improving. No -'self-help'- is required.
Maybe this makes you bristle and your skin prick. You might be thinking: "What do you mean? Isn't change good? There's nothing wrong with improving yourself!" And I hear you. The challenge I offer is to be open to the possibility that you already are everything you ever wanted. That you already are whole and complete, and that this is something you've forgotten.
And make no mistake, with iRest changes definitely do happen. But instead of being motivated by -'not-enough'-, they can arise from a deep connection with innermost centre and happen organically, in response to an almost magnetic re-aligning with True Nature.
For me the war is over and in it's wake is compassion and a profound gratitude for the fight. After all, without it there would not have been this re-discovery of wholeness that Richard prompted me to make with the very first words he spoke to me - that arrow straight to the heart of the matter. And so I'll pass it on to you, whisper in your ear: "Do you recognise your Self?"
Many thanks and endless gratitude outflow to the founder of iRest Richard Miller, the embodiment of non-separation. To my certification supervisor and mentor, Fuyuko Toyota, who first brought these teachings (and Richard) over to Australia, and whose loving presence always shines through. Also to Stephanie Lopez and Jennifer Cabernero, senior iRest trainers whose teachings and encouragement have made such a difference to my life.
Readings on iRest:
Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing (Richard Miller)
The iRest Program for Healing PTSD
Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy, and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such.
I have a beef with anger. And that beef is simply this: I really don't like it. I don't like it when someone raises their voice, yells, or in some way shows their displeasure. This, in turn, has made me a peacemaker. I'll go out of my way to make sure all is well in the world, just to avoid the discomfort of being with another's anger. It's prickly and unsettling, and because of this I have, no doubt, unconsciously created a whole host of evasive tactics that I use when I feel threatened by this emotion. Ironically, I might even get mad at the person expressing their anger, because I really don't like how all this feels. Sound familiar?
It might not be anger that presses your buttons, but experiencing another's sadness, depression or negativity. It could even be someone else's success or happiness that makes you feel uncomfortable in some way. Or maybe it's their grief, their hurt. Who knows? And the normal human reaction to all that is unsettling or disturbing for us is to make it go away. We want the pain and the tears to stop. We want our friend to be happy if they're depressed. We might even want that guy at the office to fail for once so we can feel better about ourselves. We want to take away our own or another's hurt, or sometimes inflict pain so that we don't have to feel it ourselves. It may all seem twisted, but it's also all a normal part of being human.
If you get to the heart of the matter, isn't all this a result of being uncomfortable with sensations of discomfort? At it's base, I don't like how another's anger makes me feel. I want to take their pain or sadness away because I don't like how this discomfort expresses within me. So we try to make our own or another's anger, fear, grief, depression or discomfort go away. But life continually shows us that this doesn't work. As hard as I try to make depression leave, or really wish the world would be at peace, the world is not at peace and depression is still here. Avoidance doesn't work. As Henry Miller said, everything we deny, run away from or despise comes back to bite us in the end. So the question becomes: Can I make friends with discomfort? Can I learn to be comfortable with what makes me squirm - build up antibodies to the "discomfort virus ", so to speak, and learn to be ok with it as just another sensation arising within me? Can I learn to accept life unquestioningly, no matter what it brings?
Making friends with discomfort doesn't mean we don't occasionally set boundaries and say no to abusive or inappropriate behaviour (after all, sometimes discomfort is a messenger telling us that we need to act to help ourselves out). Part of this is learning to discriminate between the need to set appropriate boundaries versus the use of avoidance strategies. I see it as getting very familiar with our own reactions to life and how we act in our relationships with self and others. We might be unconsciously engaging in patterns of behaviour that push away the people in our lives, or even deny parts of ourselves- sending signals like "I can't accept you when you're angry or depressed, or sad or overwhelmed because I don't like the sensation of discomfort it creates for me." "I don't like tears, so go away!"
The truth is, sometimes we need to feel sad and sometimes we get angry. Life happens in waves and ups and downs, never stationary. It can be a real roller coaster ride we didn't actually ask to get on. But, if we sit in meditation, we can feel into this deeper ground of Being that is always the same, always welcoming whatever arises - a deep ground of stillness and love that is always here, even when discomfort is present. We can have a greater capacity to be with unease, distress, unhappiness when we move through life from this centred, grounded place and see the emotions and sensations of discomfort as movements within the unchanging field of Being that we are. And this, in turn, allows us to simply be unconditionally with ourselves, the people in our lives, and whatever life brings.
I'm a big fan of Maria Popova's blog/website Brain Pickings, a "weekly interestingness digest". She recently wrote an article about this book by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer entitled, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. More than just a book about moss, it's a look into the art of seeing at all scales of life. Robin writes:
"Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens."
"A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity an experience both humbling and joyful.
Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed."
As a meditator, Robin's words really resonated with me. You see, meditation is a way of learning to attend to all the layers of a moment - not just what the mind tells us in thought or what the eyes display to us via the brain, not just the emotions and feelings we experience, but the Awareness in which these things arise. We're so used to being the "I" who sees, who thinks and feels and believes that we miss what else is here right under our noses. After all, this is where the drama is. The story of our life is endlessly narrated by our "I-ness". This I- function of the brain even likes to dictate the story "aloud" within our own mind. And we get caught up in this self-narrated tale, often dwelling here at the expense of all else. But when we wholeheartedly attend to a moment and ask "what else is here beyond this "I" , or beyond the thinking mind?", a whole new world opens up to us.
