Compassion and empathy

Riding up in the elevator to the office this morning, a group of people are exchanging pleasantries and one woman is talking about looking at the bright side of things. She says “Did you hear about Mr…. He works upstairs. His daughter killed herself last week and he found her. If you think your life is bad.. ” and walks out of the elevator. I’m stunned, imagining the tragedy that has befallen this man but I see several other people in the elevator shaking their heads, evaluating their misfortunes and feeling relieved that theirs are not as bad, it appears…

I was really struck by this experience and it made me think about compassion and empathy and the role these play in our everyday lives and the human experience as a whole. We talk about these qualities being essential for one to be a good person, read about them in all the religious texts of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc but if we get down to it, how often do we really practice what we preach, or what is preached to us? When we hear about the misfortune of another, how often do we really feel true compassion toward that person and how often, like the woman in the elevator, do we think, “thankfully it’s not me” and go on with our day. And does compassion stop at hearing a story that evokes a feeling of “oh no! poor thing!” or do we need to go further and take action?

Considering this brings me to the topic of the recent Syrian refugee crisis. And I don’t want to pontificate on the rights and wrongs of who should be allowed into our country and the vetting process. That is a discussion for another time. I want to simply focus on the human aspect, the human experience of what a person might be going through when they lose everything they have and are forced out of the only place they know and are forced to make a new life else where and what that’s like and how other humans can either facilitate this process and make it less difficult or more traumatic. Think about that for a minute… Our actions, our every day simple interactions with another human being can either make their life less difficult, or more traumatic… We can smile at someone, say a kind word and brighten their day, or take out our own frustration on them because they got in our way in traffic and make their experience that much more frustrating. And we can argue that our lives are difficult too, that we are frustrated by the same traffic jam or morning rush but to return to the point of the woman in the elevator, remember that your life isn’t so bad. Just be thankful instead of comparing your misfortunes to those of others and find the compassion in your heart to reach out and maybe help..

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Self-love and caring for your body

Self-love is a topic we hear a lot about lately. Everyone (especially on social media) is talking about the importance of being healthy and what that means and for most this advice includes good nutrition and exercise. And it’s great advice. I don’t know anyone who can’t benefit from good nutrition and moving their body. However, I also believe self-love and caring for your body goes much deeper than this.

I believe myself to be a relatively healthy person. I eat well, relatively. I exercise regularly. But do I always take care of myself well? Not at all. I have a pretty regular yoga practice, both at home and in the studio. This morning, getting out of bed, after not nearly enough sleep, I felt the pain and fatigue impacting my body after several weeks of daily practice. Is daily yoga practice healthy? Absolutely! Am I going to adjust my practice today to take care of what I was feeling this morning? 100%!

The first step of caring for your body is listening to it and heeding the messages it gives you. I am a bit of a perfectionist and like to push myself in my practice so when I feel aches and pains after an intense regular practice, as much as I would like to keep pushing through it, I need to stop and listen to what my body is telling me. And what it’s telling me is that it needs rest. Not necessarily to stop practicing, but maybe a day or two of restorative asana to allow me to just be present with my body let it reap the benefits. The other important thing my body was telling me is that it needs sleep. When you feel like you are in superhero mode, feeling like you can push through on three hours of sleep because you are getting things accomplished, it’s going to catch up to you and your body will be the first to inform you of if. The feeling of fatigue, sluggishness, the feeling that you cannot make it through the day is easily addressed by getting a full eight hours. Now this is easier said than done for many, especially with young children, but if you are able to make yourself a priority it’s important to do so. I know from personal experience the struggle that mothers face between taking care of yourself and taking care of your family but what I’ve learned is, if you are happy, your family will be happier and if I don’t sleep, I’m sure not happy.

