Friday, January 13, 2017

A blog post for book lovers

Today is one of those gray, rainy days that are meant for huddling around a warm fire with a good book. Or maybe sitting in cozy chair with a bottle of wine between us while we talk about everything related to reading.

Honestly, there’s nothing I enjoy more than the subject of books and writing and in particular, hearing about people’s reading habits.

One book or many books?

For instance. Are you a one-book-at-a-time reader or do you have several books going at once?

Lately I’ve become aware of a quirky habit I have when it comes to choosing between my books and I’m wondering if you can relate.

First of all, I’m one of those people who starts reading several juicy books at once. I know, you’re probably thinking, isn’t that a distracting experience? And my answer is no because I eventually end up reading one at a time. But I basically let my spontaneous reactions decide which book I dive into and finish first. This approach never fails me; it’s like a playful book competition happening inside my head. 

Which one will win my attention?  

When I’m reading multiple books, I let my book selection be decided in those rushed moments that I’m walking out the door looking for the “right book” to stuff into my bag or when I’m looking to take a book to bed with me and suddenly find myself reaching for one title over the other, and then---before I know it I’ve sunk deeply into the pages of an engrossing book that ends up crossing the finish line first. 

Voila! Book chosen, book finished. Then this process gets repeated.

See?  I told you it’s quirky.

Here’s something else I’m curious about. Are you drawn to non-fiction or fiction books and do you notice any pattern to your choices?


For instance, I’m convinced my ratio of non-fiction to fiction reading is directly linked to what’s happening in my life at the time. 

Here’s my classic example, I never read Sci Fi. Ever. Yet decades ago when I was in the throes of a terrible heartbreak I lost myself inside a massive paperback (500 plus pages) of Frank Herbert’s Dune in what seems now, like a surreal period of time travel. Days blended into nights while I remained transfixed inside this book. To this day I can’t remember the plot, just that I was thank god, allowed to escape into another literal universe to get away from the sting of a dramatic break-up.

If you’ve ever used a book to escape real life happenings, you know exactly what I mean. 

So here’s a glimpse of my current reads. And as you can see these days I seem to be in the throes of a curiosity growth spurt.

Mostly non-fiction, although I did just read Tana French’s latest novel in one of those frenzied reading binges which left me teetering on the edge of two worlds; one minute I’m dealing with the suspicious behaviors of my fellow detectives in a gritty, dark police station in Dublin, and the next moment I’m pushing my grocery cart in the dappled sunlight of a Southern California parking lot. I do love Tana French’s characters, although my son informed me that he could instantly tell the author was female when he read the male character’s lines. Hmm don’t know what that means but it’s probably why I like it.

Currently next on my fiction list is a book recommended by Simone, my trusted friend in London, who has raved about All The Light We Cannot See, a book by Anthony Doerr, which you’ve probably already read-because apparently I may be the last person based on reviews--to read this book. Actually, I think I picked it up and put it back down thinking it might be too melancholy at the time. But now it's next.

Now let’s talk non-fiction in no particular order

Patrick gave this to me for Christmas because he knows that the author, David Brooks, is my intellectual nerd crush. With his gold rimmed glasses, crooked teeth and balding head he is someone you might mistake for an aging library assistant, shuffling books behind the counter, yet I literally light up whenever I see him on my TV-doesn’t matter where. 

Charlie Rose interviews, notoriously languid, fluid affairs are my favorite forum—but I enjoy him in political round table discussions too, where his brand of quiet civility and deeply insightful points never fail to get me thinking. 

As an author, David Brooks talks a lot about our resume virtues vs. eulogy virtues and how we need to distinguish between these in order to live a meaningful life. Our resume virtues are the skills we need for our jobs and to achieve success by societal standards.  While our eulogy virtues are the deeper ones that are talked about at our funeral. Our kindness, honesty, generosity. What kind of relationships we formed. 

I wasn’t crazy about his first book, The Social Animal, but I’m curious about this one. 

