Category Archives: Self-care Mind

“Hygge!” Coziness, comfort and connection for what ails us.

There are lots and lots of things I believe to be true that I later discover I was partly or utterly wrong about. You may think me odd, but the realization that I could be wrong fills me with something like (but much better than!) hope: a sense of possibility.

Imagine how many of my limited (and limiting) ideas about such and such might not be true? Conclusions I’ve drawn about people I don’t like? Interpretations I’ve made about what something means? Decisions I think would turn out in disaster? Thoughts that have started solidifying into beliefs about who and what is wrong and who and what is right? Whew! What a relief, not to mention a fantastically surprising and possibility-filled turn around, to realize I was wrong.

Similarly, and possibly in a slightly easier way to understand, there is an endless number of good, remarkable, surprising, comforting, life-enhancing or all of those creative things I’ve yet to discover, things that at this moment I don’t even have the faintest idea exist. Whoa. Realizing the vastness of examples I’ve yet to discover of where I’m wrong and amazing things I don’t even know exist, fills me with an eager, yet effortlessly patient (because: I don’t know what I don’t know!) and welcoming sense of anticipation. This means that even getting up on the darkest of days and foulest of moods, it is possible for me to say:

Wait! I don’t know. I just don’t really know.

How about you? Imagine all the fantastic songs you’ve never heard, let alone knew existed. Same goes for books. For paintings. For poets. For encounters. For gadgets. For new variations in paint color. For places. For hilarity. For foods. For ingenuity. For ideas & concepts. Imagine!

Two days ago this time, there existed a word in the world that I did not yet know until my sweetie told me about it, explaining that it’s a Danish word that doesn’t have any perfect translation in English but that it’s about coziness, comfort and connection. “Hygge!” he kept saying. (It’s pronounced “hoo-guh.”)

And now I can’t get hygge out of my head! 

Hygge is about sensual pleasure in simple, gentle, soothing things. Oh my. What’s not to love? It’s also a form-shifty word that can be used as a noun, adjective, or verb, or compound noun, “like hyggebukser, otherwise known as that shlubby pair of pants you would never wear in public but secretly treasure.” (From The New Yorker, 18 Dec. 2016: “The Year of Hygge, the Danish Obsession with Getting Cozy,” by Anna Altman.)

Multifaceted that it is, hygge can also be used to refer to a state of mindfulness, which allows you to enjoy that sweet little thing you might not otherwise give a second thought, even though it is and always was oh so worthy of a second or even third and fourth…

On Saturday, after watching “Abstract,” the design show on Netflix that taught my sweetie, and me by extension, our new word, he and I went thrifting. And for everything we looked at, we considered whether it passed the “hygge muster.” Then we came home with a set of The.Most.Delicious.Bowls you have ever laid your eyes upon. And later we made coconut milk-cherry ice cream and ate it from our new-to-us blue bowls. Nothing was wasted. Afterward I warmed up two rice pillows, one for his freezing hands, and one for mine — rice pillows like the ones I use in my office and the ones I sleep with all winter, rice pillows that always were all about the wonderful qualities of the word I didn’t know until 2 days ago even existed: hygge!

And here, in no particular order, are some pictures I snapped of hygge in the place I call home. And yes, those are the bowls, on the hygge-bench my sweetie made and sits on when we meditate, which is just a fancy way of saying: to pause and notice, among other things, the hygge right under our noses.

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When Life is Unfair: Getting from Upset to Calm, from Reaction to Action

Things happen that aren’t fair. All the time. And sometimes life hands us what feels like a particularly unfair hand to play.

• Maybe you get passed over for a promotion. Even though you’ve been there longer and do a much better job than the person who got it.

“Sami” by Rachel Parker

• Maybe you weren’t even considered. Because of your gender. Or race. Or religion.

• Maybe you get lung cancer. Even though you never smoked a day in your life.

• Maybe your candidate does not win, even though the popular vote was hers. Because: electoral college.

• Maybe you very much wanted a child. And now it’s not possible. And everywhere you turn you see people having children. Even people who don’t want children and have no business being parents are having children.

• Maybe you work two jobs, sometimes three, to make the mortgage. And bankers and brokers who cheated and lied got away with it with impunity.

