The Snow Globe: A Mindful Visualization

Since it’s winter in the US and we’re starting to get the first blankets of white around the country, I thought it’d be fun to use snow as a visualization.

While it doesn’t snow where I live now, I grew up in New England and remember the peacefulness of calm, snowy nights when I stood out on the second floor balcony in the midst of snowfall, listening to the gentle “pat-pat” of snowflakes as they landed on the ground.

When we’re at our busiest, life can feel like a blur.

I draw on those memories when I think of snow globes. Yes, they’ve often been associated with chintzy souvenirs, but there’s really something quite magical about that little underwater world.

They are also quite beautiful representations of the process of settling down.

Shake a snow globe and watch the glitter spin furiously about, swirling like mad with little sense of a pattern. Those are the thoughts of a busy pre-occupied mind, overwhelmed with responsibities and expectations. For some of us this may be what our current life is like. Or perhaps we’re going through a particularly stressful time and feel as though we’re unable to slow down and catch our breath.

Perhaps we ourselves are adding to the chaos by unintentionally shaking things even more, allowing our monkey minds to run with stressful thoughts. With so much “noise” we can’t see through the water. Everything is a blur. We have a hard time collecting our thoughts.

When we stop shaking the globe and put it down…it will continue to swirl for a while and we may feel like we’re getting “nowhere” by trying to relax. But if we trust in ourselves, trust in impermanence–nothing lasts forever–slowly things will start calming down. The agitation will diminish.

Just as the “snow” will begin to settle down, so too will our busy thoughts and our busy lives. The glitter will float through the water more slowly, and the view will become clearer. A few more breaths, a few more moments of patience. The currents inside the globe lose momentum and the snow will gently blanket the bottom until, eventually, everything is still.

No sign of the tempest that once took place. Just silent peace and quiet breaths.

Until the moment the globe is shaken again.

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The trick, of course, is to learn how to find peace as the glitter water swirls madly about. Once we can do that, the storm may rage, but we will enjoy bliss.

Losing My Voice and Finding Calm

About a week ago, I lost my voice. This doesn’t happen often (some in my family might say it doesn’t happen often enough) as I tend not to get demonstrably sick beyond a runny nose.

Oh yeah, and cancer, but that’s beside the point.

Quiet is contagious.

I was coordinating a lectureship that was to take place on a Monday and Tuesday (luckly, I was not the speaker, just the one making arrangements), and on the previous Friday evening my voice disappeared. I could only manage a whisper as the event approached.

And I noticed something funny. As my voice became quieter, so did the voices of my family members. When one of us is not speaking loudly, others don’t have to either. Everyone is heard. Like magic!

As we all lowered the volume, I found myself less anxious about work. As I became quieter, it felt as though the world slowed down a bit too. Things felt a bit calmer.

This made me wonder how much I was adding to needless noise clutter at home…and how much I was responsible for driving the hectic state.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that we have more control over our mental state than we may realize.

It also reminded me that even when things felt “out of control”, that was just an illusion. They were most definitely within my control. I could turn down the rush of anxiety. I just had to remain aware of what was happening and that I had a choice in the matter.

Now, none of this is a miraculous revelation. I’ve known this since before I started meditating. But knowing something is not the same as putting it into practice. And sometimes to put it into practice, you have to realize that even though you “knew” it, you didn’t truly believe that you could do it.

I need that reminder now and then. That’s the gift mindfulness has given me. And even then, I still might need a nudge.

And the lectureship? It came and went, a little hiccup here and there, but under the circumstances everything worked out well. No voice required. And more importantly, no anxiety required.

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I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy to switch off anxiety. If I knew how to do that I would be living a carefree and very wealthy life. But just being aware that we have a crumb more control than we thought we did…brings us one step closer to a little more peace in our lives.

The Voice of Reason: Why I Love Guided Meditations

If you’ve read my posts, you’re aware that I really like guided meditations. There are a number of mindfulness apps that I use everyday, and if it’s not a meditation, it may just be ambient noise that I have in the background that helps keep me grounded.

