What Would You Like to Think About? – Visualizing a Positive Headspace

Some time back, I listened to a lovely guided meditation on the Insight Timer app by Emma Polette in which she instructed the listener to “feel how you want to feel”. I wrote a post about this because I thought it was a perfect morning exercise, one that helps train you to establish a sense of awareness of how much control you yourself have in how you feel.

Well, I wanted to revisit this concept but with a focus on thoughts, since so many of us deal with overactive minds.

Take a comfortable seat and think…what would you like to fill your head up with?

Find yourself a quiet spot and turn your attention to your thoughts. Regardless of how much brain chatter you’re currently experiencing, consider what you would like to be thinking about.

That’s it. Your mind may be cluttered with worries, but IF you could think about something pleasant and calming, IF that’s where your mind’s focus could be, what you be thinking about?

Allow yourself to sink into this. Maybe your mind would be focused on potential successes in your career, troubleshooting a problem that you haven’t had time to devote attention to? Maybe you would simply focus on the task at hand, without intrusive thoughts invading your headspace? Maybe you would sit quietly without feelings of self-blame or incompetence? Or imagine yourself breezing through a situation with a difficult individual?

Ah, headspace! There’s nothing more delicious than getting a nice big helping of perspective.

The act of asking ourselves what we would like to be thinking about requires us to take a step back and make space for it. The realization that we have the ability to decide what to think about unshackles us from our thoughts. The more we do this, the more we widen the gap between what we think and our concept of ourselves, making it easier to observe the thoughts before us rather than to be sucked into the torrent of images and feelings that course through our minds.

What we fill our minds with is so powerful in terms of affecting certain wanted outcomes. It is often during periods of mindfulness meditation that things I’ve forgotten come back to me, I realize solutions to problems or come up with useful ideas. That’s what a calm mind is perfect for.

And so often, people lament that things are not they way they want them to be. So why not use that opportunity to truly feel into and savor what your mindset would be if things felt good? And then, if it’s available to you, maintain that mindset.

What would you be thinking…and how would that feel? A sense of peace and self-confidence? Perhaps space, distance from negative thoughts.

Give it a try and see how it feels.

Wound a Bit Tight? Meditating with Muscle Release

I, like so many people, keep a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders. Some days it feels as though my neck is made of steel, but not in a good way.

The reality is that I don’t even realize how tight those muscles are until I lie down and try to relax.

So I have made a meditation of this for bedtime. Instead of focusing on the sensation of my breath, the focus is on releasing the tension in my neck and upper shoulders.

It may sound like I would not be able to squeeze an entire meditation session out of this, but oh, I can.

Complete release takes focus!

Lying down on my back I inhale, and then with the exhale, I focus on my neck and relax it, releasing the rest of my body along with it. With the following exhale, I do that again. That’s because while I may think that the initial release took care of the tension, there is still tightness there and I really have to work on it mentally to release that.

It’s as though my neck muscles are springs that I can stretch, releasing tension through the exhale, but once I let go (inhale) the “memory” in my muscles tightens them up again.

It helps to imagine my body melting, as if I’m being drawn downward into the Earth.

I can keep going like this, feeling my chin inch slightly towards my chest as the tension releases. Melting into the mattress. The more I release, the more subtle the sensation, yet very satisfying. The more I relax, the more deeply I breathe and everything lets go.

The awareness of what is going on in my body helps so much, but the tension is tenacious. This is not surprising, given how much mental weight my neck and shoulders bear. So it is a dance between releasing and returning to release again. Little by little until I eventually fall asleep.

The “Side Effects” of Yoga Teacher Training

I’ve shared that I recently completed a three-month, 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training (YTT).

My main motivation for entering YTT revolved around yoga’s role in my emotional recovery from cancer. My teaching goal is to make yoga accessible to more cancer patients and survivors. Sadly, the view that many have of yoga in the USA is that it’s mainly for young, white, flexible, affluent women.