• Maybe no one knows or understands what really happened all those years ago. Yet they hold the consequences of an action against you. And cross the street when they see you coming.

• Maybe your divorce settlement…

Enough said. You get the idea.

When it comes to hard things in life, unfairness can be especially hard to deal with because thinking it should be fair is hardwired into us: unfairness (toward our own self or even witnessing it toward another) automatically triggers a response in the amygdala, the primitive part of our brain that is related to fear and anger, and responsible for cueing the fight/flight/freeze response.

And even though rationally you know a divorce settlement is not going to sneak up and devour you like the saber toothed tigers on your ancestors’ minds, your brain will not automatically compute this. For all intents and neural wiring-purposes, the amygdala registers the unfairness of that what-have-you as if there were a saber toothed tiger about to pounce. And I don’t know about you, but at 2 in the morning I’d rather be asleep than at the mercy of my amygdala, thankyouverymuch.

It all happens —trigger and reaction— unconsciously. Until it doesn’t.

Byron Katie says: “Would you rather be right or free?”

“Hunh?!” you might be thinking. “Of course I want to be free. But it’s so unfair. And I AM right.” That is certainly what I thought the first time I heard that.

You can probably list 10 reasons, easy, why the whole darn thing is just wrong, why it’s unfair. And you very well might be right.

I am not here to talk you out of your reasons for upset, goodness no. What I would like to do is offer a way for you to not be at the mercy of your upset… a way to find calm a bit sooner the next time you are dealt an unfair hand. After all, the sooner you find calm, the sooner you can sense for what IS possible when the dust of upset settles.

Getting from Upset to Calm: 7 Steps

Step 1: Pause

No matter how compelling the he said-she said-who did-whats it in your head, pause.

Whatever helps you pause, do that. A shower, a few deep breaths, a walk around the block, three minutes of juggling, a nice tall glass of cool water, a cup of tea… Do it. Pause.

Step 2: Notice

Notice what is happening.  If you have any trouble with this one, ask yourself:

How do I know I’m upset? What is happening?

“Well, funny you should ask,” you might say. “I can’t sleep. My mind is racing. I keep playing it all over in my head. My back has seized up. I want to break all the things…”

That sounds hard. And hard is hard. Good work noticing.

Step 3: Notice your thoughts AS thoughts

For this step it can be very helpful to jot the thoughts down on paper. (Hey, you don’t have the calm or presence of mind to sleep or do anything else anyway, right? Take the time to write the thoughts down. This will help you notice each and every one of them as what they are: thoughts.)

“I can’t sleep.” Thought.
“It’s not fair.” Thought.
“I’ll never ____.” Yep, thought.
“It’ll always be _____.” Hello, thought.

Maybe the thoughts you are noticing involve name-calling and blaming. Notice.

“So and so is a bitch.” Thought.
“So and so is a spoiled brat.” Thought.

Maybe the thoughts have a narrative arc, a storyline. Maybe they’re a string of thoughts all daisy-chained, or all chain-linked-fence together.

A NOTE ABOUT NOTICING: You are not trying to stop, neither are you trying to feed into, the thoughts and story. You are not trying to talk yourself out of or into anything. You are simply noticing. It may feel like watching a movie in your mind's eye. It may feel like hearing a soundtrack on repeat. Simply notice. And jot the thoughts down.

Step 4: Notice how the whole thing feels in your body

Notice where you feel the reaction, the upset, the discomfort. Put your hand right there.

Putting your hand where you feel the upset can be especially helpful, and with quick calming effect, when the discomfort involves heartache. (Put your hand right on your heart).

Other times, the discomfort jumps right over heartache and goes straight to anger, or rage.

“Discomfort?” you might be saying. “Discomfort?! I’m so angry I could break all the plates!”

Goodness yes. I feel you! Anger can be a little harder to put your hand on, so to speak. Anger may not want to sit, goodness no. And those plates feel mighty tempting. However, unless you can do without your plates and no one would be hurt in the breakage of plates, you might want to do some more noticing before you smash all the china.

If this step of noticing how it feels in the body is difficult for you, try asking yourself:

How do I know I’m upset? What happens?

