tranquility

 

Peace is Attainable

Peace can be elusive in these pandemic times.  The news reports that the United States will have tens of millions of vaccine doses to distribute this winter. And yet, anxiety and worry settle back down around us. When will the vaccines be available? Who will get them? How much does the storage equipment cost?  But did we take time to celebrate the scientists that created the vaccines or those brave souls that volunteered for the vaccine trials that we might be safe? Instead, our attention went back to frustration or the politics of wearing masks, hand sanitizing, and social distancing.

How do we find peace of mind in the midst of all this anxiety? I suggest two techniques. One is remembering interconnectedness and the second is practicing gratitude. 

Interconnectedness

Interconnectedness is key because in actuality we exist because of it. We just think we are independent and separate.  Our biological mother and father made us who we are and passed on their DNA which combined to become ours.   We cannot hide from our DNA. Science is even explaining how the bond between nature and nurture travels through time.  As explained by scientists for the past ten years, the effects of trauma can be passed on in the genes.  As Andy Coghlan explained in New Scientist, “genes chemically silenced by stress during life have been shown to remain silenced in eggs and sperm, allowing the effect to be passed down to the next generation.

The good news is the behavioral traits in our genes are only a predisposition, not a life sentence. We can and do change as we age. Even “hotheads”, those quick to anger, can change. Such behaviors, even if passed down in the genes can be changed. We can transform reflexive behavior like anger into a practice that relieves stress and anxiety.

Gratitude

Practicing gratitude helps us relieve anxiety. Everything we encounter can be used to further our gratitude practice. Being grateful for our friends and even physical objects can help us transform our inner anxiety. Reach out and touch a desk or even our coffee cups when the news or people around us start dragging us down. Take a moment to ask, who made this computer, the desk, or the coffee and appreciate their efforts. 

Questions For Reflection

One form of gratitude practice is Naikan, or reflecting inward. Naikan is a Japanese word that means “looking inside” and refers to a practice of self-reflection based on three questions: 

  • What did I receive? 
  • What did I give? 
  • What troubles and difficulties did I cause?  

Reflecting on our response to these questions will give us a deeper appreciation of the world around us. As Gregg Krech, Executive Director of the ToDo Institute, explains in his book: Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection, “We hurry through our day giving little attention to all the ‘little’ things we are receiving. But are these things really little? … They only seem so because, while we are being supported, our attention is elsewhere.” Habitually, our attention may drift to what we lack or dislike. We may become judgemental. Yet, with these simple questions, we return our attention to what we have received from others and awaken to our dependency on others. 

Naikan’s three questions are used as a self-reflection exercise to help us remember some of the people, things, and places involved in simple events.  For example, purchasing vegetables at the grocery caused me to just sit back and reflect. After a few moments, I was overwhelmed by all the beings and people who had made such a simple event possible.

Practice Gratitude

Sitting with gratitude will put a smile on your face. Being physically isolated does not mean you are alone. Appreciate your connections. Reach out and call a friend or relative. You might even send a note to a loved one.  You might leave a card on the door of a neighbor.  Thank those who help you live your life such as grocery store clerks and the drivers who pick up your garbage. Expressing your gratitude to your pets, whether a cat, dog or another animal will be richly rewarded. Even plants respond to kindness.  Watch a wilted one perk up when you water it!

Take a moment to breathe in and breathe out, notice some objects around you, and be grateful for all the causes and conditions that made your moment possible.  In that precious moment, enjoy peace.

References

Self Reflection

  • “Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy and serenity.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Small Cabin In VermontSitting on the deck of a small cabin in Vermont, I watched the setting sun on my last evening helping conduct a Naikan retreat at the ToDo Institute. Listening to the crickets begin to sing, I contemplated how the self-reflections participants had shared changed them and me. Preparing for the end of the retreat, I was and remain inspired to say thank you more often for the benefits I receive. Supporting others with intense Naikan practice inspired me to be a bit quicker to share apologies for the difficulties I cause. 

Truth SpaceNaikan, when translated literally, means ‘looking inside’ and sometimes is translated as reflection. On Naikan retreats, participants use a structured process for reflecting upon their life, from birth to the present day for six days or more. Participants sit behind shoji screens that enclose enough space for a couple of cushions, an eating tray, and a notepad for about 10 hours a day practicing Naikan. The cordoned-off area is called a “hoza” or “truth space.” 

 

The Naikan process was developed in Japan by Ishini Ishimoto to help people leave their anxieties by focusing their attention on gifts received, gifts given and troubles caused. Naikan Self-Reflection by Norimasa Nishida describes the practice as used in different countries. It shares how a Naikan retreat can be life-changing. 

 

What I found fascinating was how being an interviewer could also be life-altering. Constantly asking myself, how can I support the participants and exploring how I caused difficulties, I did not have time to even contemplate who was at fault for not having tasks done. Instead, it was a practice of searching out how I could help, which is something I take back to my work. The tasks required to support the retreat participants with a constant flow of assignments, interviews and time out in nature fill my six days. 