That means that the benefits of yoga are not reaching many of the populations that need it most.

Sadly, yoga in the USA is not associated with a diverse clientele.

In YTT, I expected to deepen my own practice, immerse myself in the roots of yoga and gain experience in sequencing and teaching among other things. And we did that. The program was well-rounded and paid homage to yogic philosophy, in addition to covering a broad range of relevant topics such as anatomy, meditation, sound healing and creating an inclusive atmosphere.

What I didn’t expect was what I learned about myself. Now, in the course of cancer treatment I gained access to counseling at my cancer center with an excellent therapist. And prior to that, I had sought help for anxiety. I’d explored talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and had gone through a lot of introspection. Basically, I thought I’d covered my bases and knew what’s what when it came to my inner workings.

YTT proved me wrong. I learned that I still struggle with competitiveness, perfectionism and a host of little insecurities. Wow, that was an eye-opener, even after all the “head work” that I’d done! In addition to coursework, YTT had a requirement of attending a number of yoga classes. Due to the limitations on my time given my work and family schedule, I was forced to take the heated (~95F) Level 2 classes, which happened to be most convenient. They emphasized balance and flexibility, while my non-yoga fitness focus has been strength and endurance.

*ahem* This is NOT me.

Balance and flexibility against the backdrop of neuropathy, menopause and vestiges of cancer treatment effects did not allow me to show my “best side.”

Not a big deal, I thought, since yoga for me is a mental “work-in”, not a workout. I’ve felt that holds truer to the traditional purpose of yoga and respects its roots. But in a crowded yoga studio where I was usually the oldest class member, I struggled to maintain my composure. Many of the other students could have been my offspring. The Level 2 classes made me look, I felt, like I didn’t belong.

And that feeling got worse as the classes went on. By the last weekend, I was the only teacher trainee who showed up (others trainees had more flexible schedules that allowed them to take other classes). After weeks of taking Level 2 classes, feelings of dejection had built up.

I should be over this, right? I should have been able to hold my head high and do what I could, knowing that my fitness stemmed from other activities and yoga served a different purpose for me than for “the youngsters”.

But nope.

The YTT itself was exceptional and the teacher trainers were amazingly supportive and knowledgable. The other members of my class were (no surprise) all white, all female and all younger than me. But they were generous and sweet and each one had been through her share of hardships. I felt only love from them. I just didn’t feel it from myself.

This is my preference for yoga: slow , mindful movements performed with intention. No contortions.

And with fitness being so important to me, I was frustrated that yet again I managed to find a situation where I showed myself to be “less than”. That was painful.

Yet, this peek into my current state was invaluable. Being in the midst of all those younger bodies strengthened my resolve to create classes that are more suitable for not only cancer folk, but also for other special and older populations.

YTT taught me that I don’t have it all figured out yet. However, it also gifted the awareness of what was really going on. Just as in mindfulness meditation, once I became aware of where my mind was leading me, I could take action to return to a place of peace and acceptance. That advanced my emotional evolution by lightyears!

Experiencing classes at a yoga studio also drove home the necessity of offering yoga to people who would benefit from the practice but are often forgotten when classes are planned. There are populations for whom studios are simply inaccessible financially, physically and even psychologically.

Ultimately, this next-level awareness showed me that what I had been doing on my own over the years still counted as yoga, even when I didn’t look like the other class members. It was the yoga I needed. And that was enough.

Showing Signs of Stress

One of the benefits of doing a yoga teacher training (YTT) is that there are some interesting side effects that go far past learning about yoga instruction.

It also involves a great deal of introspection, sometimes uncomfortable, but always valuable.

Signs of stress are pretty universal and usually unmistakable.

What I found curious about myself was how, when I was stressed, I exhibited loads of visible signs of stress even if I was aware that I was doing it. It was as if I didn’t want anyone to mistake me for not being stressed when I was.

