How to face our fears--and find they're not so scary after all

Fear. So chaotic, and so much a part of life--at times. Fear causes a state of inner chaos, part of the lower "ego" self and its wandering, racing, jumpy thoughts. We let those thoughts take us for a wild ride, going down rabbit holes, through wormholes, into black holes. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t helpful.

When we are pushed and pulled by untamed thinking, it’s as if we are letting the car drive the person. But there is hope! We can take the wheel and get back into the driver’s seat by taking hold of our thoughts.

One strategy to do this is to be still with those thoughts. Follow the scary ones down to their logical conclusions, and keep asking “and then what”? The answers are not as horrible as they seem to be when we are running away from them, or letting them run away with us.

We lean into the thoughts, facing them bravely. We shine the light of clear reason on them, and find there is really no monster under the bed after all. We move into those thoughts, and nurture them, and love them, and laugh with them.

And we heal ourselves.


What could be happier than this beautiful azalea?

The physiology of the brain

Meditation has many benefits, and the practice actually changes our physiology. Researchers have conducted studies to find the chemical changes that occur inside our brains when we meditate. Here is what they’ve found:

Meditation reduces cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline is the “fight-or-flight” hormone which increases heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone which increases blood sugar, suppresses immune function and digestion, and acts on brain regions connected with mood, fear, and motivation. Chronic stress has been linked to depression, anxiety, heart disease, weight gain, digestive problems, insomnia, and problems with learning, concentration, and memory.

Meditation increases DHEA. This chemical is known as the “anti-aging” hormone; its levels begin to drop at about age 30, and this decline is related to a host of conditions including weight gain, cancer, and heart disease. Because of its link to ageing, people are experimenting with DHEA supplementation. But meditation alone boosts DHEA levels. Feeling younger already?

Meditation releases dopamine: Dopamine is linked to our ability to focus and acts on the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Because of its involvement in pleasure and reward, dopamine is implicated in addiction. ADHD is believed to involve decreased dopamine levels. Healthy dopamine levels seem to help us feel rewarded, experience pleasure, and to focus.

Meditation boosts serotonin: Serotonin helps us feel calm and happy. Serotonin deficits are linked to depression, anxiety and insomnia; in fact, the SSRI antidepressant drugs such as Prozac are designed to boost serotonin levels. Serotonin is such a big part of good moods that it is sometimes called the “happiness hormone”.

Meditation boosts oxytocin: Known as the “love hormone” or the “monogamy hormone”, oxytocin makes us feel calm when we are with loved ones, especially when hugging or cuddling. It is released by mothers during childbirth and causes the production of milk in mammals. It is also released during orgasm and is thought to explain why we tend to feel close to partners after we have had sex. It has an inverse relationship to stress and stress hormones. And the more oxytocin we have, the more we are likely to trust others.

And the good news is that you don’t have to be a Zen master to receive these benefits. If you are interested in beginning a meditation practice, the most important thing to remember is probably that it is a practice. Be patient with yourself as you begin to try a new skill and remember all the benefits your brain will receive!


Goldilocks and the spiritual path

“I see the way which leads between the two great lines of force.” This is the spiritual keynote for the sign of Libra. It serves as a reminder that we are called on to walk the “middle way”: Not too much effort, but not too little. Not too much attachment to the physical plane, but not absorption in the mystical. We find the balance point between happy and unhappy; excited and bored; hard work and inertia.

As I took this up in my meditation this morning I was struck by the idea that this is kind of a “Goldilocks principle”: not too hard, not too soft; not too hot, not too cold. When we apply this sane balance to our lives, we are applying right effort. As our emotional resistance subsides, our path becomes in some ways easier. The pendulum stops swinging and we find the still point of balance where spirit unfolds.

But then because we are human something happens to take us out of our center. We have to keep learning our lessons till they are fully learned. And that’s OK! As Ronny Camareri in Moonstruck said, “We aren’t here to be perfect; the stars are perfect….” When we attain that state of “perfection”, we won’t need to be living in a body, that’s for sure. Until then, the Goldilocks principle applies.

And, hey—if I were going to be eaten by a trio of anthropomorphized bears, I’d rather it be in a comfortable bed after a satisfying meal.


A bad case of the common “Shoulds”

Last week I had a client who had a bad case of “the shoulds.” She was stuck in a counterproductive mindset, feeling like “I should do this” and “I should be that”. There are so many things that she was telling herself she “should” be and do that she couldn't appreciate where she actually was in her life, let alone have clarity about the direction she was going. And she certainly couldn’t have any fun with it.