The fact is that guided meditations have been a game-changer for me. During those times when I am trying to fall back to sleep and shake off anxiousness, having someone else’s voice in my head makes a huge difference.

When I’m groggy, I’m vulnerable. My thoughts can run away with me and take me to places that will keep me awake.

What do I mean by that? I’ve found that I’m a very visual person and for better or worse, I have a vivid imagination (this seems to be the case for many anxious people). During the day, it’s much easier for me to ground myself with the techniques that I often write about here — and it’s even better if I can find a quiet corner to do so. But nighttime is different. Sometimes I wake up stressed and clearing my head of all the noise feels like a Sisyphean task.

When I am groggy, I am vulnerable. But I certainly don’t want to do anything to make me more alert since my goal is to fall back to sleep, not to practice improving my concentration. That is the perfect time allow someone else to guide me in meditation.

The guidance does this: it allows me to focus on someone else’s voice. That’s enough. I do not want to have to exert effort beyond that required to listen.

The exact topic of the meditation is far less important than the delivery. A gentle voice at a low volume draws my attention just enough that it keeps my anxious “Monkey Mind” occupied and quiet.

The Monkey Mind running loose is a good way to visualize what your thoughts might be doing inside your head, swinging from branch to branch, chattering, jumping and constantly changing directions. It can be a jumbled mess in there. The meditation helps sort it out.

I have tried this on a number of occasions and have been very impressed with how effective a guided meditation is in dulling the clarity of what my mind has cooked up and clings to. It provides space between my worries and my self. And then I drift off to sleep.

As I mentioned, the meditation doesn’t have to be anything specific. While body scans work particularly well, any calming meditation will do as long as its purpose is to relax the listener. Breathing cues can also be highly effective, as can novel ambient noise that pulls you away from your worries.

No need to overthink it. Just indulge in a lulling guided practice and get some rest.

Breathing into Limbs: A Grounding Visualization

I’m perpetually on the lookout for different ways to ground myself.

When things get tough and I feel my anxiety rising, I’ve gotten better at pausing and pulling a grounding technique out of my “mental tool bag” before the feelings become too intense.

One that I came up with recently works quiet well, especially if you can take a quick break and find a quiet corner.

As I breathe, I visualize my breath inflating my limbs, filling them with relaxation.

The idea behind this one is that you take a few deep breaths to help slow your breathing down, and then start imagining that your breath is going down into one arm, inflating it.

I’ve visualized it in two ways. The first being breathing into the arm as if it were a balloon that inflates in all directions, all the way down to the fingertips, until it’s completely full. I imagine it glowing from within.

The second entails imagining the breath filling the arm in the way that a fern leaf unfolds. The expansion starts at the shoulder, then upper arm, elbow, lower arm, wrist, hand and finally fingers. As the arm fills with the inhalation, it brightens. This visualization is best when your breathing has already slowed considerably, as it may take a longer breath for your entire limb to sense the serial expansion down to your fingertips.

If my breathing has slowed enough, I imagine the breath entering my limb gradually, just like a fern leaf gently unfurls, part by part.

Either way, I wiggle my fingers at the end of the in-breath, and then as I exhale, the fingers fall still again and the breath exits my arm as it arrived.

Then I do the same with my other arm, followed by one leg and then the other.

On days that I’m really rushed, I might only have time for one limb, particularly if I’m sitting at my desk at work. But that’s okay. Even that short bit is better than letting stress run away with me. That little pause may be exactly what I need.

If this “extremity inflation” sounds too complicated in the heat of the moment, I urge you to try it when you’re lying in bed with your eyes closed. Then you can focus on the sensation of expansion and get familiar with it, so that when you need to call upon it in a stressful situation, you’ll have an easier time bringing up that imagery.

My limbs glow as the breath brings brightness into them.

What I particularly like about this visualization is that it’s a touch more complex, and therefore requires more attention from you. The inhalation all the way to the wiggling fingers makes it more difficult to be thinking about other things. So while it may demand more, I feel that it also delivers more, since everything else decreases to a dull roar in the background as you visualize the air rush in and inflate your body.

And of course, there are different variations of this that you can play with, such as expanding your entire body.