This seems pretty straight forward – listening to your body, but sometimes it’s pretty difficult to do. We are so busy with demands of work, family, the stresses of our daily lives that we feel disconnected from our bodies and forget to listen to them, forget to ask them what they need. So what’s the solution? Take some time to become reacquainted with your body. You can do this through yoga, meditation, pranayama, just sitting still for a few minutes and tuning in. Just taking a few minutes to really feel where you have tension and think about what may be causing it. And then consider what you can do for yourself as self-care is paramount for a positive, happy you.

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I choose simple

We have all seen those Facebook memes and articles that remind us of a simpler time, a time when we were children perhaps, and played in the dirt, without cell phones, rode our bikes without bike helmets, and generally lived an enchanted life. And then we grew up and the world became complicated, life became complicated and now we resort to wishing the simpler times back and perhaps complaining about how intricate our existence has become.

So why are we doing this to ourselves? Doing it to ourselves, you may ask. But isn’t it part of life, part of growing up and joining the modern world with it’s technology and the complexities of adulthood coupled with all the advances of science and all that modern life has to offer. But I will argue that this doesn’t have to be so. I will argue that in fact we are doing this to ourselves. As children, in our mad rush to grow up, we seek to be sophisticated and already begin to make our lives complex. And as adults we unnecessarily complicate our lives constantly thinking it will bring us closer to happiness and instead, it brings us constant anxiety.

I was reading something at work today. It was an assessment about the progress of an individual and as I read a paragraph, I noticed two things. First, the paragraph was comprised of very complicated, scholarly words. And second, this collection of scholarly words did a wonderfully empty dance around the subject it was attempting to discuss and said absolutely nothing. I wondered how long it took the individual that wrote this assessment to put it together, how much work he had put it into it. But in all reality it could have been written in ten minutes as all it really said was that the person was not really ready to make progress yet and needed more time. And we do this to ourselves all the time. We make mountains out of mole hills in so many situations throughout our day. We say “I wish life was simple” instead of making it simple.

So how can we do this? What can we do to simplify things for ourselves? The simplest answer is not dwelling on the past and not worrying about the future. When you were a kid and played in the dirt, without your cell phone, you were not thinking about what your mom would say about your dirty clothes, or whether the stains will come out, or whether anyone will be able to reach your if you left your cell phone in the house. All your were thinking about is that you were having a good time. And life was simple.

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Anger and giving permission to experience

Now I’m not talking about rage here. The kind of anger that you feel when you hear about a loved one being hurt, or even the nasty neighbor across the street who let his dog poop in your yard, again. I’m talking about the garden variety anger, the kind we feel when the person in front of us takes too long to order their coffee, or the waitress doesn’t get our order right. Could those things be a big deal? Well… yes, but should they be? Let see..

Recently I was out at dinner, at a sports bar no less. I was expecting a nice quiet meal. There was a table of women all the way across the bar and they were having a great time. A very loud great time. My entire time during my dinner I was invited to participate in their conversation all the way across the bar because their conversation was so insanely loud. Did they ruin my dinner? Yes. Was I angry? Oh, yes! But why? The only reason I did not enjoy my dinner that night was because I ruined it for myself. But that doesn’t make sense, you might think. Well, lets think about this. I was out, in good company, and the only thing I spent the night focusing on was how angry I was at the loud women, aaaaaall the way over there… They did not set out to ruin my night. In fact, they had no idea I was there at all and THEY were having an awesome time! So I created a negative experience for myself, based on anger, instead of creating a positive experience. And we all do it all the time.

We are the narrators of our experience. Although we are not consciously aware of it, we process and interpret tons of information and create our experiences constantly. If you are finding yourself angry about small things, critical, irritated about this or that, chances are that your inner voice, the narrator of your life is not creating a very happy story. Ask yourself what is the reason for that. And do you want to live the story that you are writing? If the answer is “no”, what kind of story would you prefer to write instead..

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Acceptance and the search for one’s personal truth

We all have plans for our lives. They start to form as dreams when we are very young. We dream of what we are going to be when we grow up. We imagine our jobs, our husbands or wives, what we will look like, where we will live, what we will wear. It’s all in Technicolor, like a fairy tail, beautiful and magical. Perfect.