This is so common. When I look back on my own life I realize that there were many times when I had a bad case of the “shoulds” myself. When we get stuck thinking about what we should be doing and how things should be going and what kind of person we should be, instead of being present with what is, we are disconnected from our authentic self.  We are stuck in our ego-level of consciousness. This drains us, clouds our perceptions, and makes it nearly impossible to build an effective and happy life.

Sometimes I think that if I could share only one thing with my clients, it would be to let go of the “shoulds” and get on with the business of life unfolding. Forget about what others expect. Forget other people’s agendas, and even your own perceived agenda, with all of the tension and disconnect that brings. Get out of your ego and into your heart. When we raise our consciousness up into our heart center, we feel at peace and connected with all; we are able to trust in the order of things and trust ourselves.

If you are suffering from the “shoulds”, stop! Right now, take a few deep breaths and soften into your heart center. As you begin to connect to your heart, ask your Higher Self to release you from the expectations you place on yourself and the expectations others place on you. With intention, with practice, you will be able to start living an authentic and joy-filled life of purpose—present, confident, and graceful with what IS. Such a better place to be from which to weave a life.


The power of the face

Your face reflects the emotions you feel. This is obvious: When we are sad we frown. When we are angry our eyes get smaller and everything on our faces becomes more horizontal and set. When we are happy our eyes light up and we smile. And we can instantly tell the difference between a real smile and a fake one. Did you ever wonder, or notice, what the difference actually is? In a real smile, the tiny muscles of the bottom eyelid move upward in a crescent. Before I learned this a few years ago, I couldn’t have told you what the difference was—I just knew it when I saw it. Our intuitive understanding of facial expressions is part of our empathy and ability to connect to others. Facial expression is a huge part of nonverbal communication.

So we know that our faces convey how we feel. But did you know that faces can determine how we feel? Or to be more precise, changing the expression on our faces can change the emotions we experience. Since the 1980’s, researchers have found the putting a smile on makes us happier. Sales trainers have been recommending for decades that we put a smile on our faces before picking up the phone, because it will make us sound happier and more likeable.

More recently, researchers have found that the smile doesn’t even have to be genuine. We can “fake it till we make it”. Mori and Mori of the University of Tokyo conducted a study, published in 2009, using rubber bands and latex bandages to force participants’ cheeks upward in a smile position, or downward in a frown. In the smile position the participants felt happier, and in the frown position they felt sad. A follow up study published in 2013 found that the smilers had a better opinion of others when they were smiling. Wow. We can plaster on a fake smile and not only feel happier, we’ll like people more.

And then there is the work of Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and researcher who investigates body language and facial expression. She presented one of the most popular TED talks ever; you can see it here. In her talk, Cuddy explains how our posture and facial expression affect our mood. She shares lots of tips on how we can use our bodies to feel more powerful and happy. One of her suggestions is to put a pencil in our mouth to force our cheeks back into a smile position in order to feel happier.

I used to love sharing this with my students when I taught at the local community college. I would sometimes ask them to put their pencils or pens between their teeth to see if they started feeling happier. Usually they wound up laughing, probably because we all looked a little ridiculous. I have also used this knowledge to my own advantage many times. When I start to feel unhappy, I try to remember to plaster a smile on my face. Soon enough, I’m back to feeling peaceful and happy.

If you decide to test this out for yourself, I’d love to hear how it goes—leave a comment below!


Top five go-to ways to stay peaceful and happy

“Be happy. It feels better!”

This has to be my absolute favorite quote from the Dalai Lama. It certainly is so true—of course it feels better to be happy! But is it really that simple? If we are not committed to happiness, it can be fleeting and difficult to find. And even when we are making happiness a priority (which it really ought to be for a number of reasons), sometimes things go wrong and we get derailed. What’s a happiness-seeker to do?

  1. Detach, detach, detach. It can be so much easier said than done, right? But we know that taking the long view is a key to maintaining inner peace. Our pain comes not from the event but our resistance to it. As my dad said to me a few years ago when I was upset, “these things have a way of working themselves out.” How often do we look back and, as the Garth Brooks song goes, “thank God for unanswered prayers?” We have all let go of important—really, really important—things. And as time goes by, we realize life moves on and we can indeed still be happy. When life gets you down, remember this.
  2. Put a smile on. Even a fake one. Seriously. A researcher in Japan did a study in which he put people’s faces into a smile or a frown using rubber bands and plastic bandages. Sure enough, the “smilers” became happier and the frowners got unhappier. Smile on!
  3. Regular exercise has been shown to boost not just our metabolism and strength, but our moods as well. Find a type of exercise you like and commit to it. Find a buddy to work out with, sign up for an exercise or yoga class, or set yourself an alarm to hit the pavement or the clothes rack –umm, treadmill. Just do it!
  4. Be friendly. Social engagement boosts happiness and is a great anti-depressant. We humans are communal creatures and do better in society yet modern culture often separates us from our pack. Get out there and mingle.
  5. You’ve heard it here before. Meditation boosts happiness and a whole host of physiological markers of happiness. Disconnecting from our busy thoughts and emotions and returning to our center, which is a wellspring of peace and happiness, takes practice. In fact, it is a practice. We need to be patient with ourselves and get to work with that practice.