If you’re a regular around here you might remember my post on the power of owning your life story through writing. I flat-out love the memoir genre and have been intrigued for years, by those who strip away their layers and write fearlessly of their past, without being burdened by other people’s reactions. 

So far Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing remain my steady favorites, mostly because of their distinctly unique--and likeable--writing voices, but I’ve heard rave reviews on Mary Karr’s book and I was so happy to find it in my Christmas stocking. Have your read any of her books?

I went straight out to the bookstore right after I listened to KristaTrippett’s fascinating podcast with this author. 
What a wonderful discussion. Not only did I love hearing how yoga is now considered an important component of body/mind work in the healing of trauma...

I was captivated by the latest’s brain research showing us that our traumatic events not only reside in our physical body, but are often relegated to the area of the brain that’s inaccessible to words and verbal articulation, a finding confirmed with the technology of today’s brain scans, a fact I've long believed.

Suddenly my years working with "The Woman"-- who awoke the same hour each night in a semi-fugue state to binge incessantly on food, only to fall back into a carb-induced sleep, and wake up later totally distraught by her inability to understand or control her behaviors, --had scientific basis. 

Yes, eventually we understood. Slowly we began to make sense of her frenzied night-time eating but only in excruciatingly slow steps did her childhood abuse --at a certain hour of the night-- make its way into words she could use. 

The metal lock that she put on her refrigerator in a desperate attempt to prevent her raging attacks on food, became a metaphor for her own childhood pain that had been banished to a place inside her, that she simply couldn’t know or verbally articulate until she was safely sheltered in treatment.  

Anyone who genuinely believes that you’re never too old to embark on a new dream, to generate original ideas or to change your life in the best way possible, should care about this little book.

For years we all believed that the brain is a permanently fixed structure that gradually hardens like clay poured into a mold, turning us all into “old dogs who can’t learn new tricks.”

Today because of the advances in neuroscience, we know that not only is the adult brain capable of changing, it does so continuously throughout our life, in response to everything we do and every experience we have. 

This information should make us all deliriously happy.

This brief little book calls itself a concise overview of neuroplasticity for the general public. I bought mostly for the chapters on addiction and brain training.

The author opens this book by sharing his astonishing personal experience with grief.

When he was 20 years old his mother died of a stroke leaving him emotionally devastated. He describes living in a state of denial for two and a half years, completely disconnected from his feelings. 

Eventually, as he sought professional help for his grief, he discovered that his body had created an additional calcium deposit between one of his ribs and the breastbone—similar to what the body will do in response to a fracture. To sum it up, he states, “what my mind had been hiding, my body showed with pristine clarity; I had a broken heart.”

It sounds hokey but as someone who worked in the eating disorder field for years, it’s really not. 

I bought the book because of the author's decades of work as a somatic psychotherapist and yoga therapist and his specialty in the field of grief therapy.

As you probably guessed, I bought this book for my own growth as a yoga teacher and hospice volunteer.

This was one those spontaneous buys, a book that literally found its way into my hands by chance.

I was wandering through a used bookstore on a recent trip when I happened to absently pick up this book, opened it to a page with TaraBrach’s name, turned the pages again and saw a reference to Spirit Rock, a place Jim had visited years ago and holds in high regards.

And that was all it took.

I've since finished this book and I can’t say enough positive things about it. Now I’m nagging the men in my life to read it, because it’s written in a man’s voice from a skeptical, cerebral perspective that I think they would enjoy. I also think you would like it too, especially if you're still on the fence about the topic of mindfulness. The book is filled with the author's personal struggles and offers fascinating support for how mindful meditation can change your life for the better.

Have you discovered this lovely publication? 

You can find it at your local Barnes and Noble, or even Costco. It’s such a beautiful compilation of blogger words and images and I bought this edition to support my friend Suzanne who had her article published in it.  

Well, if you're still here after this rather long post, it's true. You really are a bona fide lover of words. (Thank goodness for me)  And I'm so happy you were interested in my little discussion on books. 