Maybe your heart is pounding. Maybe you can’t see straight and your head feels like it’s about to explode. Maybe your vision is blurry. And your brain feels buzzy. Maybe it’s like someone just punched you in the gut.

OK. There you go. You’re noticing.

Also? Hello, adrenaline and cortisol! Remember the fight-flight-freeze response that is hardwired into us for survival? You’re a normal human animal and your body is responding to the alarm cues. Good to notice!

Step 5: Notice that you are noticing

“Wait, what?!”

This one might sound silly but I promise: noticing that you are noticing can make all the difference between being totally 100% upset and finding calm.

It’s easy and, for most of us, automatic to jump from upset right to distraction or reaction. But in the moment that you notice that you are noticing, you introduce a powerful new variable into that old equation: awareness. And awareness is one of the most important factors in change.When you are 100% and automatically in upset mode, there is no part of you available to take care of the upset. You can’t see it with any kind of perspective because you are right in the thick of it. Once you notice that you are noticing, that is when you are no longer 100% it, blindly reacting, and at its mercy.

Even if only 1% of you is noticing and watching your reaction —be it rage, be it blame, be it despair, be it hopelessness, whatever it is— that is 1% that is not upset and reacting.

While 1% of you noticing is not nothing, sure, it can feel pretty darned insignificant in the face of 99% still in full reactivity and break-all-the-plates mode. This brings me to…

Step 6: Be (in) Presence | Become Present

Presence —for our purposes, with a capital P!— is a quality, a state of mind, a way of being. Presence is a kind gaze and alert ears. Presence turns toward whatever is there. Presence does not push or pull with any kind of agenda. Presence wants to understand. Presence has all the time in the world. Ah, Presence. Presence deserves a superhero cape, for sure!

The 1% (or maybe more, now!) of you that is noticing that you are noticing what is happening? That is you being in Presence for yourself, and being primed to be in even more Presence. (Whereas when 100% of you was in upset mode, you were totally identified with the upset, and for all intents and purposes, there was no percentage of you available for the upset. Make sense?)

Presence, especially in the face of upset, doesn’t happen automatically for most of us. The good news is that being in Presence can be practiced. The quality of Presence can be cultivated. It is in the practicing of being present, and with the intention of being in Presence, that most of us find it.

Ah. Did I just hear you sigh in relief? Yeah. Me too.

If it’s hard for you to even begin practicing being in Presence, or if the upset is so great it’s hard for you to find even a smidgen of perspective from which to notice yourself, try “channeling” Presence.

“Channeling Presence” is like using training wheels until you can ride the Presence bike on your own.

How to Channel Presence

Bring to mind a calm, grounded, compassionate, kind, and endlessly patient person, place or thing. (Real or imagined, alive of dead, no matter. Make them up. Or borrow them from a movie or a book.) And then imagine how that person, place or thing would be with you right now in your upset.

When I am upset and need to find Presence, I sometimes channel a group of wise old women in an old-timey village in the mountains. These ladies’ laps are wide and welcoming, their chins grow hairs and they don’t care, their eyes are fierce and ever so kind at once, and they have all the patience and wisdom in the world. They are the best listeners. Sometimes they do a drumming and dancing ritual around me (especially good for anger), sometimes they go off and concoct a magical broth-y thing or potion for what ails me, sometimes they chant sounds in an ancient language to put me to sleep, and sometimes they just hold me while I cry. They see me, they hear me, they honor me, and they are not very impressed by my upset. (Which doesn’t mean they don’t care but does mean they are calm).

My sweetie uses the image of Maurice Sendak’s island from the movie “Where the Wild Things Are” to find Presence.

For some folks Presence is a religious figure or deity, like God, or Jesus, or Mary, or Kuan Yin, or the Buddha.

For one of my clients, Presence is a big cat she knows named Herman! (I tell you this with my client’s permission.)

It doesn’t matter if Presence is a who, or a what or a where. What’s important is that your upset gets to be met by Presence. And in doing this —in “channeling” how this person, place or thing would be with your upset— you are actually being present for yourself. (Thanks to mirror neurons!) You, yourself, are being self-in-Presence!