These are my top five go-to ways to stay more peaceful and happy. I should point out, of course, that happiness doesn’t come from pleasure-seeking; it comes from things like authenticity, productivity, and service. When our work and relationships are satisfying and affirming, and our spiritual life is rich, happiness unfolds in wonderful ways.

What are your favorite ways to stay happy? I’d love to hear from you!

 


A Tale of Two Clients: The one at the beginning of the session, and the one at the end

I love my job. When Paula (not her real name) came in to the office today, she seemed a little agitated. As she brought me up to speed on what had happened since our last visit, she told the story of overwhelm: too much to do, not enough time to get it all done. She said she felt literally and figuratively out of balance and that was only part of the problem. She began to cry as she said that she was tired of living with fear. It was clear that she needed healing.

I love using guided meditation with clients. We are able to make a lot of progress in a little bit of time. Today, I guided Paula into a meditative state which set the stage for her conscious connection with her Higher Self. We cleared her mental, emotional and physical bodies. Then, one by one, we dissolved blocks: trauma, fear, sadness, and vulnerability melted away.

When my clients are meditating with me, I can feel their energy move and often see color changes in the energy around their bodies. Love that. I would never have believed this was possible if it hadn’t happened—but it happens. Today, as these blocks were being released, I could feel the energy spinning in a slightly dizzying way. I could also actually see Paula’s energy getting lighter and brighter as we went along.

After our big clearing exercise, we connected Paula to her inner yin and yang qualities, or inner male and female selves (we all have both). This is one of the things I love best to do with my clients, because it is so helpful. Today, as soon as we connected to Paula’s male self, I felt an incredible heat as the energy flowed. Her male self wanted more organization; her female self wanted more self-care and meditation. She made adjustments and agreements, and visualized herself getting these things in place.

I love seeing my clients getting happier. By the end of our session Paula’s entire demeanor had changed. Her color was brighter, she was more calm and relaxed, and she had a plan. As we reflected on the work, Paula told me that she also had felt heaviness being cleared away, and made a motion of her hands pushing out from her heart. She had come in to the office stressed, tired, and “crooked” inside. She walked out empowered, relaxed and energized, and in alignment.

I love my job.


The signs are there, but are you looking?

gorgeous sky

I had been thinking of going to graduate school but I was afraid. It would cost money and time that I was not sure I had to invest. It seemed like I already had a lot on my plate as a single mom of three young kids. And it had been a while since I’d done the school thing. I graduated from college thirteen years earlier, and had taken some more undergraduate classes since then, but it had been years since I was in a classroom. Formal graduate education was daunting.

However, I didn’t have another plan. I was teaching yoga and had been studying Reiki. I had considered learning massage and trying to earn a living as a massage therapist/Reiki practitioner/yoga teacher. But I had another thought—that maybe I should get a master’s degree in counseling and become a therapist.

I was on the mailing list of Immaculata University, which is a beautiful school close to where I live. Earlier in the summer I had attended a yoga teacher training, and one afternoon I decided to dedicate my practice to getting clarity on the grad-school issue. At the end of class, I had my answer: go to grad school. I stood in front of dozens of my fellow students and shared what I had received. But then I went home and chickened out. Instead of registering for classes, I continued spinning in fear and doubt.

At the end of the summer I went to the beach for a vacation. Early in the week I headed to the water’s edge to do a surf-side meditation to get clarity on this issue (again!). I sat down, closed my eyes, and asked for a sign. I heard one of those advertising airplanes overhead, and thought “No, I’m not going to look—I’m doing meditation.” But I couldn’t help it. My eyes opened up and I saw the banner: Immaculata University. No kidding, though I did laugh. I packed up my chair, went back to the house, went on line and signed up for a class right away.

My story was legend at school. I heard that they’d only flown the banner once or twice that summer, and we laughed that clearly it was for me and that with my tuition fees, it did indeed pay for itself! One of my teachers wondered how many people in the same situation would have not looked up, or not noticed, or not heeded the “coincidence”.

Ten years later I can say without a doubt: I’m glad I did. And I am certain that, even if they are not always literally signs, we DO receive signs that point us along our way. Once we accept that these signs exist, staying calm and centered to the best of our ability helps us begin to notice them. And they carry the constant reminder: We are never alone.