This made me wonder, was it simply habit? Or was I being a drama queen? Stress does affect me deeply and anxiety is hard for me to shake. It’s possible that I feared not being believed that I was suffering.

Perhaps I needed people to care that I was not okay.

But I came across a recent research article about this that suggested an even deeper reason. UK researchers Whitehouse et al. (2022, Evol Hum Behav) conducted a study in which it appeared that individuals displaying signs of stress came across as more likeable and more likely to elicit support from those around us.

This is curious because often in nature, showing “weakness” may result in a greater chance of being attacked. But apparently it doesn’t work this way in human society. The researchers postulated that signs of stress suggested that the individual might be deemed friendly and not a threat.

I can attest to the fact that seeing someone displaying anxiety immediately triggers a strong empathic response in me, no matter who the person is or what they’ve done. Having suffered anxiety myself, I am immediately drawn into what the individual might be feeling, projecting my own feelings onto them.

Yeah…don’t be this.

And it is very true that I’ve often gone out of my way to look more friendly, less scary, particularly when it comes to people smaller and weaker than I am (I’m 5’11”). I have a drive to appear less threatening. However, this does not necessarily benefit me–does the term ‘doormat’sound familiar? When you lower yourself far lower than is even remotely necessary, you’re not doing anyone any favors.

This explains a lot about my own life and it underscores the importance of being aware of your behavior and why you engage in it. When you run on autopilot you risk reinforcing negative self-beliefs and even generating new ones. Self-awareness is the antidote to that.

So that is what I’ve been musing about. YTT provided me with space from which to reflect on the ways that I behave and feel in certain situations. In turn I can use that information to make much needed changes in my life and get myself unstuck. How about you?

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Original research article:
Whitehouse J, Milward SJ, Parker MO, Kavanagh E, Waller BM (2022). Signal value of stress behaviour. Evolution and Human Behavior; DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2022.04.001

Reader-friendly version:
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/05/220515113229.htm

Being in Your Body: A Mindfulness Visualization

I came across a delightful mindfulness visualization on the Calm meditation app, presented by meditation teacher Jeff Warren who credits his teacher, Dan Clurman, with relating the idea of this exercise.

It is an effective and immersive way to ground yourself into the present moment with the emphasis on being in your body.

Imagine that your body is an hour glass and that the falling sand brings awareness as it fills the glass, from the bottom up.

Imagine that you are an hourglass and your awareness is the cool sand that falls from above. First, bring your awareness down into your feet and ankles, feeling into the sensations there, filling up not only that part of your body, but also inviting attention into the space between your feet and around them at the bottom of the hourglass. Feel the level of your awareness rise.

Now invite your awareness to fill up your legs, while still keeping attention on your feet and ankles. Notice how the level of these “sands of awareness” travels up and fills out the space up to your hips. Feel into how that feels, not trying to change anything, but simply noticing any sensations.

In this way, continue to work your way upwards, allowing these “sands” to gradually fill up your body as they empty from your mind. Allow the swirling thoughts to release and drop down to light up your lower limbs, your entire torso, your arms and shoulders little by little. Maintain awareness of the parts of your body that have awakened already, so that as you move along in this way, the sensations in your body build and you feel the liveliness of the present moment in them.

Finally, coming to the top of your head, feel into all the sensations vibrating through your entire body, perhaps gentle tingling in your feet and legs or a subtle pulsing in your arms and hands. Maybe the awareness of movement through your intestines, the beating of your heart and even the areas where your body makes contact with the surface that supports it.

In this way, you bring the whole of your body into the present, not focusing on just one part, but on everything that makes up your physical presence, and also the space around your physical presence, while at the same time relieving your mind of the pressures exerted by thinking. As your body fills, your mind empties and thoughts are replaced by a sense of peace and well-being.

I’ve tried this a number of times and found it to be both grounding and uplifting simultaneously and an effective way to bring myself out of my head and into the here and now. If you’re looking for a different way of engaging in a body scan, give it a try.