Now it's your turn. I'd love to hear about your own book suggestions along with any other thoughts you have about this post.

love and peace to you,

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

an uplifting story about this one radically different thing I did that changed my life

                                     (I want these shoes)

Last night my husband asked me the single question I needed to hear on the eve of a new year.
We had just returned from a brief outing to a new, oceanfront restaurant where we sat in a dark corner—before the partying crowds were out---drinking red wine and joking with our bearded, Swiss-born waiter who later informed us, that he was only two weeks away from leaving the States and returning to his birthplace because, “here in the United States, people live to work, it’s too much work and not enough time to relax and spend time with family and friends.”

His buoyant, cheerful mood aside, here it was again. Another reminder of how we’re all searching for that magical sweet spot in our lives, that ‘right’ balance between our work life and our relationships and our mind/body health.

With all this to think about, Jim's question made me pause.

“So Les, what do you want outta 2017?” he asked.

And suddenly like Aladdin’s golden lamp, all my answers seemed to rise out of this one powerful experience I’d had in 2016.
Have you done this already? 

Have you reflected on some of the key events of your life this past year and thought about how you reacted- with your heart, your mind and your body?

As I go into this New Year I find myself asking,

 “Am I responding to my life in ways that will
help me grow into the person I aspire to be?

And of course my answer is always a humbling one.
But this past year I did something radically different and uncomfortable for me--and I want to tell you about it, because it’s changed my life for the better.
Some of you may remember a short post I wrote recently, Becoming the person you’re meant to be,  in which I shared the uncertainty I was living with in the months following my yoga teacher training.

Coming off what felt like an invigorating personal challenge, I now felt directionless. I was left grappling with questions about my life’s purpose without any idea about what I wanted to do next. In the meantime—my inaction and lack of clarity left me with a nagging sense of confusion.

I described it as feeling “stuck.”
I ended that post with a teaser interview that I never fully explained; yet it was an invigorating meeting that had helped me take stock of my life—and it provided me another chance to get outside my comfort zone.

This is what really happened.

For the first time ever, I decided to do something totally foreign to me---instead of prematurely plowing through this situation as a way of reassuring myself that I was moving forward, I decided to lean-in to all these uncomfortable feelings to get my answers.
I basically decided to take Sheryl Sandberg’s intriguing concept and apply my own version of lean-in to my life.

Did it work?

Honestly. Surprisingly. It did. And here are three things I felt were helpful.

1.      Adding mindfulness meditation or mindful breathing in my day

During these months of feeling emotionally “stuck,” I kept up my yoga practice and I began to experience the noticeable effects of pranayama—the mindful breath awareness that is part of the practice of vinyasa yoga; it’s this kind of breath control that literally helps us create a calm, inner space in which to observe our racing thoughts and feelings, or what the Buddhists refer to as our “monkey mind.”

Once you allow these inner experiences to simply be there for your curious examination, an amazing window into your deeper awareness and creativity is accessible.
Think about those times when you got a great idea in the shower. It’s a similar principle.

Except I’m not simply talking about ruminating on things and letting your mind run wild. I’m talking about a mindfulness-meditation experience. For those of you who are hesitant about this topic because of the Eastern religious associations, I do understand.
But you might be interested to hear about the MIT-trained microbiologist John Kabat-Zinn who designed a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MNSR) eight week course that was secularized, meaning without religious undertones.

Later, a Harvard study found that people who took this eight week course actually saw exciting changes in their brain’s gray matter in the areas of awareness, compassion and stress reduction.
And what’s fascinating is how the neuroscience world continues to share research showing us that simple mindfulness techniques can positively change our brains—no matter what our ages--with or without the religious undertones. It make us happier people and according to the Silicon Valley tech world practicing mindfulness makes us better leaders.

Did you get that last part friends? No matter what our ages, our brains can continue to change in positive ways in reaction to mindfulness techniques.
The best part is, you don’t need any fancy, expensive program to begin to find this connection to your breath.

