The Mindful Way To Charisma: Practices for Projecting Warmth & Presence

May 29th, 2017 by

Some of us are charismatic. Some of us just aren’t. For a long time, charisma has seemed like a magical gift that only a lucky few were given – but research is now showing that charisma is something that we can learn, and that meditation has a lot to teach us.

Charisma has little to do with how we look – we’ve all known people who are good-looking, but not charismatic, and other people who are charismatic but not good-looking. It’s a matter of behavior. In The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, author Olivia Fox Cabane identifies charismatic behavior as consisting of three essential components: presence, warmth, and power. We express these through our body language, and it’s remarkably difficult to fake them. But the good news is that we can learn to influence our mental state in a positive direction, and our body language naturally follows suit. We too can have charisma.

Mindful Presence
When we’re talking with someone who isn’t present, we can feel disregarded and resentful, as if that person feels something else is more important than their current interaction with us. And if we’re the one who’s distracted, they feel the same.

The mind of the average person wanders almost fifty percent of the time. It’s difficult to be fully present, and even small improvements can have a big effect on those around us. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Mindfulness meditation trains us to focus on the present moment, regardless of whether we’re alone or with someone else – and when we are truly present with someone else, that person can feel our attention. They feel heard, respected, and valued. An added plus is that learning to be more in tune with the present moment also helps us to be happier – the more our minds wander, the more unhappy we are likely to be.

Practice:
The next time you’re speaking with someone, try this exercise from Cabane: feel your toes. Even though I practice meditation regularly, I still get distracted during interpersonal exchanges! Feeling my toes, or the soles of my feet, is a quick fix that gets me right back into my physical body in the present moment, and really helps the other person feel that I’m on the ground with them instead of lost in my head.

Compassionate Warmth
The next component of charisma is warmth. Someone who projects attentiveness and a desire for our happiness and success is someone who is attractive, even magnetic. We want people to like us and wish us well – and the best way to project through body language that we like someone and wish them well is to practice actually doing just that. Metta (loving-kindness) meditation is the Buddhist practice of generating and sending compassion – good wishes for yourself and others. In A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, author Thupten Jinpa walks the reader through the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training course, a program that teaches us how to be more compassionate in everyday life. Sometimes, we fear that being more compassionate means weakness, but compassion doesn’t mean we can’t stand up for ourselves. In fact, it means we can do so more effectively and with greater ease.

Practice:
Cabane shares this exercise: imagine the people around you have angel wings. Smile and silently send them good wishes. When I tried this, I found myself smiling constantly. People seemed nicer, not because they were different, but because I was seeing them differently. And many more people smiled in return.

Grounded Power
Power is the third element of charisma. Power means different things to different people, but it boils down to being able to influence the world around us. It can mean physical strength, social status, wealth, intelligence, expertise, or authority. It can be hard to tell whether someone really is powerful, so people will tend to accept whatever your body language projects.

Because meditation can help us feel more grounded – projecting a sense of ease, confidence, and stability – both mindfulness meditation and metta meditation can increase our sense of power. In addition, anything that helps us realize the potential of our physical body, whether that’s yoga or long walks or weight training, will increase the confidence with which we move. While I’m only 5’5, simply getting stronger made it so that I no longer felt short around others taller than me. This shows up in my body language and posture, and people notice.

Practice:
One of the biggest obstacles to projecting power is the discomfort we feel around uncertainty. Cabane recommends the following visualization: Take several deep breaths, imagining the clean air rinsing away all your concerns. Imagine lifting the weight of everything you are concerned about from your own shoulders, and putting it on the shoulders of a benevolent entity or force – God, the Universe, Life, or anything else that works with your beliefs. Explore the idea of becoming comfortable within the uncertainty, letting go of the need to have an immediate answer.

Putting it Together
According to the research, charisma is the ability to project presence, warmth, and power through our body language and sincere attentiveness. While different people will have different degrees of each, all three elements are necessary. By practicing these mental states, our body language will automatically change to match them and we will be able to project more charisma than we knew we had.