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Please note that a form of this meditation appeared on the Calm app on April 29, 2022, as an installment of Jeff Warren’s Daily Trip.

While I am a subscriber to Calm, I do not receive compensation for writing about the app. I am simply a very satisfied user.

And Suddenly, Another Freakout

Last week, I had a Pap smear. If you’re not familiar with what that is, you must be either male or blissfully young. In brief, it’s a test for cervical cancer, customarily done every 3-5 years.

I knew my results would come this week, along with other lab results. I was in a work meeting today when I noticed my phone was vibrating. It was my doctor’s office…and I was too late to answer the call.

Me: It’s probably nothing.
Also me: OMG I NEED TO CALL NOW!

The doctor’s office didn’t leave a message.

And that’s when I officially tuned out the meeting. A flood of possibilities came rushing in. My boss needed to talk to me but I was trying to suppress the growing urge to call the doctor’s office immediately.

The urge won. I called and left a message and went back to work, but my head was elsewhere.

The fact that there had been no message was extremely unsettling, because it made sense that if there were really bad news, the office would want to speak with me directly instead of leaving a voicemail.

And my reaction shouldn’t come as a surprise, because having been hit with a cancer diagnosis before, I’ve become hypervigilant. Like it or not, my brain wants to prepare for the worst so that I don’t have that horrible fall from thinking that everything’s just peachy to slamming into a nightmare.

It doesn’t help that I’ve read sooo many stories of women talking about being completely blindsighted by frightening diagnoses, and all of them saying that they thought nothing of the missed call from the doctor since they knew they were perfectly healthy, blah blah blah.

Gotta be prepared, ya know?

Of course, I know better than this. And at least I was aware of the hypervigilance, aware of my body’s reactions and aware that I was blowing things out of proportion. But it’s that uncertainty that is so difficult to take. Even though I know my response, I know why it happens and I know that chances are everything is ok…I want that certainty.

As it turned out, the call had come from the nurse assistant to let me know that my blood work results had come in. This was a relief, although I admit I considered it a defeat that I couldn’t be mindful and breathe through it all.

Then again, as a cancer survivor, I need to cut myself some slack. Getting slammed with a devastating diagnosis once leads to understandable echoes, no matter what test results I’m waiting for.

For now, I’m calm. Of course, my actual Pap smear results aren’t in yet. Those should come tomorrow or the next day. The nurse assistant told me that they’ll probably be normal (OMG, how can anyone say that????) and they’ll be loaded onto the patient portal…unless they’re not normal. And then they won’t be.

Guess whose heart will be fluttering for the next few days?

Not mine, because I’ve got it together.

Kind of…

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To be fair, I didn’t totally freak out over this. But scanxiety over test results is getting a little old, honestly…

What If It Isn’t?

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”
“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.

A. A. Milne

So, I felt a “lump” under my left nipple, what I refer to as my cancer-side. It wasn’t the same kind of lump that I remember from cancer but when I thought of how I’d describe it (mass, thickening, etc.) I came up with cancer-sounding descriptive words.

This “lump” was also way bigger than my tumor had been.

I think I feel “something” and –BAM!– my mind takes me to worst-case-scenario land.

Now you might think that I would reason with myself. I’d had an MRI in the late summer that showed nothing. A real lump that big would have shown up.

Again, it wasn’t a lump, it was a “lump”. But in the back of my mind, a film starting playing…

I was writing letters to my friends on how much I had appreciated their friendship. Practicing how to tell my kids that I wouldn’t be around to see them graduate from college. Posting my final thoughts here.

It sounds sooo melodramatic but my brain is like a motor boat left unattended with the engine running. And it’s just heading away on its own on a course that no one plotted.

Why do I “go there”?

There is a part of the brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN), which is the area that is more active when you’re at rest and otherwise not focusing on anything. There is a nice “plain-English” explanation here (from an accompanying article to meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness course on Masterclass.com). It describes the role of the DMN in “self-reflection…social evaluations…memories…envisioning the future”. And it also notes that problems within the DMN can predipose people to a variety of cognitive issues, including anxiety.