For me, it really began with the breathing awareness that occurred during my time on the yoga mat.

2.      Self-honesty

I really think this is where it all starts.
Yes, it’s true that making time for “mindfulness moments” really helped me, but without a willingness to be frank and honest with myself, the flashes of insight might not have happened.

When you choose to lean in to your struggles you can’t tip toe around what they are. It requires a healthy desire to strip away the polite smiles and get down to the heart of the matter.
And sometimes this is facilitated by events happening around you.

Since we located to our new city, we’ve experienced the empty nest, we’ve lost the empty nest, and now we’re back into it again. And throughout this period I’ve grappled with levels of worry I don’t remember having when my boys were little and when the choices seemed so wonderfully uncomplicated.

I think of it as mother’s angst, and it was expressed perfectly by my relative at her son’s 30th birthday dinner.

She was reflecting back on her son’s toughest times during his twenties and said,

“I always thought that the minute the kids were eighteen, the hard part was over. I was done. And it was so confusing when he moved back home, all of sudden I had to realize,
“Wait. This is not gonna go the way I always thought it would.”

Not only were her words refreshingly real, but it was such a beautiful description of what real life parenting is like. And just like that, I felt an instant kinship with her.  

Later I found one of my earliest posts about my anxieties almost four years ago when I opened up about my worrying at night, and I still remember how nervous I felt about hitting the ‘publish’ button on that post. Wondering if I would sound like a crazy person.

3.  Connecting the dots in your life

For me, the best part of re-reading an old post like this one is that it’s a reminder that we keep repeating the same old emotional dramas until we work through them in a healthy way.
It’s the real reason I signed up for my yoga training in the first place.

What looked like a positive, happy lifestyle choice from the outside, actually happened after a long and difficult year with one of my kids in which I was forced to confront my anxious mindset. And like a lot of decisions born out of a hard period, it was tinged with some desperation. I needed to do some real growing and to stop blaming the circumstances around me for my Woody Allen-like reactions. I knew that.
And it ended up being the best decision I could make at that point in my life.

While I’ll never be a poster child for calmness-in-a-crisis, I have managed to grow a bit, and most importantly, I’ve stopped being so dismissive about my worrying. In fact, I used to joke that I was like the boy in the movie, The Sixth Sense, except instead of seeing dead people my superpower was seeing all the possible problems that could happen, especially when it came to my kids.  

Now I catch myself when I’m making light of my feelings. I know the Buddhists refer to my worries as a kind of “suffering” that happens when we attach ourselves to things that are impermanent and fleeting. And there’s pain there, when we’re trying to hold on and control and insist things remain a certain way in a world that is always changing.

During these months of leaning in to my feelings, I was quietly observing my life in a –mostly—nonjudgmental way, and something definitely happened.

Call it a spark. A tiny green bud.

I can’t say I felt these changes on a daily basis but I did notice that once I stopped trying to label myself (directionless, stuck, wasting time) I turned my passive situation into an empowering momentum.
Watching the ebb and flow of my daily life, observing how I treated others, how I got my bursts of creative inspiration, how I behaved in certain situations, it taught me a lot about myself, some of it good (I laugh a lot) and some not-so-great (man I'm quick to panic) and what emerged was this glaring area that I need to work on.

Letting go.

Yes, if you’ve lived long enough, I’m sure you can apply your own situations to this one.

So after months of feeling like a “sleeping caterpillar” without a clear direction, things finally began to feel different for me one afternoon when I asked myself this question.

“What better way to learn about letting go and loss then to be around death and dying?”

 What if your biggest weakness leads you toward your greatest strengths?

And this was how, on a sunny, October morning I found myself sitting with the Director of a hospice program in Orange County, California.
“Why would you wanna be with dying people?” the Director asked me with a beaming smile.

“To be of service.”

“Tell me about your biggest weakness” he said.

