Sunday, November 18, 2012

Happy Holidays or Seasonal Stress?

Happy Holidays or Seasonal Stress?  Learn to bring more joy and less stress to your holidays.
The holiday season is supposed to be a time of joy and festivity: a season of family bliss, goodwill, exuberance and wonder. For children, let us hope this is true. But for many adults the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years, feel more like a test in endurance and a competition in survivor skills than an opportunity to "deck the halls" and "join the chorus."
So, is there a natural way to experience the spirit of the season without the stress? The answer is yes and it starts with allowing just 20 minutes a day to be all about you. With awareness, commitment, and practice you can learn to manage your stress by relaxing your body and quieting your mind.
Really? Can you really relax your body and affect the tension in your muscles simply by bringing your awareness there?
ABSOLUTELY! Relaxing the muscles is actually quite simple. Being mindfully aware of the need to relax the muscles is actually quite challenging.
Where to start? Like all skills, consistent practice when the mind and body are relatively tranquil will facilitate the ability to implement muscle relaxing techniques when stressed and in pain.
When teaching yoga or meditation, I methodically guide students through the process of mindfully relaxing the muscles in their face, neck and shoulders. As we journey through the class, I periodically remind everyone to take notice of the physical sensation in these muscles and to consciously release and relax any tightness that has crept back into these sensitive areas. I have found that whatever we feel in and around our face and neck is usually a pretty good reflection of what is going on in our minds and bodies. Releasing and relaxing these muscles can initiate a chain reaction easing some of the physical soreness that so frequently plagues us.
The first time you try to mentally scan your face, neck and shoulders, it is important to be in a completely comfortable and relaxed position and not constrained by time. If you are not opposed to possibly surrendering to a mini nap, I suggest lying down. However, if you prefer, sitting comfortably in a supportive chair is also a good choice so opt for the one that works best for you.
If you choose to lie down, it is helpful to place a lightly weighted eye pillow over your eyes. In addition to blocking out light, soft pressure can help relax the muscles in and around the eyes and cheeks. The pressure should be gentle so as not to be distracting. Aromatherapy scents can also enhance the ability to reduce stress. Not all eye pillows are created equal. The right combination for you will enrich your experience throughout this practice as well as during savasana, the final yoga resting pose. You will also find eye pillows useful as a natural aid to help combat insomnia and support a drug free sleep.
Once you are comfortable, with or without your eye pillow, start to bring your awareness to the eyes. If you find it hard to evaluate if these muscles are tight or not, try to squeeze your eyes tightly shut, silently count to three and then release. Feel the upper lids resting softly on the lower lids and notice the muscles behind and around the eyes encouraging them to relax. Now, allow the tongue to rest softly between the teeth and then mindfully turn all of your senses inward, feeling, seeing and experiencing the releasing of any straining around the cheeks, chin and especially the jaw. Once again, if you're not sure if you are releasing these muscles, clench your jaw and count to three, noticing the effect on the eyes, temples, cheeks, teeth, jaw, neck, shoulders, and surrounding tissues. What does it feel like? Do words like rigid, stiff, taut, or strained jump to mind?
Continue to shift your awareness from one part of the face and neck to another, pausing for several or more breaths as your mind tells your muscles to relax. Let your breath remain calm and even as you scan and observe the gradual releasing of any tensing that returns. Notice if the softening in your face, especially around the eyes and jaw, prompts the noise in your mind to quiet.
The next challenge is to discipline yourself to employ these skills periodically throughout your day especially when you recognize you are feeling stressed, worried or anxious.
Remember, our bodies and minds are inextricably connected. When left on their own, each will insist on taking the other on a mindless, chaotic excursion to all sorts of dark, scary places, inflicting a diabolical array of physical and emotional torment on the other.
Consider beginning this holiday season with a gift to yourself. Start your practice now and find some welcome relief from the deep pain that uncontrolled tension inflicts on our bodies and minds.
I hope this simple practice will help you reduce stress and reclaim the spirit of this holiday season.
Consider continuing these techniques and adding yoga and/or meditation to your New Year's Resolutions. Your body and mind will thank you.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Forgive and Forget

What does it really mean to forgive? Can you forgive without forgetting?  How does it feel to forgive or be forgiven?  Is it easier to forgive a physical pain incurred by another's accidental actions than an emotional wound inflicted with intent?  Does "sorry"  from the offender require forgiveness from the offended?   Does the offended require an apology in order to forgive the offender?