If you are able to practice with this, or even duck out to the bathroom for a few moments of eyes-closed peace, I think you’ll find it a lovely way to give your nervous system a needed break.

Making Meditation Easier

So the recurring theme in my posts about meditation is the struggle that I have with maintaining focus. This has been complicated by breast cancer medications that are associated with cognitive effects, not to mention the eventual menopause and “brain fog” that has resulted from them.

And while I’ve taken all sorts of classes and scoured meditation how-tos, I used to wonder, am I even doing this “right”? Shouldn’t I have an easier time with this by now?

A recent “Daily Trip” contemplation on the Calm smartphone app, narrated by meditation teacher Jeff Warren, reminded me that it’s important not to overthink what we’re doing.

The breath is a wonderful point of focus because it moves through our body and elicits sensations in a number of places.

Often in mindfulness meditation, we’re taught to use different aspects of our breath as an “anchor” or point of focus. The breath is a nice anchor to use because it helps us move inward while still staying present. It’s also a moving target, so to speak, so it might be more interesting to watch (and therefore focus on) than a static sensation.

But people are different, and if it’s really not working for you, or if focusing on your breathing actually makes you feel more anxious, you can switch to another focal point. How about the sensation in the hands, the feeling of your body’s weight against the surface on which it rests, or the distant sounds around you?

Maybe you even use several anchors within a single meditation (consider dual focus). The idea is to remain present and aware of what is happening now, even if you have open all your senses in order to do so. What anchor(s) work(s) best for YOU? It is, after all, YOUR meditation.

What really matters is just that you make it back to the present.

And then, instead of worrying about maintaining focus, what if we let go of that? It’s okay, even expected, for your mind to drift off. I would argue that losing focus is an integral part of mindfulness meditation. Because it gives us the opportunity to be aware that we are no longer focused. And once you realize this, you have returned to the present. Nice job!

The more you practice this back-and-forth, like tossing a beach ball between your anchor and your errant thoughts, the more adept you will become at realizing that your thoughts have carried you away. The more you do that, the easier it will become to return to your anchor, and that’s the whole idea.

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

When a Little Is Great but More Might Be Better: Exploring Longer Meditation Sessions

I am a believer in the idea that, for developing proficiency in an undertaking, consistency is more importat than what you do on any given day. It is true for workouts and it certainly holds true with meditation too. Exercises, whether physical or mental, need time to show beneficial effects and that requires patience and persistence on the part of the practitioner.

However, there comes a point where maybe what you’re doing, consistently, might need to increase in order to enable you to progress.

Consistency is key when it comes to exercise, both physical and mental.

When I started out with meditation, I had very little guidance outside that from the Calm app on my phone. The curated daily meditations there lasted about 10 minutes, so that’s how long I meditated. I did so ever single day, true to my perfectionist nature. I earned a gold star for consistency.

At that time, my life was in turmoil–I was only a few weeks out from a cancer diagnosis. Meditation helped me breathe through the early sleepless hours of the morning, when I would wake, feeling frightened, alone and angry.

But it wasn’t until almost a year later, when I started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Management (MBSR) course originally developed at the UMass Medical Center, that I learned how much meditation could do for me. Our “homework” was 45-60 minutes of meditation a day, no joke when you’re used to 10-minute stints.

But during that time, something unexpected happened. As I meditated, somewhere around the 20-30 minute mark, I felt myself settling in and releasing. This, for a bundle of nerves like me, was a novel experience. I don’t think I could have gotten that with 10 minutes a day. But a glorious hour? It was transformative.

Any meditation will do you good, but take advantage of those times that you can engage in a longer session.

Giving myself permission to simply BE for the entire length of time was not easy. There was guilt involved in being “unproductive” for so long, not to mention the difficulty of dealing with intrusive thoughts. But once my monkey mind accepted the fact that all I was going to do for the entire hour was feel into my breath or pay attention to bodily sensations, it started settling down, gifting me with a stillness that I hadn’t experienced during the shorter meditations.

It was the most soothing act of self-care that I had ever allowed myself to do.