Nurturing a Mindful Mind: Kids naturally take to mindfulness

June 20th, 2016 by

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Talk to any mindfulness practitioner, and they’ll say, “I wish I had discovered mindfulness sooner!” Increasingly, research shows that mindfulness benefits children just as much as adults — maybe even more. Mindfulness practices teach us many valuable skills including how to pause and observe what we’re feeling, how to concentrate, and how to soothe our emotions. Learn early and you’ve got a real advantage!

Goldie Hawn may be most famous as an actress, but she believes in mindfulness so much she founded the Hawn Foundation in 2003 to create MindUP™, an evidence-based training program for teachers and students. “Mindfulness can help people of any age,” she says. A sixth grader in the program reports, “Being mindful calms me down when I am angry. It helps me not get in a big fight because I don’t want to hurt my friends. It also helps me focus on my work.”

The Mindful Schools initiative trains educators to practice mindfulness themselves and to integrate it into their classrooms. The results have been striking. Studies show that mindfulness can improve a host of outcomes and teach critical life-skills to youngsters. Who wouldn’t want their child to have improved attention and focus, or better grades? How about increased emotional regulation, more empathy, and enhanced social skills? Benefits also include reduced test anxiety, stress, and depression.

Training kids in mindfulness doesn’t have to be difficult. The hardest part might be developing your own mindfulness practice: meditation, yoga, mindful eating. Kids will notice if you tell them to do something you’re not doing yourself! It’s also important to know that mindfulness isn’t going to change your child into a model of good behavior. Kids will still be kids. Mindfulness will help give them the tools they need to work with their emotions more skillfully when they arise.

One popular mindfulness activity for very young children is a “mind jar” — a jar full of glitter suspended in liquid, that your child can shake to reflect their busy mind and then watch the glitter settle as their own thoughts and feelings calm down. A snow globe will also work. Several websites have easy instructions for making a mind jar. [http://www.preschoolinspirations.com/2014/11/13/6-ways-to-make-a-calm-down-jar/]

Kids are naturally curious, so mindfulness practices are a great fit for young minds. One great exercise is eating one raisin mindfully. Ask your child to look at one raisin as if they’d never seen one before. Then guide them to notice the raisin with each one of their other senses, asking them what they notice-— how it feels, smells, tastes, and even the sound of chewing. The inner “aha” that comes from paying close attention to something as simple as a raisin spurs children to see what else they can discover just by paying attention. The Harvard Vanguard blog has a great script for talking your child in mindful eating. [http://blog.harvardvanguard.org/2013/04/smart-kids-practice-mindful-eating/]

Children are very active, so often a movement-based practice works well. Many kids love yoga for its moving and soothing qualities. Mindful walking, especially in nature, can help children connect what’s outside them to what’s inside them. Simply go for a walk and pay attention to the walk itself.

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, relates the “breathing buddies” exercise. Even very young children can focus mindfully on their breath with help. You and your child can lie on your backs each of you with a stuffed animal on your belly. Focus attention on the movement of the buddy as you breathe in and out. This exercise is great for improving kids’ attention skills and self-management. They learn to associate the soothing qualities of their breathing with their ability to pause, focus, and soothe themselves.

Some people, including kids, can actually become more anxious when they first start practicing mindfulness — if you’ve never paid close attention to yourself before, you may find a sense of worry living inside. If your child experiences this, encourage him or her to continue the practice and try to determine what part of the experience is causing the anxious feeling. If your child is uncomfortable with negative thoughts, help her to practice letting go of thoughts and returning to the feeling of the breath. If your child is uncomfortable with letting go, help him notice how he feels in his body in the present moment. Ask him to breathe kindness into the part of the body that feels anxious. You might also have your child place a hand on the part of the body that feels anxious, feel the warmth of their own soothing touch, and gently repeat a kind word of their choosing like “soft, soft, soft”. If the problem persists, it may be best to find another mindfulness activity, such as yoga, mindful walking, or mindful eating, that don’t cause anxiety. [http://www.gisc.org/gestaltreview/documents/teachingmindfulnesstochildren.pdf]

Sharing mindfulness with your children can be a wonderful way to help them help themselves. Even if your children aren’t attending a school with a mindfulness program, you can teach them to experience the present moment through your own examples and guidance. Mindfulness is a quality that can be strengthened with practice, and teaching them some simple techniques will serve them their entire lives.