Then we grow up.  And for most of us our lives don’t quite turn out as we have imagined. Or if we do follow the plans we laid as children, or teenagers, or young adults to go to college, get married, have the perfect children, the perfect job, we might not be feeling as perfectly happy and fulfilled as we imagined we would feel. So what is missing?

First let me say to those of you who have fulfilled those childhood dreams and feel perfectly fulfilled and happy – congratulations! It’s certainly not impossible and it’s wonderful that you have gotten to this point in your life and are enjoying what you have worked hard to achieve! Now for those that aren’t there and those that don’t want to be. What’s the reason you haven’t quite gotten there and why not?

I believe as we mature our perceptions of what will make us happy will change, continuously. Day to day, moment to moment perhaps. Each of us will discover our personal truth as we travel the path of our life’s journey, the truth about what we want in life and what will be the key to our personal happiness and fulfillment. For some it’s going to be simple – the house, white picket fence, dog, kids. For others, far-away places and never staying anywhere enough to call anything your own, anything in between.. So how do we discover that truth? Of course it’s not a simple answer. There’s no prescription, no simple plan for it. Just do this, like that, every day, and you are there! It’s a personal journey for each of us. Sometimes it’s the simplest thing that can put us on the path, show us the way to our personal truth. Waking up in the morning and seeing the sun shining into the window just so can give you an understanding of the world, or your needs and desires, what you are looking for.

I think in the human quest for happiness we miss it sometimes. I think the problem is that our society teaches us that everything in our lives has to be just right, just so, and once we set it up that way, then we will be happy. So we work towards it, go to school, look for the “perfect” mate, have the “perfect” children. And think that once all the pieces of the puzzle just fall into place, then we will feel that magical, elusive happiness. But that’s too shaky of an ideal. Once there are too many pieces to the puzzle, it’s too easy for one of them to get lost and then things to fall apart. But because we were told that the whole picture will make us happy, we don’t know how to see the parts for what they are and then there is no happiness any longer.

Then there’s mindfulness. Looking at every moment with new eyes. Seeing what is beautiful and wonderful and lovely and amazing right now. And now. That cloud. The tree. The moment you share with your friend today. And your child. Amazing. There is happiness in each of these moments and accepting that you might not have build a white picket fence like you dreamed of as a kid but that’s ok. And you aren’t making six figures like you planned in college. Can you change it right at this moment? Probably not. But did you have moments today that you enjoyed? Most likely. Did they bring you happiness? Absolutely. And are you closer to your personal truth having accepted you are who you are and willing to look are your life moment by moment through a positive lens? Yes…



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Anxious parenting

I am a worrier, by nurture. I grew up in a world where danger lurked around every corner, I was told. Even though most times these dangers never materialized, I was always on the lookout, always expecting the worst. Parents often engage in a debate about how much reality children should be exposed to. Do you tell your kids the truth when the family dog passes away, or does the dog suddenly go to live on a farm in the countryside? Do we explain what goes on when they catch a glimpse of the news and ask questions? Some parents prefer to have their children live in a world of fairy tales for as long as possible to keep them “safe” from the harsh realities of the world but is this really the best way? (Never mind that the wolf actually swallows Little Red Ridding Hood’s grandmother alive and has his stomach cut open to free her in a rather graphic twist of events, or that Sleeping Beatify lies helpless for a hundred years until her prince penetrates the pesky overgrowth with his large sword and saves her with a kiss.. A bit disturbing all of it…)

Children who grow up without learning what the world is really like, grow up into pretty anxious adults usually. Without realistic expectations of what is out there, the world seems a pretty scary place, especially when your adults either paint only a rosy picture or present it as a place replete with danger. Sure, there are “bad” people and things out there, but this is why children need to be educated about what to expect, not shielded from it. A child’s perspective is dichotomous – they see things as “good” and “bad”, “safe” or “dangerous” but few things in real life are really that clear-cut.  If an adult doesn’t allow, doesn’t guide  other perspectives to develop, a child will grow into adulthood with this dichotomous, limited worldview. Such a perspective doesn’t take one very far. In this worldview we like good and fear bad and since at least half of what we understand is bad, there is lots to fear.