So right now I want to clear the air of the “never good enough” idea, by which I mean the concept of, “Oh, you’re only meditating for 10 minutes? You should be doing it longer.” That is a total motivation killer and goes completely against the acceptance that mindfulness teaches. And that’s not what I’m suggesting at all.

There are great benefits to short meditation stints, one of which being that when you “drop and give 2 minutes” of deep breathing, or however else you choose to express your mindful self, you are actually doing a great job of integrating mindfulness into your everyday experience. Remembering to ground yourself in the middle of a hectic moment allows for a respite from the busyness of the day and helps build a mindful life.

But if you find yourself with extra time, such as a day of travel (where you’re the passenger!) or a prolonged sit in a waiting room–jury duty, anyone?–or even the decision to turn off the electronics and retire to bed early, it is well worth giving yourself a nice chunk of extended time to engage in the self-care of turning inward and being still.

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Tip: If you’re not used to prolonged meditation sessions, start with an extended guided body scan meditation, readily available free online through YouTube, MBSR websites and apps such as Insight Timer, for a few examples. It will give your monkey mind enough to do so that your thoughts don’t completely wander off, and yet little enough so that you can feel completely into each body part.

Releasing Rigidity

I wanted to revisit the issue of having an important thought pop into my mind in the midst of a meditation session, and how I’ve ultimately allowed myself to deal with it.

For some background: in mindfulness meditation, we are taught to let go of thoughts and focus on the breath. But with all the cancer treatments that I’ve had, memory is collateral damage. During the course of a regular day, I have thoughts go POUF in the ether — and sometimes they’re important things that I really should remember. Ironically, I’ve had them return to me while my mind is still and uncluttered, as during meditation.

I’ve been told that during meditation if a thought that you need to remember comes up, you should make a “mental note” and release it, and then come back to it once your meditation is over.

If an important thought comes up during meditation, you better believe I’m writing it down!

Well, lemme tell ya, that simply no longer works for me since there’s no guarantee that a “mental note” will work. When that thought pops into my head, I’ve decided to pause my session and write it down.

You could say that I’m not supposed to do this, but I know that this is the only thing that works for me — I can record the thought and not spend the rest of the session worrying that I’m going to forget it, which might otherwise consume the remainder of my meditation.

I feel that mindfulness teachers would agree with me that mindfulness should flow out of your situation. It works with what you need, allowing you to appreciate this moment. In the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes that I took, we were always told to take care of ourselves, to make sure that we were comfortable and secure.

It became apparent to me that I wasn’t going to look like the meditators that we see when we google an image of one: seated in lotus position, palms up with thumb and forefinger touching. That wouldn’t be conducive to a prolonged session for me.

This will not be me anytime soon.

While I do own a meditation cushion, I prefer to sit in a chair during MBSR workshops, since my joints ache and legs go numb if they’re crossed for too long. And when I’m home, sometimes I’ll lie on my back during meditation with my legs up a wall in the pose called Viparita Karani. This is very soothing for me because, again, I have problems with my feet, and this not only helps with the weird numbness but also lessens the chance that I’ll experience restless leg syndrome.

I believe that mindfulness is not about living up to someone else’s idea of perfection. Nor is it a competition to see who can meditate in the most uncomfortable position. It is staying present, noticing what is happening right now, in this moment. I can do this much better if I’m not fighting pain.

So I don’t focus on the concepts of “right or wrong”. Getting to this point took some doing because I am by nature a perfectionist. But part of my mindfulness journey has been simply releasing that rigidity of what I think I “should” do and finding peace in doing what is best for me.

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I remember as a young child listening to a missionary priest talk about his travels. He spoke of a little boy tending sheep in a field who had come up with his own prayer: he had a handful of pebbles and was talking to God, saying “one for you, one for me, one for you, one for me” as he made two little piles.

That was the way he prayed, and the priest said that it was exactly the way that suited him. He might not have been doing it “right” according to the teachings of the Church, but he was praying sincerely and lovingly, and that was what really mattered.

Surviving Another Ride in the Tube

During my last oncologist appointment, I was told it was time for a chest MRI.