Start my motor, cut me loose…and off I go.

This would explain a lot about my personal default mode.

The article goes on to describe how meditation can “keep the mind from wandering into stressful territory, like reliving traumatic events from the past or anxieties about the future.”

Well, it’s good that I’m meditating, then. But I’ve already put a lot of practice into panicking. I’m an expert hand-wringer. I have a lifetime of experience helped along by a series of anxiety-provoking events. Meditation is chipping away at my hypervigilance, but it’s a slow process.

The main thing that has changed, however, is that now I’m more aware when the motorboat putters away. It used to blindsight me and before I knew it, I was hit by a tidal wave of anxious sensations (tightening, gripping, nausea…). I didn’t realize that this habit of automatic thoughts was driving my anxiety.

Now, when I start down the road of “what if it is…”, I can stop and ask, “what if it isn’t”?

And that comforts me.

Little Decisions Build Beautiful Things

This is the time of the year that many people make resolutions they hope will catapult their life into a new and positive direction.

So it’s also a good time to encourage people to slow down and consider what they hope to achieve and how they plan to get there.

And they’re off! The New Year fills us with energy to make big changes, but most of that impetus fizzles out as we realize that our plans are not sustainable.

The New Year’s buzz drives us to dream big and leap high, but with all that emotional energy expenditure, we run the risk of overwhelming ourselves, burning out quickly and falling far short of our lofty expectations. And that may make us feel worse about ourselves.

This year, take a step back and consider: it’s the small changes that you make on a daily basis that determine where you ultimately end up. Consider an ocean liner that turns very slowly. It makes little adjustments in its course, but depending on which adjustments it makes, it can end up in very different places.

The real name of the game is consistency. While the big goal may be the shining light you strive for, consistency paves the way. And mindfulness helps you get there.

Maintain awareness of the present so that you have perspective on what choices you’re making today and their effect on tomorrow.

Focus on what you can do today. Even this hour. Want to increase your activity level? Get up and take some steps right now. That doesn’t mean sprinting around the parking lot for 10 minutes. It means doing something you wouldn’t have done otherwise. Something that won’t give you side stitches and result in wanting to throw in the towel.

Make little decisions to change something. Make them doable. And then make them consistently.

Maintain your awareness, every day, of what you’re doing and why.

And when those changes have become comfortable, do a little more. Keep your eye on consistency, not quantity.

Establish positive little habits the way you’d spread the seeds for a lovely cottage garden. Because here’s the thing: this is not a race. This is your life. You don’t live your life a month at a time–you live it moment by moment. And that’s the way you make changes.

Be like the big ship whose many little changes, made consistently, take it to fantastic places.

Any decision that positively affects you remains yours to keep, like a little jewel in a box. Did you go for a walk among trees after lunch instead of hanging out in your office perusing social media? No one can take that experience away from you. Tomorrow, if you have a meeting after lunch and must stay at your desk, the positive effect of that walk will still have taken place.

It’s like a little brick that you can use to build a palace. You collect one each time you’re consistent with a behavior. Play the long game.

And when you remain mindful of your behavior every day, you can also step back and see where you, the human ocean liner, are headed. This makes it easier to correct your course. A short diversion does not need to take you in an unwanted direction. One small correction and you’re back on track.

And that thing that you might have called a “failure” in past years and just given up because you’d figure you’d “blown it anyway”? It would be a temporary side trip. Because you are mindful of where you are and where you’re going.

And that’s how you know you’re going to get there.

Happy New Year!

Gratitude: It’s Not Just for Big Things

A number of years ago, when my kids were still very small, we lived in an area with brutal winters. That meant sub-freezing temperatures for weeks at a time. Money was tight so we had to keep the thermostat in the 50s overnight and in the low 60s during the day. To make matters worse, our bedroom was in a part of the house that the radiator pipes wouldn’t warm properly, so it was always cold there at that time of the year.