The Kind Mind: Mindfulness Nourishes Self-Kindness

December 12th, 2014 by

The best advice I received when learning to meditate was “Be kind to yourself.” This was challenging, since my mind drifted (a thousand times!) during meditation practice. How could I be kind to this frustrating, unruly, disobedient mind? Through mindfulness practice we become aware of the nearly constant chatter of the mind, observing how it seems to replay certain thought patterns over and over, and seeing how this activity ends up driving much of our day-to-day experience. When we sit down to meditate, with the intention of simply following the rise and fall of our own breath, we see how busy the mind really is. This is totally normal and something most people encounter when they first try to meditate. However, struggling against, or trying to control, the busy mind is futile. Rather, in mindfulness we cultivate an interior environment of patience. Just as we would create an environment of safety and kindness while teaching something new to another, mindfulness asks that you do the same with your own busy mind. But most of us aren’t so kind to ourselves. Why is that?

One of the reasons I began to study and practice mindfulness meditation is that I longed to feel at ease in my own skin. Others seemed to have this quality, and I wondered why it seemed so elusive. I’ve learned that the degree to which we experience this ease depends, in part, on the strength of attachment bonds developed early in life. The strength of these bonds affect the formation of our “internal working model” of “self” in relation to others – who we can trust, and whether we see ourselves as worthy of love. Research shows that people with insecure attachment bonds have less compassion for themselves than those who feel securely attached. In early childhood what we perceive as our reflection in the eyes of others, especially our primary caregivers, becomes a dominant influence on how we see and treat ourselves.

But there is good news! Internal patterns of self-judgment and inner criticism, just like the brain itself, are changeable! We can cultivate inner kindness and compassion for ourselves through the practice of mindfulness. Studies show that people who are able to pay attention to their present moment experience not only have greater emotional balance; they also have a greater ability to respond rather than react to difficult or unpleasant situations. Kristen Neff, PhD, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind notes, “Self-kindness, by definition, means that we stop the constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that most of us have come to see as normal. It requires us to understand our foibles and failures instead of condemning them. It entails clearly seeing the extent to which we harm ourselves through relentless self-criticism, and ending our internal war.”

Mindfulness is a means through which we can notice, be present with, and befriend the inner critic – during our meditation practice and in daily life – for example, when we make a mistake or fail in some way. Mindfulness practice trains us to be aware in the moment when we’re allowing the inner critic to dominate our inner landscape. With mindful self-awareness we have a choice in the moment – we don’t have to automatically believe the inner commentary! We create the conditions for the arising of what’s been called the “sacred pause” – that moment when we can actually stop in the midst of reactivity and adopt a kinder, more understanding view toward ourselves– just like we would do for someone else who was hurting.

Hugging Practice
Pick one routine activity you do every day. For example, brushing your teeth, washing your hair, drinking your morning coffee, or walking from your car to work. Make it your practice to do this activity mindfully for at least one week. Let your senses be wide open as you gently hold your attention on your present moment experience – the buzz of your toothbrush, the sensation of shampoo and warm water against your scalp, or the feel of each foot touching the ground as you walk. When your mind is pulled away from your immediate physical experience – for example, thinking about what you need to do when you get to work – simply note this in a kind and friendly way, and gently bring your attention back to your present moment experience. You’re building your muscle of paying attention to the present – the only moment where change is possible.
Physical touch releases Oxytocin – “the hormone of love and bonding”. Increased levels of Oxytocin boost feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness and also strengthen the ability to feel warmth and compassion for ourselves. Oxytocin reduces fear and anxiety and can counteract the increased blood pressure and cortisol associated with stress. Self-Compassion expert and author Dr. Kristen Neff recommends this practice when you notice you’re feeling tense, upset, sad, or self-critical: “try giving yourself a warm hug, tenderly stroking your arm or face, or gently rocking your body.” It seems a bit silly at first, but your body doesn’t know that. “What’s important,” she says, “is that you make a clear gesture that conveys feelings of love, care, and tenderness.” If others are around, fold your arms in a non-obvious way, gently squeezing yourself in a comforting manner. You can also imagine hugging yourself if you can’t make the actual physical gesture. Notice how your body feels after receiving the hug. Does it feel warmer, softer, calmer? You’ve just tapped into your body’s Oxytocin system and changed your biochemical experience.