I watched Star Wars the other day, for the first time ever. In my mind it’s a children’s movie, with the cheesy adventures and unfathomable, soap-opery plot twits. And my mind reverted to that childish “good vs. evil” way of seeing the world that was unfolding in the film, as well as the characters. The ones that were “bad” or mean to that main characters, immediately became unlikable. But the fact is, we all have emotion attached to these archetypes to some degree and the more we can get away from that way of thinking by understanding the complexities and intricacies of what’s out there, the more we all benefit as a species. And the earlier we start teaching this to our children, the better.

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Mindfulness seems to be the new “in” word as new age becomes mainstream. We hear it all the time as people talk about the importance of living in the moment. But what is it and why do we want it? What are we being mindful of?

A few years ago I remember a conversation I had with a friend about the difference between men and women. The big debate was about who is better at multitasking. She was claiming that women were better at it, of course and I, a staunch feminist, thought about how true this is, because aren’t women, through necessity (because men are slackers and we have to pick up the slack) are better at everything? So I thought about when and why I multitask. And I’m great at it. I can do five things at a time, seven if need be. In the morning I run around throwing breakfast at my son as I apply make up, do my hair, grab clothes out of the closet, fry up my own eggs, feed the dog… I get it all done. But how does it make me feel? It makes me feel insane! Like I want to jump out of my skin because all I am thinking about as I engage in this mad dash is “will I have time to..?, what else?, am I forgetting something?”. And as I have spent an hour in the morning accomplishing a million things I have come out of it feeling absolutely stressed and not have enjoyed a moment of it.

Ten years ago, I lost one of the most important people in my life, my grandmother. She did not pass unexpectedly but this did not make it any easier to grief her death. I tried to pretend normal as much as possible, to go about my business. One day, I was driving to work. My commute was about 35 minutes. I remember getting in my car by the house. Then I remember driving my car, about five minutes away from the office. The thirty minute drive in between doesn’t exist in my memory, as if my brain, not being able to deal with all the emotions, the grief, just shut down and woke back up thirty minutes later. Looking back I believe this was perhaps necessary for me to get through that day, to get through what I was feeling at the time. It was a protective mechanism the brain employs when it’s overwhelmed. So what do all these things have to do with mindfulness?

First, multi-tasking.. We are busy. We have busy lives, full of chores, responsibilities.. Everything has to get done, done on time, right now, because if it doesn’t then.. Then what? What happens if we don’t do the million things we consider necessary every single day and drive ourselves insane over? When I do a million things in the hour before work in the morning, I’m stressed all day. When I take the time to do three, mindfully, slowly, paying attention to all the details, getting to enjoy what I’m doing, I leave the house feeling serene and set the tone for the day ahead. I can make breakfast for myself and my son and sit down to eat it together and if I don’t get to start the dishwasher, no catastrophe will occur, but I will enjoy the time eating quietly with him, even if it’s only a couple of minutes.  Doing tasks mindfully, ie. taking the time to really engage the activity, allows us to be fully present in the present moment and engage in the experience. And being able to do this increases the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction we are able to get out of engaging in any activity, even if it’s frying eggs or combing our hair in the morning.

Now for the stress response. This is when something is too difficult to deal with and our brain “checks out”. Mindfulness is even more important here. Why you might ask? Of course the brain “checking out” is a protective mechanism, to some degree. It’s a signal that what ever it is that we are having difficulty with is a problem, but it’s also a signal that it’s something that needs to be addressed.  Because checking out for a thirty minute drive is probably a pretty bad idea. Being able to be mindful of these difficult, stressful situations and feelings is probably a lot harder for most people than just slowing down and a lot of the time you aren’t able to resolve it on your own and may need to talk to someone about it (a therapist perhaps). But recognizing that there’s an issue, being mindful of it is probably the most important thing in being able to resolve it. So mindfulness is important on many different levels and while you figure out how this can apply to your life, remember the old adage about stopping to smell the roses.