The last time I had one of those, I was barely holding it together–it had been a couple of weeks since my breast cancer diagnosis an dI was in an emotionally fragile state.

But that was four and a half years ago. This time, I was fine. I thought.

In case you’re never experienced one, the bilateral chest MRI is not particularly comfy. You lie face-down, your breasts hang between two open slots beneath you and your arms are outstretched in a “superman” pose.

I was a bit taller than they expected…things didn’t completely fit.

And you hold that for a specified length of time. I seem to recall almost an hour last time in 2017, but this time it was only a half hour. Which is good, since I had a hard time getting comfortable–based on how the MRI bed was set up, they hadn’t expected me to be quite so tall.

And since I needed “contrast” in my MRI, I was hooked up to an IV for infusing gadolinium. But the veins on my right arm (which is the only one I’m supposed to use) have seen a lot of wear and tear. Yes, they bulge and look nice and juicy. But it’s a lie. Only after some false starts–the first vein the nurse tried was a bust–did we get the IV going.

The MRI machine looked shiny and competently high-tech. I got to listen to spa music through headphones, which is kind of funny, since it’s like being at a spa where they also bang pots and jackhammer while you’re getting your treatment. In case you’re not aware: MRIs are LOUD.

Ironically, there’s something quite positive about that: the percussive nature of the noise has an almost lulling effect–if you let it. This worked quite well with my strategy of meditating throughout the procedure. Breathing was not particularly comfortable because of pressure on my ribcage (again, due to my height and positioning on the bed), so I chose not to focus on it.

The dressing room was cute, but I couldn’t help feeling so alone in it.

Instead, there were many other bodily sensations that I could pay attention to. At times, I could “feel” the MRI in my hips and spine. I focused on the weight of my body on that bed and on releasing tension whereever I sensed it. Compared to the previous chest MRI, I felt a sense of grounding.

But there were little cracks in my composure. I took a picture of the cute little dressing room where I changed and left my clothing. It was lightly decorated with homey touches. At the same time, it looked so empty: my gown on one chair, my belongings on another. Briefly, I felt small and alone.

After unsuccessful attempts, the IV was connected, and I remembered the feeling of expecting that things were just gonna hurt.

After I got home I removed my bandages from the IV arm and looked at the crook of my elbow, and it reminded me of all the pokes that I’ve endured. All the discomfort that I learned to expect and not question if it was necessary, because it always was. And I fought back feelings of helplessness.

It’s not all bad. This time, I had a better grip on things. I wasn’t even thinking about the MRI the next morning when I went grocery shopping, until…

…I saw a call come through from my oncologist’s office. And suddenly my heart started racing. It was a pure knee-jerk reaction. The voice on the other end told me that the MRI looked normal and my oncologist would see me at my next scheduled appointment next year.

It took a bit for my heart to calm down. I hadn’t been worrying about the results, certainly hadn’t expected anything bad, but wow, when that phone rang, it was as if my brain yelled at me, “Time to PANIC!”

This ride in the tube had a happy ending. But there’s no mistaking all the anxiety bubbling under the surface. Try as I might, I am always going to associate these procedures with fear and possible death. Memories of what happened a few years ago are not going anywhere.

And that’s okay. Because even though my reactions to those memories may still be stressful, I can accept that this will be the case and not expect them to be otherwise. And that acceptance is one of the most valuable skills that I’ve learned.

Staying Present: Dual Focus Meditation

If you’re new to mindfulness meditation, you might have found it difficult to hold focus on your breath. But the reality is that you don’t need to be a beginner to struggle with this. There are some days that the mind refuses to be still and even a long-time meditator will find themselves carried away by thoughts.

In an effort to help keep my head here and now, I started paying attention to how it was that I lost focus. For me, it happens during the lull between breaths.

The breath remains the main focus.

What is that lull? Well, there’s a very short, almost imperceptible pause between my inhale and exhale. I’m okay during that time because I can focus on the sensations in my chest and belly. That’s not the pause that gives me problems.