 

 

 

 

Rewire Your Mind and Heart for Love: Mindfulness Brings Intimacy to Life

November 21st, 2014 by

By now you’ve probably heard that mindfulness is good for you. A regular practice in moment-to-moment awareness can make us happier, healthier, and kinder. Recent studies linking mindfulness and women’s sexual response are garnering a lot of attention. (More on this later!) As it turns out, the benefits of mindfulness that improve life in general – increased self-awareness, more self-compassion, less anxiety, and improved attention – also heighten our experience of loving, and being loved. While mindfulness benefits both genders, women experience special benefits when it comes to intimacy. Why? As Dr. Elizabeth Kavaler, a urologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, notes, “the biggest part of sexuality in women is emotional and mental.”

The Physical

Now, about those studies. Brown University researchers measured the effect of mindfulness on sexual arousal. Women who underwent mindfulness training experienced faster and more intense sexual arousal than a control group. The study’s lead author, Gina Silverstein, attributes the difference to increased “interoceptive awareness” – the ability to observe and describe what’s happening inside your body and mind without judging the experiences as “good” or “bad” or trying to change them. By practicing this skill, says Silverstein, we can “turn off the autopilot.”

And there’s more. Brain scans of long term mindfulness meditators reveal structural changes. Specifically, increased folding (“gyrification”) of a part of the brain called the “insula”. A Dartmouth study reported that women with more gyrified insula experience more intense orgasms.

The Mental

If you’ve ever tried to sit quietly and follow the rising and falling of your breath, you quickly learned that the mind soon has other ideas. Namely thinking – about things you needed to do, things you forgot to do, worrying about something that might happen, or regretting something that already happened. Anything but simply feeling the sensations of breathing! This constant mental chatter can prevent a woman from feeling sexual stimuli. Mindfulness training quiets this chatter.

Another aspect of the mind that is troublesome for intimate relationships is our hard wired “Negativity Bias.” An ancient survival mechanism, Nature ensured that negative experiences made a lasting impression on the brain (such as that close call with the hungry tiger!) Forgetting such encounters tended to shorten one’s lifespan! But today’s world is less about physical threats and more about psychological ones – often of our own creation. Our constant mental chatter tends to be negative – our interpretation of an offhand comment, anger at being delayed by traffic or someone’s forgetfulness, rumination about feeling disrespected, or anxiety about health or finances.  Unfortunately, the body doesn’t know the difference between actual physical threats and our tendency to dwell on and rehash unpleasant psychological “threats”. It churns out long-lasting stress hormones regardless. Not a recipe for blissful intimacy.

Through mindfulness practice you train your mind to ignore distractions – those arising in our own minds as well as those from the outer environment. Over time (changes happen in a matter of weeks) the mind learns a new way of being – and literally rewires itself! Mindfulness also strengthens your ability to refocus on the present when life’s normal ups and downs occur. With practice, these skills become stronger and stronger. The chattering mind, with its negativity bias, begins to quiet down. We learn to simply “abide” in this moment, which is not nearly as bad as we think. In fact, we find that it’s often quite wonderful! Perhaps not perfect, but wonderful nonetheless.

The Emotional

Mindfulness is about more than presence of mind. It’s also about presence of heart. It shows us our infinite capacity for love and compassion – starting with ourselves. The more we pay attention to our “mental chatter,” the more we learn just how much of it is critical, harsh, and destructive. From this place of awareness, we can befriend and soften that harsh inner critic. We discover that we’re actually complete and whole, with a loving heart that is limitless. Compassion, forgiveness, connection – all are natural outgrowths of this practice of kind, loving attention. And it may just be the best formula for intimacy there is!

 

 

Mindful Communication – A Key to Better Relationships

October 10th, 2014 by

One of the significant characteristics of mindfulness training is that once you begin to feel confident in your practice, and start to notice the benefits of mindfulness in your daily life, you begin to see relationships evolve and change. Mindfulness “ripples out” from the practitioner and affects those around her. Several times I’ve heard the question from new students – “How can I get my spouse to do this too?”  My response is always the same – the key is to work on yourself, and only yourself. You are one half of an interconnected “system” called a relationship. By changing yourself, the relationship will, of necessity, change. I often tell the story of how I tried “for 20 years” to “change” my husband  – and it never worked. It wasn’t until I started to change myself that he began to change. Interesting huh?