During the six days, Gregg Krech managed to find time for staff to have a few moments for reflection.  I cherished the opportunity to create a truth space for reflection outside. A small bench surrounded by growing plants and trees set up behind the main house was a place to shift my attention from anxiety to reflection.  It was a space to notice how much of my tensions were focused on what I thought other people might think. I laughed as I realized my worries were often internal dialogues with myself. Shifting to what I received, I began noticing the myriad of causes and conditions that make a moment. It was often humbling. Standing up from my small bench, I thanked the flowers, the bees, the dragonflies and the spreading trees for sharing their beauty.  Gregg and Linda Krech have done so much to have the ToDo Institute host Naikan retreats in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Check out the schedule for Naikan classes and retreats at www.todoinstitute.org 

Todo Institute Retreat Center

Anxiety is a heightened mental or emotional state of stress resulting from challenging conditions. However, events themselves are not intrinsically stressful. The same set of circumstances that produce smiles in some people generate fear and anxiety in others.  Anxiety and stress are caused by how we react to events.

Such diverse responses can be seen on the faces of those on a roller coaster as it descends into a deep dive.  The same is true for an invitation to attend a public reception of five hundred people. Some respond with an attitude of, “How wonderful! I will meet so many new people.” Others respond with, “How horrible! There is no way I’m going to get lost in such a crowd.” One person is excited while the other is stressed or anxious to the point of sweating just thinking about the event.  Both responses are reactions to a mental story, not the event. 

We often respond to events by generating anxiety. Unhelpful responses to stress take many forms. We may use intellectual analysis to dream up “what-if” situations. Projecting our fears based on what someone said is another typical response. Or, we may paint a story onto some common condition in our lives. Then we dwell in the emotions and anxiety about responding or dealing with the story we generated. 

Anxiety can be so disturbing it will disrupt daily routines and work habits. When stress is intense, methods that work best are often those not dependent upon more mental assessment or analysis. Dr. Pat Ogden developed such methods by combining somatic therapy techniques with attachment theory and cognitive applications. She founded the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute in 1981 to teach sensorimotor therapy. Adapted from Dr. Ogden’s principles of walking meditation, I share with my clients walking mindfully. 

When stress boils over into anxiety, it is possible to walk away.  Even in an intense work setting, a short walk done mindfully can provide a bit of relief. 

Mindful walking requires the mind to focus on all that is happening while walking. It demands walking with the body instead of all the blah, blah, blah. Although all the anxiety may not disappear, the intensity of it will lessen by forcing the thought processes to drop down into the body.  Sense everything around you, a foot touching the ground, a leg swinging out, hearing the sound of a door closing, a car horn. By placing attention on the sensation, one cannot stay fixated on feelings of anxiety nor past events that cause stress.

When anxiety starts the foot pumping or fingers tapping on the table, it is time to get up and use the simple instructions below. If at work it might be a walk to the water cooler or a break room.  If at home, it might be a walk around the block. If waiting for an appointment, it can be a short walk down and back in the hallway. Use the instructions below to take a mini-vacation from stress and anxiety.  

MINDFUL WALKING TIPS

Prepare to walk: 

  • Stand with shoulders back and head up. 
  • Look outward and lower the gaze. 
  • Breathe in and out, SLOWLY.
  • Align with gravity.
  • Distribute weight over both feet and relax. 
  • Bend knees slightly.

Walk at your own pace mindfully: 

  • Pick up one foot and stretch out the leg in front slightly. 
  • Place heel down and feel the heel touch the ground.
  • Continue shifting weight onto the foot by putting toes on the ground. 
  • Stand fully on the one foot, letting back heel start to rise.
  • Bring back leg forward and place heel down on the ground.
  • Continue walking with a relaxed gaze.
  • As thoughts arise, return focus to walking.

As you walk, notice sensations in the body. Notice where you are placing your weight? What do you feel when you walk? (internally and externally) What do you see, smell, or hear? Do you feel air moving on your skin from a fan or the wind?  Is there warmth on your face? As thoughts or emotions arise, notice the idea or feeling and then think, “I am walking.” Breathe in, breathe out. Focus on the movement and sensations of your body. And, if a sensation is pleasing, remember to smile. The sun won’t mind.

  • By Carol O’Dowd, MPA, M.Div., MI, RP 

How often do we find ourselves dwelling on past events or mistakes we’ve made? The use of the term dwelling indicates that this is where we reside. When reflections become ruminations that carry us out of the room, it feels like that is where we are living. We get so caught up in our thoughts we start contemplating how others label us. Why? Well, we know so well how we judge ourselves, we pretend we know what others are thinking. We get so caught up in our own thoughts and assessments and what-if scenarios, we forget where we are. Sometimes we are so caught up in thinking we don’t see the room or landscape in which we are sitting.

So how do we wake up to where we are when residing in a dwelling that keeps us behind a closed door? The simple answer is to start doing. Do anything that engages the body. Ideally, if you can run, attend an aerobics class or go outside for a walk, you will quickly leave the dwelling of sadness, anxiety or doom for sunshine. However, any activity that transfers the mental treadmill of “woulda-coulda-shoulda” will work. It can be something as simple as cleaning or working on a puzzle. Any activity where you use your hands and can notice different sensations will give you a break from your dwelling. After feeling and seeing that the dust cloth is full of dirt, take it outside and shake it. Notice the dust flying in the air and the new feel of the cloth after it is shaken out. Another option is washing dishes or clothes. Notice the feel, the smells of soaps as well as the odors from clothes or leftovers. Listen to the sounds created while cleaning. Get into your activity by noticing how your body is engaged in the tasks.

Having taught mindfulness and reflections practices for more than 15 years, I have coached many on how to leave the dwellings of obsession, anxiety, sorrow, and perfectionism. If you want to learn more about doing and engaging fully with life, give me a call.

  –  Carol