It’s after the exhale that I experience a longer pause before the next breath begins, especially if my breaths are slower and deeper, because my body doesn’t require another breath right away. And that’s when I’m more likely to “see something shiny” and my mind wanders off.

But I found that by focusing on my hands during this pause, I could keep my random thoughts at bay.

If you’re having focus issues and would like to try this, all you need to do is consider your focus as cyclic. First, with the inhale and exhale, focus on the breath sensation–choose wherever you feel the air movement most distinctly, such as the rising & falling of your chest, the rushing of air in and out of your nostrils, or similar. It will be different from person to person.

Next, during the pause between your breaths, turn your focus to the sensations in your hands and fingers. There may be some tingling or throbbing, or perhaps nothing discernable. That’s okay. Just see if there’s anything there that you can feel.

Then, when your next inhale begins, pay attention to the breath again.

The main point of this exercise is to stay present during those times that the mind is very active.

It may sound like you’re jumping from one body part to another, but in reality the transition is very smooth. The focus on the hands gives you a place to go until the next breath returns, all the while keeping you present.

When I first tried this, I thought I was “cheating” because I wasn’t staying with the breath. And I had to remind myself that the purpose of this wasn’t to earn a gold star for being the best “focus-on-only-the-breath” meditator. It was to stay with whatever was happening “now”.

Allowing a slight change in focus when my mind is active keeps me present. Staying present calms me more effectively. And that helps me return to the meditation cushion day after day after day.

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There is beauty in the stillness that we experience between breaths. This dual focus practice isn’t meant to pull us away from that. Rather, it gives us a focus for those days when the mind is active and easily distracted, and appreciating that stillness is not available to us.

Does Mindfulness Make a Difference?

Yes, yes it does.

I am AWARE.

What used to feel like a jumbled mess of emotions and sensations before, now makes sense to me. Intense feelings don’t come at me as quickly as they used to and there’s more space between a stimulus and my response to it.

There is a PAUSE.

I may still feel overwhelmed by circumstances when something unexpected happens, but now I know what’s happening and can pull myself out of it.

That doesn’t mean that I’m perfectly calm and don’t get frightened, anxious or frustrated. I do. You can see that in some of my posts, because I try to be very honest about what I’m experiencing in the moment. But no matter how deeply I dip into fear, I don’t stay there.

I can find the CALM amidst the CHAOS.

When things get intense, I know how to feel into my body. I recognize the physical sensations and I focus on releasing them. Smoothening them out. Breathing through them.

All those abilities were always available to me, but I resisted calming myself. I am aware that on some level I used to feel that anxiety was a necessary way to express my fear; that it was necessary to descend into fear to express my emotional state to others, so that I would be taken seriously. While it sounds odd to read that now, it was only through learning that I was able to soothe myself that I learned I didn’t need to commit to the torture.

I return to the PRESENT.

When I start thinking about fretful things in my past or fearing the possibilities of the future, I can now recognize that my mind has drifted away and I can pull myself into the present, feeling into my bodily sensations. I can break through the dark tumult that’s enveloping me. And suddenly, the noise is gone and I’m standing with my feet firmly planted in my room. I hear the birds and I find peace.

I know I am SAFE.

I have learned how to feel into my body to help it bring me back to the present and away from fearful thoughts.

I realize that there were behaviors that I engaged in during times of anxiety in the past, like pacing back and forth, that actually soothed my nervous system. Just as rhythmic rocking soothes a child. My body was wise and knew what I needed. When, years ago, the burden of my workload chained me to my desk and prevented me from movement, my anxiety skyrocketed and became almost unbearable. That was a clue, but at that point in my life, I didn’t know how to listen to my body.

Now I know what I must do to calm down and I allow myself to do it. But this change didn’t come about suddenly.

It takes PRACTICE.

Practicing mindfulness meditation when I am at peace allows me to build up the habit that carries me through difficult times. I practice daily. Somedays I can focus on my breath perfectly; other times I lose myself in thought shortly after I’ve begun. Regardless, I don’t give up. Even the “bad meditation” days are better than no meditation at all. Each session strengthens my mindfulness habit.

Every day. No matter what. It makes a difference.