Your Mindfulness Ripples Out to Others

Each of our relationships –  with our significant other, our kids, friends, and co-workers – is a dynamic system. Systems naturally tend toward a state of equilibrium or a “steady state”. Each relationship is a unique mixture of what each person brings to it. However, our “steady state” relationship with our spouse may be the result of unconscious and habitual patterns of behavior each of us automatically relies on when we interact. Examples are patterns like reactivity, defensiveness, and blame. These patterns are sure to kick in when we try to “change” someone else. The interesting thing is that when you begin to change yourself  – by cultivating your own mindfulness – you bring a new and transformed way of being, and relating, to the relationship. Because the system will naturally seek to regain equilibrium, the other half must change in some way. This is how your mindfulness “ripples out” and affects others.

Did You Hear Me?

The practice of mindful communication, especially mindful listening, can make a world of difference in potentially every interaction you have. David Rome and Hope Martin, creators of “Embodied Listening” workshops note, “Unsatisfying communication is rampant in our society.” It seems that most of us are talking, but no one is listening! “Poor listeners” they point out, “are frequently unable to separate their own needs and interests from those of others. Everything they hear comes with an automatic bias: How does this affect me? What can I say next to get things my way? Poor listeners are more likely to interrupt: either they have already jumped to conclusions about what you are saying, or it is just of no interest to them. They attend to the surface of the words rather than listening for what is “between the lines.” If this describes you, you’re not alone. Many of us are poor listeners, but we’re seldom aware of it. How can we become more aware of our communication patterns? By paying attention. This is where mindfulness – the skill of paying attention, on purpose and nonjudgmentally –  can work wonders!

Mindfulness Meditation Makes Us Better Listeners

In mindfulness meditation practice, “we learn to settle, returning over and over again to the present moment, and allowing our thoughts to come and go without acting on them.” This practice shows us how our focus on “self” keeps us from experiencing the world directly. “Letting go of the “web of me” is the first step toward seeing and hearing others more fully,” advise Rome and Martin. By building our self-awareness through the practice of mindfulness, we begin to befriend ourselves, based on an attitude of kindness, gentleness, and non-reactive noticing of our own impulses and patterns. Rome and Martin identify mindful self-awareness as “the ground for listening and communicating well with others.”

Better listening skills through self-awareness are the natural outgrowth of a regular formal mindfulness practice, like meditation. However, the informal practice of mindful listening is something you can do anytime – and the more you practice, the better you get. There’s nothing quite like observing the face of someone as they discover you’re actually listening to them. Typically their face will begin to light up, their voice and stance will soften, a scowl may turn into a smile! Even the most unpleasant conversation can be improved by the practice of mindful listening.

Try It, You’ll Like It

Chad Meng-Tan, in his book Search Inside Yourself, describes the practice of mindful listening as giving the gift of your full attention – the gift of “air time” – to the speaker, while at the same time maintaining some mindfulness on your body. While this practice isn’t appropriate for every conversation, it can be wonderful and effective when the time is right – which is more often than you think. As the other person speaks, notice whether you’re really listening or instead planning what you will say in response at the first opportunity. Try to just listen openly and non-judgmentally. “Don’t try to remember everything,” he says, “If you really listen, you’ll hear.” Notice your own impulses to interrupt and, as best you can, let them go and return to just listening. You may “acknowledge” what the speaker is saying – for example by nodding, or saying “I see” or “I understand”, but don’t “over-acknowledge.”  When the speaker is finished, practice closing the loop of communication by saying something like, “What I heard you say was  . . . .” and then reciting back the essence of the speaker’s message as accurately as possible, without your own embellishment or interpretation.  Observe closely how these communications go, and polish your skills by practicing often.

photo credit photostock via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Saying Goodbye