After channeling Presence, notice the intensity of your upset now. Chances are good it has dialed down. Maybe it went from 99% to 80%. Good. Maybe it went to 95%. Good. Maybe it dropped to 50%. Good. Try not to take the change personally. You aren’t a better person if your upset dropped more, you are just a person with less upset.

Being you-in-Presence and channeling Presence is a practice. It’s often not automatic, especially in the face of unfairness, but you get better at it the more you do it. And intention always helps.

Step 7: Take care of your animal body

Animal body?!

Why yes. The very same animal body that gives you your amygdala and allows you the wonder of experiencing the world through your senses, that very same animal body requires food, shelter, movement and rest. Every day.

Have you eaten? Do you need another glass of water or a cup of tea? Has it been too long since you moved your body in an intentional way?

Remember: Take care of your animal body. Your mind will thank you!

Alright. That’s it. That’s the steps.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

 

“But,” you may be saying… “what about the unfair thing? It isn’t right, dammit. What about that?”

Getting from Reaction to Action

When the disturbance and upset of reactivity has calmed, and with Presence driving the car of you, you can revisit the unfair matter. When you have listened to the upset and understood what it wanted and didn’t want for you, when you have made the space to be with it rather than be it (i.e., identified with it), you may well be amazed at the clarity available to you now. (And even if things aren’t clear yet, you are better off, and closer to clarity, for feeling calm.)

Clarity is a gorgeous thing. Clarity and possibility go hand in hand. From a place of clarity all sorts of possibilities are bound to spring into awareness, possibilities you were too blinded by upset to see when you were at the mercy of the upset and automatically reactive.

What, in the calm new light of literal or metaphorical morning, is available to you now? What did your upset thoughts and stories keep you from seeing before?

Being calm does not (or at least not necessarily) mean passively sitting back and doing nothing. (Though there is certainly a place for doing nothing, as well. And when consciously done, doing nothing IS doing something. But that’s for another time.) The action that does arise from a place of calm consideration will be clearer and more lucid than anything upset could have offered you on its own.

Clarity is the edge from whence things change for the good and in a way that is much more likely to stick.

From a place of clarity things change not because we ranted and raved, not because we pushed and bullied and name-called, but because we ourselves took care of and listened to and made room for the part(s) of ourselves that needed care.

Be kind. Be kinder to yourself than you imagine is possible. And please don’t send the upset part of you into the world to negotiate or do battle. Reactivity is like letting the drunk person drive the car home. Don’t.

Meet yourself and the world with Presence, with kindness and with understanding, and see what clear-eyed, and fierce, action comes from there. I, for one, can’t wait to see.

❤️

Acknowledgements & Links:

A special thanks to Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin for their language and bountiful teaching about being self-in-Presence. And to Gene Gendlin for his seminal work developing the process of Focusing. Ann and Barbara, my favorite Focusing teachers, teach many online and in-person classes and workshops. More info HERE. Focusing is especially helpful for Steps 4 - 6, as well as for the stage of moving from reaction into action. 

A special thanks to Byron Katie's lucidity and teaching around working with stressful thoughts and stories. Her process of identifying stressful thoughts and then meeting them with understanding is particularly helpful for Step 3 (above). Information and examples of The Work of Byron Katie HERE.

A special thanks to Tara Brach for freely offering hundreds upon hundreds of talks and retreats related to awakening from suffering. Listen or watch HERE.

 

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The Anxiety-Taming Blanket (Part 2)

"The Anxiety-Taming Blanket" series continues... [Last week's introductory post is over here.]

Even though what we most want to be able to do when we feel anxious is to rest and relax, the underlying belief running like a broken record usually sounds like “Something is wrong,” to which our first reaction is to tighten up and get tense.

(For most people, what I just described happens unconsciously. It’s our wiring, so to speak… Until we notice.)

The old-wired response

FIGHT. In fight-mode we scan for what is wrong and then fight whatever we think is to blame. In a more subtle form, the fight-response involves looking for fixes: we take out our metaphorical tool box and start hammering away at what we don’t like. While there’s nothing wrong with fixing and finding solutions, in fight-mode there is an underlying frantic-ness and urgency that propels our actions. Nothing calm and centered about it. And often, rather than bringing relief or rest, the frantic-ness of trying to fix what we think is wrong actually brings more anxiety.