I have pondered the concept of forgiveness many times.  I suspect most of us have. We have all been hurt and we have all been the cause of someone else's pain.

While endeavoring to explore what forgiveness means and why it is considered so important to our mental health, I reflected upon some well-known aphorisms.

“To err is human; to forgive divine.” (Alexander Pope)  

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive.  He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.  There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

“I can forgive, but I cannot forget is only another way of saying, I will not forgive.  Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note-torn in two and burned up so that it never can be shown against one.” (Henry Ward Beecher)

"Without forgiveness there's no future." (Desmond Tutu)

Many religions encourage and even require forgiveness as an act of piety.

There is, in fact, no end to famous maxims encouraging us toward forgiveness.  Is it really so easy? No, of course it isn't, but it is possible and it is within our control.

There is a wide range of affronts, accidents, and human atrocities that have left small, large and inconceivable wounds upon individuals, groups and civilizations. There are monstrous acts of inhumanity that are beyond understanding and should never be forgiven or forgotten.  There are simple oversights that are dismissed without hesitation.  It is the "in betweens" that cause so much consternation. Particularly amongst family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. This is the physical and emotional terrain where most of us live.  It is where we react and over-react.  It is where we experience our most raw feelings and where we can cause the most enduring sorrow.  This is where forgiveness and acceptance become an integral part of our humanity and our mental health.

I do not believe that forgiveness requires forgetting.  I do not believe it is always possible to forget.  I do believe that the test of forgiveness lies within our emotional being.  What does this mean?  It means that if you think back on the incidence that initiated the pain and there is still hurt or anger that bubbles from within, you have not forgiven.  We experience true forgiveness when the event ceases to trigger a negative emotional response.

Forgiving is the part of the equation that is within our control.  We can not force someone to forgive us. We can extend the olive branch, ask for forgiveness, even offer compensation if appropriate. But we can not choose for someone else.  We can, however heal, even without being granted forgiveness from whomever we have injured.  It starts with forgiving ourselves.  It may sound like a cliche, but it's true.  With or without forgiveness from another, we still need to let go of our own guilt.  It is easier to do so if the person we have hurt accepts our apology, but either way we can use self forgiveness to heal and let go. We can incorporate the encounter into our being and allow it to influence our future choices of behavior.

When we hold on to anger or resentment, we unwittingly encourage the body's stress response which can trigger a series of unhealthy physical reactions.  Meditation, yoga, visualization, breathing exercises and prayer are all methods of coping with stress and reprogramming our responses to events we can not control or change.

What else can we do to help ourselves forgive or accept non forgiveness when it is wanted but not granted?  First, don't make assumptions about what someone else is thinking or feeling.  Odds are you will be wrong or, at the very least, not completely right.  Wrong assumptions generally lead to the perpetuation of bad feelings and interfere with the ability to heal.  Second, do not reinforce the negative emotions by continuing to re-live the encounter through stories you tell yourself and others. Third, try treating forgiveness like any other behavior you would like to see extended to you and those around.  Even if forgiving doesn't come naturally, it can be a learned behavior.  If you offer and practice forgiveness, others are more likely to accept and extend the same behavior.  Finally, Decide that giving and accepting forgiveness is more important than who you believe is right or how the conflict was initiated.  Even very old wounds can be healed through practicing genuine forgiveness.  Remember, we are talking about the "in-betweens" here not monstrous acts of abuse that might fall into the category of atrocities.  Forgiving and healing from the deep scarring of physical and emotional trauma is a subject and process that goes way beyond the scope of this article.

 "The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world."  (Marianne Williamson)  And what better goal can there be?