July 23rd, 2012 by

I’ll be sending my only child, my son Jordan, off to college in a few weeks. The moment I’ve dreaded since he was born will soon be upon me. I don’t know what the actual moment of “Good-bye” will be like. At orientation the college advisors instructed us parents not to “break down” or “lose it”, as this will only make the child worried about us, and will take away from the fun experience of starting off in college. Hmmm. I will certainly try. But it may be like trying to stop a tidal wave. Last night and today, and maybe a few other days in recent months, I’ve felt waves of emotion. Today, as I sat during my morning meditation practice – “being” in the present moment – feeling myself “in” my body, noticing the sound of the raindrops outside the window, I recalled a letter I had received from my aunt when Jordan was probably 8 or 9 years old. She had never met Jordan and asked me about him in the letter. “How does he grow?” she asked. Those words “How does he grow?” seemed so expansive and open to the experience of watching a boy travel through his childhood, and change, and express his uniqueness.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how a moment, such as the one I’ll face in a few weeks, brings so much together – all those experiences and frustrations and laughter, arguments, excitement at Christmas, anger, talks, talks that should have been but weren’t, worry, mistakes (mine), hugs, broken hearts, messy rooms – they add up to what this whole experience was. It all begins to come into a kind of stark and pregnant focus as the day of release approaches. Sort of like how you procrastinate when you’re planning to go on a trip, and then, suddenly, the day to leave on your trip is here, and all the things that you’ve been thinking about in your head that need to be done are either done, or they aren’t. The day has arrived.

All the experiences that add up to a childhood – You don’t always experience how special they are until you realize that the time has come for that period of life to end, and a new period of life to begin. Was I present enough? What about the times I got ridiculously angry and childish? Did I show him enough love? Did I listen enough? Was I a good teacher, a good parent? Did I cherish the times with my boy as he grew? Did I cherish them as deeply as I’m grieving the end of my day-to-day connection with him now?

I think of how he is a wonderful, loving, and kind human being – ready to start out on his own adventure of life, to have his own triumphs and make his own mistakes, to learn to work with his own strong emotions, just like I am now. I know “Good-bye” will be tough for him too. I’ve already seen waves of emotion moving through him at times, and we’ve shared long bear hugs seemingly out of the blue lately. I remember my own experience of being alone and away from home for the first time – those pangs of loneliness and fear.

I’ve been recalling guidance I received from my teachers, and which I share with my own meditation students – “turn toward” the emotion, not away.” “Emotions want to be felt.” Practice saying “It’s OK, let me feel it.”  As I sat on my meditation cushion this morning I remembered my aunt’s words, “How does he grow?” I felt something physical spread through my body, as if moving through and inhabiting every cell. “It’s OK. Let me feel it.” I recalled a friend of mine sharing the experience of her own daughter’s departure from home. It brought tears to her eyes as she spoke, some twelve years later. I thought of another friend whose son, just a young man not yet twenty, recently died. What must it be like for her? How does she handle the grief?

As I sat with my eyes closed, I could feel tears rolling down each cheek. I felt them move along the jaw and join together at my chin. I felt the cells of my body warm with sadness. It’s here, I thought. Sadness is here. It’s part of my human experience at this moment. I held this experience in full awareness and breathed some space for it to be. Nestled within me. Cared for. Safe. Beautiful and poignant. Part of this amazingly rich and varied experience of being alive. How “will” he grow? How will I grow? The adventure and the experience continue to unfold.

Image: © tia_maria (used with permission)

How to Forgive When You Don’t Really Want To

June 30th, 2012 by

“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” ~Jean Paul Sartre

Does this article by Kate Swoboda speak to you? She shares this discovery: when you decide to forgive, you get to decide who you are.

Image: crismatos

Barney and Me or The Power of Emotions

April 7th, 2012 by

This Saturday morning my husband and I were sitting outside enjoying the beautiful weather. I had wrapped myself in a quilt as it was a little chilly, and my dog, Peanut, was snuggled up close in my lap.  As my husband read the paper, he read aloud to me the Ask the Veterinarian column. Someone had written recounting the last months of their beloved cat’s life during which they and their veterinarian had attempted to save the cat through multiple trips to the vet and a series of treatments and injections.  All well meaning, but the truth of the matter was it was time for the cat to die. The writer regretted all she had put her cat through trying to extend her life, and lamented the lack of palliative or hospice care for companion animals. Ultimately the owner was able to locate a veterinarian who agreed to euthanize the animal at home, in familiar, comfortable surroundings, in the arms of the person who had loved her all her life.