Hmm. Excessive worry. A hard time letting go and trusting things will work out translation: I'm controlling. Fears of loss, especially something bad happening to my kids. A terrible sweet tooth.
OK, so I really didn’t say any of this.

But as I sat in the conference room that day and listened to the Director ask me enthusiastic questions about my therapy background, it occurred to me that once again, I was getting outside my comfort zone as a result of what I considered to be my biggest weaknesses.

I began to feel the dots connecting in my head.
What started out as a decision to help me deal with my worries and anxieties ended up introducing me to a world of yoga. Mindfulness. Breathing. And a new world of like-minded friends.

Now I was realizing that without my anxieties I would never have been at this interview. I wouldn't be hearing the Director’s excited plans for a bereavement camp for children that’s now in the works, or about his search for people with therapy backgrounds and artistic abilities who might be part of his team.
Without my annoying habit of instantly imaging the worst possible thing that might happen to my kids, I would never have heard this Director share his hope of offering grief yoga (are-you-hearing-what-I’m hearing?) to the families in his hospice program.

Or heard him ask about my interest in joining him in his support groups.
And later when we walked to the glass doors and shook hands, I felt it. 

If it hadn’t been for my struggle with letting go, I might never have heard him say with a smile,

“We’ve been waiting for you.”

Needless to say, as I walked away in the sunshine, I found myself shaking my head and feeling oddly appreciative of the very parts of me that I wanted to be rid of. Go figure.
And while I honestly have no idea how this new endeavor will unfold, I promise to keep you posted.

Although I am entering this New Year with a few interesting thoughts from 2016. Here they go:
Our biggest weaknesses. Our glaring flaws.

Those bumpy times when we lack direction and clarity about where we’re headed?
I think it's these obstacles that force us to pause, get us asking the right questions so we can find our way back to our most authentic path.

Because whatever it looks like, it should be our path.

  January morning on the beach

Wishing you a New Year filled with insatiable curiosity, kindness and love!



sharing this post with friends at:
French Country Cottage

 (p.s. Check out my mindfulness experience below)

In case you’re interested, I jotted down what I did during my mindfulness moments:

How I leaned-in to my discomfort and found insight and direction

It begins with this question:

What if instead of wasting all your mental energies judging your struggles and feeling bad-discouraged-insecure-and/or repelled by what you consider your ‘flaws’ or ‘weaknesses,’ what if you did the exact opposite?

You did this instead:

1.      Identify an emotional ‘struggle’ you want to work on

   (ex: I wanted to focus on my tendency to react with worry to     various situations)

2.  When situations arise that evoke these emotions instead of dread, greet them with your version of insatiable curiosity.

3.   Replace your self judgement with compassion

4.  Remember. Lean-in means to stay awhile. Pema Chodron calls it relaxing into the emotion and riding it out. A typical emotion last 90 seconds in the brain, anything longer is because you’re choosing to rekindle it. While it’s there, become fascinated about everything you’re experiencing.

5.      Observe your thoughts. What are you telling yourself when you’re in the full expression of this experience?  As you start to identify your private ‘self-talk” say these words out loud and keep going, see what free flowing thoughts come out of your mouth.

6.   Sharing these moments with a supportive person can be helpful. I use my husband as a sounding board as I catch myself starting to go off into a worrying mode. “Ok, I’m feeling this right now because I’m assuming this will happen….”

7.   Be curious to see how these emotions and sensations   are felt in your physical body.

8.  Finally, focus on your breathing. Observe your inhales  and exhales as you draw your attention to the present moment. If this is hard, you can begin by simply noting, “I am inhaling now. I am exhaling now.”

Again, these can be the equivalent of little pauses during your day. Whenever you catch yourself falling into your negative mindset. The goal is simply to become fully aware. I know this is hard to believe, but this was how I got through my period of uncertainty with a newfound clarity and yes, feeling more contentment. And again, this is just what worked for me, it's a blend of different teachings I’ve gathered along the way.
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