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Defining yourself and happiness

This post might be a bit off topic. The mission of this blog overall is supposed to be to address mental health and mainstream and alternative treatment approaches. But for women reading this, what affects mental health more than how we feel about our selves? Let’s look at this for a moment. How do we feel about ourselves? What are we talking about? Are we talking about the mental or physical aspects? I think this is a bit of a gender-biased question. When we ask men how they feel about themselves, they are more likely to think about their personalities, their character qualities and the attributes their colleagues would value most. But what would women say? Women would likely judge themselves based on their physical characteristics because after all that is how the world judges us most harshly.

From the time girls are very young, we are taught to think about what other people will think of us. “Mind your manners!” “If you wear that, what would people think!” Historically the family has wanted their girls to appear modest, proper, marriage material. Then there’s society. Pop culture is replete with the image of the bad girl. One in skimpy outfits, dancing on the tables, going wild if you will. But you don’t bring girls like that home to meet your mother. These are women men saw their wild oats with and then settle down with the good girls (although no one is judging them). Then there’s the good old body image issue. The nearly impossible standard that women have to live up to of perfection, the good old Barbie doll handed to little girls at birth practically, along with it’s live counterparts, the pop culture idols  we watch on TV that spring back into those perfect size negative zero outfits five minutes after popping out babies. So after being handed all this information, what’s a girl to do?

We start by figuring out who we are under all this baggage… I’m still digging out. And again, the mind-body connection is crucial because as a woman it’s imperative to love your body and the first step to that is accepting it, despite all the messages we get that it’s not good enough, and learning to believe when we are told that it’s perfect just the way it is.  Because that’s part of the problem. When someone tells us that we are beautiful, perfect the way we are, we don’t believe it, we point out instead how flawed and imperfect we are. We take the opportunity to love ourselves and share this with another person and turn it into another bitchfest about how horrible we look and only we lost another five pounds and this little pouch right here was gone then all will be right with the world.. But would it really, or would we just find something else to bitch about because until we learn to accept and love ourselves, we will not be happy, not truly, fully, freely happy.

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Motivation and lasting change

I am a relatively healthy person. I try to exercise regularly, eat relatively healthy. I look at the world with the eyes of an able bodied individual and the problems that I face on a daily basis and negotiated from this perspective. My son is relatively healthy child, except for a three months stretch this past summer when he was very, very sick. My son, this past summer, went from being a regular, healthy, rambunctious 8 year old, to a very sick, disabled child. And both our world and perspective on life changed.

This summer, on June 11th, my son, very suddenly and unexpectedly became practically paralyzed. Out of nowhere. Healthy on June 10th. Nothing wrong. Skateboarding and playing ball outside. Cannot walk on June 11th. We rushed to the ER at the advice of our pediatrician and spend an agonizing 24 hours in the hospital before doctors were able to begin formulating a diagnosis. Guillain Barre Syndrome. They performed dangerous tests to confirm this – spinal tap, MRI of the brain and spine. All while I and my child contemplated what it means that he is suddenly not able, to walk or move his arms. After 7 long days in the hospital and doctors recommending long terms rehab to help with recovery that was likely but not guaranteed, we brought my son home to face the reality of being a disabled person in a world designed for the able bodied.

And the real challenges began. Now an 8 year old had to do physical therapy to get his muscles to move again, reteach himself to walk and move like he used to. Except he was so traumatized by the experience that he reverted to infancy. Helplessness. The only thing he wanted was be taken care of and have everything done for him. The mind really plays trick on us in these situations. So how does the mind overcome, how do we start to gain control over the body?