I looked at my sweet dog in my lap, his wagging tail, his graying muzzle, his kind and devoted eyes looking back at me. The moment gave me the gift of being able to plan for his passing. I vowed that when the time comes, he won’t be euthanized in a vet’s office, a place that terrifies him. I’ll inquire now, and make sure he’ll be in his home, where he plays, and sleeps, and romps, and explores every day, as he’s done his entire life. This is how this sacred and tender process of death should be experienced if possible.

But this story isn’t about my dog. It’s about a wonderful blue-eyed and very talkative Siamese cat named Barney. Barney was my fast friend for a long time. He lived and traveled with me during my college and law school days, moving with me from apartment to apartment and town to town as I made my way through those early adult years. He was still with me with me when I fell in love and married. Barney was both a feisty and incredibly affectionate and loyal animal. I remember a period when he spent a great deal of time away from home, and I learned (to my horror) that he had been stalking the new baby chicks that had hatched at the farm next door. On more than one occasion he gifted me with the carcass of some poor squirrel, and once even stole a chicken breast out of a pot of boiling water on the stove! (my pre-vegetarian days).

In the mornings when he wanted breakfast, he would crawl under the covers, all the way to my ankles, and give me a gentle “bite” to wake me up. If I wasn’t prompt enough for his liking, his next “bite” would be just a bit more forceful, until he was successful in getting me up. He was quite jealous of my other cat and would tackle her every time he saw me petting her (even though she significantly outweighed him and could have easily put him in his place.) However, when he wasn’t up to these shenanigans, he was lying in my lap, or next to me in bed, purring LOUDLY, and staring DEEPLY into my eyes, “kneading” his paws just like a kitten. I recall thinking at those times “what will I ever do without you?”

When I was in law school, Barney suffered a serious bout of feline leukemia (this was before the vaccine) and came close to death.  He lost much of his fur and became too weak to stand and feed himself. Twice daily I would hold him in my lap and hand feed him bite size pieces of cooked liver. He eventually went into remission, his fur grew back, and he lived several more years.

I was already married and working when the leukemia returned. We made a bed for Barney in the bottom of a closet. My husband and I would take turns coming home from work at lunch to check on him. He began to cry out in pain, and x-rays revealed that he had tumors throughout his body. One night we knew we had to take him to the emergency vet. We didn’t yet have a cat carrier, so I put a blanket inside a large box and put him inside and placed it in the back seat of the car. For some reason, I felt it wise to place the lid on the box during the car ride. Barney looked up at me with his huge blue eyes. He was afraid.  I agonized over placing the lid on the box as we started out for the vet. I knew he was leaving me. Although I held him as the vet administered the final injection, I regret having taken him out of his home for this experience.

What amazes me now, more than twenty years later, is how real, deep, and tender my memories and emotions are still. When my husband read the letter from the newspaper this morning, and I recalled Barney, it was astounding to me how after so many years these deep emotions are still with me, needing to be felt, expressed, and remembered. Barney was with me during a wonderful and adventurous era of my life. He brought me tremendous joy, and was a huge comfort to me when I was lonely or sad. I loved him (and still do), and also loved that part of me who lived, and laughed, learned and discovered, made mistakes and wrong turns, doubted and was unsure. That part of me, of life, of Barney’s life, that made her way through those years. What a time it was!

 

Mindfulness & Connection: Key Components of Your Best Life

March 17th, 2012 by

During my graduate studies in Transpersonal Psychology I became intrigued with the idea of human connection and mindfulness as catalysts for healing and transformation. Something about today’s world of divisiveness and separation seemed fundamentally inconsistent with my own understanding of psychological health.  I wanted to find out just what are the key elements of healthy psychological development. I was surprised to learn that prior to the 1970’s, when women entered the field of psychological research, the primary model of psychological health was based exclusively on research involving only male subjects. As a result, attributes like autonomy, separation, and competition were assumed to be qualities of healthy psychological development, while the urge for connection and relationship (typical of the female experience) was seen as inferior and unhealthy.