Robin's experience of seeing moss on this scale echoes the meditation experience when we learn to attend to a moment, not directly looking at it as you would through the magnifying lens of your I-ness, but with an inclusiveness and spacious openness that welcomes in everything. This type of indirect seeing out of the corner of your eye comes to us when we shift our attention from the thinking mind, our I-ness, and what this I-self habitually gets involved with to the fundamental, essential spaciousness that is part of every moment, just usually missed.
For more on Brain Pickings and the article on Gathering Moss:
I was talking to my sisters about how meditation is like golf. "Say what?", you say. Yes, golf. If you've played for any length of time you'll know how absolutely frustrating the game is. You plan it all out, line up your stance, angles, club - eye it all up thinking, "This is gonna be sweet". And there it goes..... in the rough. Then you're furious with yourself, wondering how you managed to mess up that shot so badly. Which, of course, messes up the next shot, etc... There's lots of time between holes to think about how you stuffed up, to get involved in some rather unpleasant self-talk that leads to a whole host of emotions that make you swear you're going to give up the game entirely because, clearly, "you aren't good enough for it!" At the time, you're just angry. Later, when the game's over and there's a bit of distance from it, you can see how it all went down and how you talked yourself into how it all went down. But every once in a while you somehow manage to hit the most beautiful shot and that one moment keeps you going back for more... until the next shot which lands in the sand pit and the cycle starts all over again.
I've had some beautiful, blissful meditation practices.....and a whole lot of thought-bouncing, distracted ones that essentially were in the rough. We get attached to the practices that hit the 'sweet spot' of inner peace and calm. And I think it's ok to get attached to them, to want them and use them to heal you up - to use meditation to bring peace to a not so peaceful life. But we must remind ourselves that we are not "bad meditators" because we've had a distracted practice, that we are not "bad people" because that ball went into the pond.
Continuity of practice is key - continual witnessing of all the self-talk, self-judgement, the planning and hoping, the anger, the disappointment, all the thoughts flying here and there until we can see how it's all going down - how the mind works. Meditation gives us a new perspective. In witnessing we see that not only are we not our thoughts, we are not the thinker of those thoughts either. Meditation helps us step away from the thinker, the analyser, the player (as well as step away from the thoughts and emotions felt by that thinker and emoter) so we can step into our true essence as simple, pure welcoming witnessing presence. Knowing yourself as That, the game is just the game, the practice is just the practice and there's no attachment to how it all turns out.
A whole poem for you today - another from A Year with Hafiz (Translation by Daniel Ladinsky):
"Three-quarters of the world dances all night,
the waves moving as they do on the seas.
And when the wind takes a tree in its arms,
what happens then?
The green branches of the earth may seem to
reach out to touch us if we were near them in a forest,
a meadow, a field.
Does not all sway to a rhythm that began long
before we stood upright?
We are in the mountain's home, just guests.
Guests of the sky, the streams, the giving soil
we nurse from.
Would not you be happier following their
example - bowing in unseen ways, then rising
We like to think we're living life, in control. But isn't it maybe the other way around? Thinking we're in control of life, after all, is objectifying life, making it into something that is separate from us - a thing to be manipulated and outwitted so we get our way.
How can that possibly be the case? How can life be something we are separate from, something we can exert "our will" upon. The tree, the sun, the ocean, the earth, this body - all are vehicles of life. In iRest we ask the question, "Isn't life living us? Isn't life living through us?" We might say life is simply happening and all our suffering, all our discontent, discouragement and wishing things were different has no actual impact on life itself.
We are like a river. The river is always being moved. It is never the same, but what it is is essentially always the same. How absurd it would be for the river to believe it has chosen its path, its direction, or to believe it can exert control over where the water flows.
Imagine just that - a river that believes it flows along a course it has chosen. Of course, the stones, the mountains, gravity - they all know better. The course simply is. But for some reason this one river likes to think it's in control. It wants to flow in another direction - doesn't like the current path man. Nope, not good enough. So it tries to alter the way things are, to improve itself, to push in this direction and that. It has an ideal flow or path in mind and that's that. And for all its wanting things to be a certain way, it just keeps flowing along the path already there - being moved as it always has been. After all, how could it possibly be otherwise?
So I ask (through Hafiz):
"Would you not be happier following [the example of the waves on the sea, the branches of the tree] - bowing in unseen ways and then rising up?"
"Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you."
So simple - so true. We all need a bit of r & r from time to time. But unplugging to me doesn't just mean going on holiday in Fiji. Don't get me wrong, Fiji is absolutely lovely (and one of my favourite places by the way). Isn't it true, though, that even before that holiday comes to an end we're already planning the next? Maybe we're even feeling miserable because it just can't ever be long enough. Too much work, not enough play.
There can never be enough vacations from "life" unless we go deeper and unplug from our habitual ways of being in the world, of relating to self and other when these aren't serving us any more. Having "time off" is not really the whole story is it?
Meditation can give us that much needed rest, but can also be a tool we use to check out the beliefs we're firmly holding on to - primarily the misguided belief in the "small self" that keeps us hostage, taking everything personally. One of my teachers recently instructed the class to feel into the "I" thought. This led to a series of new insights for me. So I'll pass this teaching on to you, readers: feel into "I" and question it's substance. Feel how empty and insubstantial it really is. But don't stop there. Instead ask, "What, exactly, is this thought arising in?" Here is the potential to discover what it's like to be truly unplugged from your "self" - this illusion we cling to.
At some point in the journey we have to be willing to question the very identity we've lived our whole lives with in order to make the ultimate discovery of our true essence - that unshakeable resting place that's with you wherever you find yourself, whether on that beach in Fiji or sitting quietly at home.