Gratitude for a cup of tea and a quiet moment to write – that is enough.

And by “cold” I mean, the bedsheets would be literally frigid when it was time for bed. So much so, that my joints would ache and I’d be miserable until my body heat could warm them up.

This continued for a year or two until I found an electric mattress pad. The first night that I crawled under the sheets with the heat turned on, I thought I’d won the lottery.

There were so many negative parts to the years we lived there, but going to bed with warmed sheets overwhelmed me with gratitude for the simple pleasure of removing the pain of the cold.

The reason that I’m telling you this is that it’s so obvious to be grateful for the stark changes in our situation. It’s a no-brainer.

But there is no need to wait for something like that. There are simple things that we take for granted that it would be so easy to be grateful for.

Turn your attention to little pleasures and acknowledge their importance in your life. Take some time to sit and bring them to your awareness. Feel into how they lighten your existence. Maybe thinking about them makes you smile. Or maybe the fact that something is simply working properly can be enough to help us realize how fortunate we are to have it at all.

Whatever it is, open up and invite gratitude in.

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Maybe generating gratitude during bad times is exactly what we need.

Those of us who have recently gotten a cancer diagnosis may feel a touch bitter about this concept. Understandably, it may be easier to be grateful when you’re not dealing with a serious disease. And no one would blame you for having a hard time generating a mood of gratitude.

But perhaps that’s exactly when you should look for things that elicit a sense of gratefulness, no matter how small. It may be one of the most important things you can do to maintain a sense of well-being in a difficult time.

Don’t Overpink It

If you have been living under a rock or have pink color blindness, it probably hasn’t escaped your notice that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.

I know I shouldn’t disparage the color pink (after all, my hair is currently pink), but there is a downside to all of this “pinking.” Actually there are two.

Awareness is important, but has the inundation of pink made the month lose it’s meaning?

First, after some point, there’s so much pink that it starts becoming meaningless. Whereas it used to be loads of fun for pre-adolescent boys to go around with “save the boobies” t-shirts in the name of cancer awareness, and then make a social media stink about it when their school sends them home to change, I’m not really seeing that kind of enthusiasm anymore. Kind of like when something that was cool and forbidden becomes legal…it loses its luster.

Which is not to say that breast-saving have gone out of style. A quick search of local events in my area does result in a number of fund-raising events. After all, we are still being diagnosed with breast cancer and in ever-greater numbers. But maybe it’s because of the pandemic, maybe it’s because of my current state of mind, I’m not hearing much about spreading the word of breast cancer prevention (not simply screenings) anymore.

But there’s another part of the pinkness that I’ve struggled with. And that’s the pink everything around this time of the year. I mean, if we want people to be aware, I guess they’re aware. But those of us who have lived the diagnosis may need to turn our awareness elsewhere.

That may sound ungrateful of me because all that awareness has translated into dollars for research, potentially at the expense of other cancers. And even though I will tout breast cancer awareness at this time of the year, it also stings.

I’ve lost friends to breast cancer. And I lost a year to breast cancer treatment, not to mention a good amount of my direction in life. Yes, I’m recalibrating, but no, things are not back to “normal”. Cancer still means people and things that are gone and will not return.

Consider taking your breast cancer friend out for coffee…with no pink in sight.

At times all this pink feels like loud cheerleaders shaking pink pom-poms in my face. And for many cancer patients and survivors, being constantly reminded that it’s BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH can be overwhelming. We may need to ground ourselves in where we are right now, being present and grateful for each minute and away from all the pink noise.

So I agree that with 1 in 8 women being diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives, and the mortality rate still unacceptably high, it’s definitely important to spread the word about risk factors and urge that women do the oh-so-critical self-exams and not forgo screenings.

But it’s also a great opportunity to reach out to a friend or relative who’s a patient or survivor and offer to take them out for coffee or a walk…and let them forget what month it is.