Enter the Healing Power of Connection

In the 1970’s, when women entered the field of psychological research, this old and incomplete model was shown to be in error, and a new model of psychological well-being emerged. This new model, based on decades of current research involving male and female subjects, shows that the urge to connect is our essential human drive – not autonomy and separation. Growth-fostering relationships, those involving active participation in the development of others, are now understood to be the primary vehicle for psychological wellness. It’s easy to see how all of us – men, women, boys and girls – have suffered under the mistaken assumptions of the old model. In fact, it seems to me our world as a whole is suffering from a failure to comprehend the critical importance of connection, interdependence, and the healing power found in a network of relationships.

Mindfulness Opens the Door to Connection

The practice of mindfulness, which is the cultivation of our natural human skill for non-judgmental present moment awareness, is emerging from its ancient roots as a healing and wholesome way to live. Health-care, personal fitness, and wellness models are beginning to incorporate a holistic mind-body-spirit perspective in the services they offer for the prevention and treatment of disease, and mindfulness is the central feature. Unlike the “find it and fix it” healthcare model currently in existence, the new integrative model of healthcare, as practiced at many major academic medical centers, reflects elements of relationship, communication, spirituality, mindfulness, wholeness, nutrition, life meaning and purpose, personal development, and the mind-body connection. These elements correspond to what appears to be the public’s increased demand for holistic treatment, the trends toward a unified approach toward life, health, and personal/spiritual growth, and hopefully an indication of a larger pattern being reflected in the world at large.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an eight-week educational program, taught throughout the US and worldwide, which originated in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and was initially developed as a way to teach mindfulness practices to patients with chronic pain. During the thirty years since, this intensive program in mindfulness has been the subject of extensive research demonstrating significant benefits for people with chronic pain, anxiety, panic, psoriasis, prostate cancer, immune function, hot flashes, depression, insomnia, high blood pressure, diabetes, and psychological distress. The number of scholarly studies on mindfulness has increased dramatically in the past 10 years. Recent studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between mindfulness and emotional well-being, improvements in sleep quality, mood, and fatigue.

                  In my experience as a teacher of MBSR, I’ve observed that as practitioners develop the qualities of mindfulness  through meditative practice, they typically experience a decline in their reactivity to stress, and an improvement in their attentive communication skills. These developments are ideal catalysts for the creation and improvement of relationships. The qualities of mindfulness, which MBSR practitioners learn to cultivate, include trust, patience, acceptance, non-judgment, non-striving, letting go, and curiosity. Mindfulness practice initiates a ripple effect  – from the practitioner outward toward others. This ripple effect has a scientific basis which has gained attention in the fields of psychology and organizational management in the last decade. Known as limbic resonance, researchers in this field are examining the interrelationship between the activity of the brain’s limbic system, the non-verbal transmission of emotion, feelings of empathy and relatedness, and the methods by which we, as human beings, become attuned to the inner states of others with whom we are in close contact.

I’ve seen first hand  how the ripple effect transmits these qualities from practitioners  to others, and weaves a web of healthy connections. It is this web that supports the conditions for healing, growth, mutual support, engagement, and transformation. This, combined with the extensive body of research demonstrating the importance of social connections for health and longevity, demonstrates the immense value of mindfulness practice for our health and well-being.

References: 

Gilligan, C. (1982/1993). In a different voice. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, C. (1995). Hearing the difference: Theorizing connection. Hypatia, 10(2).

Miller, J. B., & Stiver, I. P. (1997). The healing connection: How women form connections in both therapy and in life. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Step Number One: Love That Which You Are

February 16th, 2012 by

In my work as a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) educator, I meet people for whom stress has taken the upper hand in their lives. One of the things we discover as we learn how to meditate and observe our thoughts and emotions is that everything we say, and do, and feel is connected to other things. Often at the root of the stress vortex is not just a lack of self love, but a harsh and judgmental narrative that throttles the self regularly. You are connected to everything around you. If your interior landscape is habitually harsh and critical, your outer landscape will reflect the same quality. It’s like a law of nature. Many of the new students that I meet are plagued by a harsh inner critic. The most important thing you can do to transform your life is to start a new habit of treating yourself with kindness. Make it a practice and watch how things begin to change. Here is a great little article by Wendy Strgar that explains how and why kindness to yourself is so fundamental.

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