FLIGHT is about running away from what scares us. (It doesn’t matter that we don’t exactly know what the danger even is.) Even though we don’t have to run away from sabre-toothed tigers or wooly mammoths for survival like our ancestors did, the wiring to run away remains. Being in flight-mode in response to anxiety can look like reaching for things to distract ourselves from how we are feeling or from the things we think are related to our anxiety. While our distractions can give some appreciated relief, the relief is often short-lived, and what follows can be a sense of even more restlessness.

FREEZE involves the things we do to numb and anesthetize ourselves from the discomfort of anxiety. It’s the old “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me” thing that little kids do: we hope that if we don’t look, then it won’t be there. Except that it is. And, unfortunately, what we find after coming out of whatever we did to numb is the same, maybe even stronger-than-before, anxiety.

Often we don’t notice we are feeling anxious until we’ve started or are well down the path of tension in a fight, flight or freeze reaction.

Re-wiring the old

Remember your metaphorical magical anxiety-taming blanket from the other day? The one that is the perfect size and the perfect shape for whatever is going on for you, including every single aspect of this anxiety?

Your anxiety-taming blanket is woven out of soft threads of self-compassion. These soft threads are also incredibly strong, but strong in a bendy and supremely adaptable way.

Sitting on the blanket of self-compassion has an uncanny way of softening the tightness that comes from the old-wired fight-flight-freeze.

Self-compassion

Self-compassion involves noticing, listening and seeing. With soft eyes.

Self-compassion involves turning toward and being with whatever is happening.

(If the idea of turning toward and being with whatever is happening makes you more anxious, then THAT is where to start: by turning toward and being with the part of you that is scared about what is there. We are where we are and we always start there.)

If right about now you are getting a knot in your stomach at the memory of  your old high school guidance counselor telling you to work on your self-esteem, fear not. Self-compassion is not about self-esteem.

Self-compassion is also not about approving or disapproving of what you find when you turn toward yourself.

Self-compassion is not about agreeing or disagreeing with what is happening. And it certainly is not about trying to make yourself accept what is there. (Although, with self-compassion you may very well find yourself feeling more accepting).

Self-compassion is not about figuring anything out (even though you may find that things do shift and get figured out).

Self-compassion is looking upon yourself and whatever is happening, with kind regard.

It takes practice. Most of us, especially those of us who have struggled mightily with anxiety, aren’t adept at self-compassion when we begin to try. That’s OK. Self-compassion is a quality we can cultivate. Even the very smallest movement toward self-compassion counts greatly.

Cultivating Self-Compassion

Here are some helpful ways to practice self-compassion, especially if you are puzzled about how to go about it:

  1. Bring to mind someone or something that embodies or represents the quality of compassion for you. It could be a teacher, a religious figure, a therapist, a pet… it could even be a stuffed animal. Maybe it’s several people and your dog.

    How would ___ be with you right now?

    See it in your mind’s eye, and feel what happens in your body.

  2. Another way to cultivate self-compassion is to envision someone or something you greatly care about with an uncomplicated, no-questions-asked kind of care. If that person were feeling the anxiety you are feeling, imagine how you would go about showing them compassion:

    How do you look at them? What do you say? What do you not say?

    See it, hear it in your mind’s eye. Feel what it does in your body.

 

Remember that your blanket has room for everything —including the part of you afraid of all the things on the blanket— and it is woven out of self-compassion. Maybe someone who embodies compassion for you has joined you on the blanket. Maybe the blanket is wrapped around you and that special somebody or something you adore and easily feel compassion.

The mind’s eye can show a powerful movie. Close your eyes and let it roll. And if you want, of course, tell about it in the comment field below.

More soon,

Heidi

P.S. A little bow of thanks to those I channel for myself these days when I’m having a hard time feeling compassion for myself: Tara Brach, Byron Katie, my barefoot lady (a.k.a, therapist), and Humlum, to name a few. I love having them on my blanket with me.

The Science!

There is a substantive and growing body of research on the effectiveness of self-compassion and mindfulness for anxiety and depression. A quick Google search for “self-compassion and anxiety” will yield vast result. The research done by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, among others, is solid and very promising.

 

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