Went to a local restaurant last night with a friend to celebrate the season. The two of us sat at the bar eating oysters and sushi, and drinking wine. After two glasses of a quite lovely rose, my friend convinced the owner to put on some disco music, effectively turning the place into a dance club. At first, she was the only one dancing, and then every other woman in the place joined her, as well as a guy or two. My friend is a married woman and I officiated at her wedding a few years ago. “You’re doing a lousy job of chaperoning me,” she said last night, as she handed me her shirt. Looks like I’ll have to be clearer about my job description in the future…
The human mind is programmed for flying into the future and plummeting into the past, in both cases missing out on the gift of grace in the present moment. Focusing away from the Now, and into non-existent time-frames creates a morass of sadness and guilt (the past), anxiety and fear (the future) which in turn creates a dense experience in the present. So many of us are willing to discard the only reality there is – the Here and Now – in favor of memory and fantasy. In so doing, we are exchanging peace for pain, expansion for constriction. Joy, peace, and well-being can only be found in the present moment. Let us make a determination: to fully indwell the Here and Now, whereby our hearts open, our awareness increases and our reality expands.
Most of us believe we want a peaceful world, yet how important do we make peace in our daily lives? We rush and hurry, argue and defend – acting from ego-based concerns and old, unconscious patterns, instead of from balanced, present-moment awareness. Isn’t it time we stopped this robotic, fear-based way of living? Good questions to ask ourselves throughout the day are: How conscious am I right now? What am I supporting? The body always knows. Is the body relaxed, the breath flowing? Or am I in fight/flight mode with shallow breathing and tense shoulders? World Peace is a fine goal, but how many of us are truly willing to set aside the wants, desires and demands of the ego to make peace the priority, in our hearts, homes, and relationships? It may not be an easy thing to do, but it needs to be done. As Gandhi so aptly said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
In times of stress, life can become a veritable animal farm of unbalanced behaviors. If you’re like me, the tendency under pressure is to scurry around in all directions like a squirrel trying to cross the road, eat like a pig, drink like a fish and consequently sleep badly or not enough, which causes tension in the body, leading to more scurrying, scarfing and guzzling. To counteract this behavior, the key is to stay centered in the present moment. Relax the body, deepen the breath, focus on the activity at hand. By so doing, we automatically slow down and gain consciousness of our behavior. Am I eating because I’m hungry or out of nervousness? Am I drinking in a relaxed and conscious way, or like an alcoholic sailor on shore leave? The key to maintaining good health in times of stress, is to create and maintain balance, which needs to be done by staying conscious on a moment to moment basis.
Many of us believe that as the world moves faster and faster, we also need to move faster and faster just to keep up. Nothing could be further from the truth! Moving with speed creates stress and confusion, as well as amplifying fear. By simply disciplining the rate at which we move, we intensify our focus as well as increasing awareness. The next time you catch yourself racing around, stop immediately and take a breath. Now begin to move in a conscious and rhythmic way, with a relaxed body. When the body is relaxed, so is the mind. It takes practice, but by moving slowly and with consciousness, we can truly empower our lives.
Let’s face it – commercialism and greed have gotten way out of control. Yet, for some reason, many of us still feel the need to “keep up with the Joneses.” This is never more true than at Christmastime (this may be equally true of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but I’m speaking of the tradition I’m most familiar with). Thanks to television and the internet, our children have become emissaries of Madison Avenue manipulation, and most of us don’t know how to say no to our children. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that the average American carries between $15,000 and $20,000 of credit card debt, a large portion of which is created in the month of December! Isn’t it time we woke up? What’s the point of buying everyone in the household every little thing their hearts desire if the following year is spent in sleepless nights and anxiety attacks? It may hurt, not being able to buy an i-pad for each of the kids, but if it’s not in the budget, it’s not in the budget! What lessons are we really teaching our children? Isn’t it more honest, more balanced, and finally, more humble to live within our means? Remember the notion of the Spirit of Christmas? Whatever happened to that??
How do you treat yourself on a moment by moment basis? Are you a loving parent to yourself or a brutal circus trainer with a bull-hook? An easy way to reduce stress and create joy is to simply check in throughout the day, asking the question: Am I being good to myself? If the answer is no, make a change! Start by taking a couple of deep breaths and relaxing your body. Take a break! Allow yourself to have a cup of tea and do nothing but stare out the window for 10 minutes. If you work from home, take a nap. If not, allow yourself an hour of “down time” when you get home from the job. Take a yoga class. Take a bubble bath. Spend an hour reading a good book before you cook dinner. Reward yourself frequently. A crossword puzzle after doing the housecleaning. Lunch at your favorite restaurant during a hectic day of Christmas shopping. Give yourself “free time” at the accomplishment of every task. Be kind to you!
Remember stringing popcorn and cranberries? Baking Christmas cookies? Doing holiday crafts? Who has time for those things anymore? We do!! What’s the point of a holiday season without a sense of creativity and wonder? Over the years, I’ve made nosegays, pomanders and pot pourri. I’ve gathered pine boughs and cones for wreaths, and dipped beeswax candles. I’ve baked goose and shortbread and persimmon pudding, mulled hot cider and wine. Maybe this year, I’ll try my hand at homemade eggnog! Whatever your holiday tradition, bring back that sense of joy and magic through some form of creative artistry. If you have young children, let them guide you!
Breath is the key! Here’s a simple exercise: Before you start your day, sit on the edge of your bed or in a chair, with a straight spine. Close your eyes. Take 10 slow, deep breaths in through the nose, out through the mouth, exhaling fully. Focus on nothing but the breath. Specifically, practice a 10 second inhale, a pause, and then a 20 second exhale. (Don’t look now, but if you’ve done this, you’ve actually meditated for 5 whole minutes!) Do this morning and night. Also, check in frequently throughout the day. Is your breathing relaxed and deep, or is it tight and shallow? When you catch yourself holding your breath, or breathing in a shallow way, relax the body and take a couple of full, deep breaths. You’ll be amazed what this simple tool will do for your mind, nervous system and life!
List-making is a simple tool for clearing mental clutter and releasing stress. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a pen and piece of paper and write down everything you can think of that needs to be done in the next several days. The more stressed-out you feel, the more you need to put down on that paper! The simple act of writing it down will make you feel better. Now, take a second piece of paper and re-write your list in order of priority. As you do this, do you see anything you can eliminate? Every day, re-write your list. It’s not rocket science, but this simple technique can help create a sense of calm. A word of caution: DO NOT do this exercise immediately before going to bed! It could have the opposite effect. As you lie down, you may find your mind obsessing over tomorrow’s activities. Better to do this in the morning or at the end of your work day.