It took a lot of motivation, convincing if you will, to get my son to a point where he was ready to get better. And he did not start to improve until he was at that point, he did not start to get better until he was ready. Then he gave up the neediness, acknowledged that he was ready to stand on his own, both literally and figuratively. And it was a process. No matter how much pushing I might’ve done, until he got to a point of feeling ready to stand on his own (figuratively in this case), he wasn’t going to do it. But once he felt strong enough emotionally, his body was ready to stand with him and he got better, fast. To see him now, he is a normal, regular, rambunctious child again.

When you try to make any changes in life, in general, especially changes to your body, your health, emotional readiness and full commitment is absolutely necessary and changes will be impossible without that. Have you ever tried to start an exercise regiment, for example, without a full commitment? It’s a good thing, you think, but I don’t really feel like doing it today… But when you know that in order to have the life you want, you want to make certain changes in your life, then nothing is going to stop you.


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The breath

So now that we have laid some groundwork in describing some of the conditions that commonly require treatment, I would like to begin talking about how to address these conditions. The traditional approaches in treating mental health issues have been either talk therapy alone, or in conjunction with medication. While this is effective to some degree and with some people, I am going to postulate that there is a better way.

Let’s start with the simplest, and possibly the most effective way to treat stress and anxiety – the breath. The breath, you might ask… Let’s explore what the breath does for our bodies and our minds. Life begins with the breath – when an infant takes their first inhalation with their first cry, and end with the breath – when the last breath leaves our bodies our organs begin to shut down and even though the heart may still be beating, you know that the blood circulating through the body has no chance to nourish and sustain it without oxygen. The yogic philosophy talks about prana, or life force, that circulates through the body with every inhale. The universal principle of energy or force, responsible for the body’s life, heat and maintenance, prana is the sum total of all energy that is manifest in the universe. “This life energy, prana (प्राण), has been vividly invoked and described in Vedas. In Ayurveda, tantra and Tibetan medicine “praṇā vāyu” is the basic vāyu (wind, air) from which all the other vāyus arise.” (Wikipedia on Prana). This is similar to the concept of Qi in Chinese philosophy. So what does this all mean?

If we are under stress (whether physical or emotional) the body responds by going into stress mode – the fight or flight response if you will. The heart rate increases, blood rushes to the major organs and away from the extremities, muscles tense up. If someone is in this state for most of their day, that’s a lot of stress on the body and it takes a toll. But what happens if we take a deep, slow breath? Not only does the flow of oxygen through the body decrease the heart rate, we can actually decrease muscle tension with deep slow, breathing, as well as warm up the extremities by telling the body that it’s ok to relax and allowing an increase in the blood flow to the hands and feet.

So how do we breathe? Silly question you might think but many people do not breathe correctly as the instinct is to pull the stomach in on an inhalation. In fact, one should expand the lungs and stomach to allow maximum space for the air to enter. The easiest way to do this if you are a breathing beginner as it were, is to lie down on your back on a hard surface (floor is best) and feel your kidneys pressing into the floor as your lungs and belly expand outward when you inhale. Then feel your lower belly meet your lower back as you exhale, with the breath coming up from your belly through the lungs, and our your nose. Your goal is to make the breaths as slow and even and comfortably possible, making sure that you are not holding the breath in, allowing it to flow in an out in even, rolling waves. The wonderful benefit of this for the mind is if something was on your mind when you started, the focus on the breathing will calm your mind at the same time as your are bringing your body back into balance.


Simply put, the body, without the breath, is just another inanimate object and it is the breath that brings it life, energy, and vitality. So from this we can surmise that if the flow of energy, or breath, through the body is impeded, then we are not going to be feeling very well. Imagine when you have a cold and can’t get a deep, full breath through your nose. What does that feel like? Your head hurts, you feel tired, listless, you aren’t motivated to do anything or be around anyone, it’s difficult to focus on anything but getting a good, deep breath. Wow, we are getting dangerously close to meditation here, but more on that later.. Thank you for reading!

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