Posts

Write Your Life Better

Many of us get stuck in our ruts and move through the routines of our lives without giving much thought to what we could be. But what if we actually took a bit of time to deeply imagine and write about our best possible future selves? It could be life-changing.

Much of the research into expressive writing—writing that simply expresses what is in our hearts and on our minds—asks people to write about a traumatic experience or an emotional upheaval. As it turns out, this model as created by Dr. James Pennebaker is a therapeutic exercise. Many of the writers in about 300 studies since the mid-1980s have experienced better physical and emotional health, along with other benefits.

However, Dr. Laura King wondered if it was necessary to write about something painful to receive the benefits. So she and her colleagues conducted studies in which they asked people to write about positive experiences instead. Many of these people also experienced positive outcomes, such as a boost in psychological well-being, improved overall performance, significantly more happiness, and in some instances, even better health.

One of her exercises is called the Best Possible Future Self. She asked people to write for twenty minutes for three days in a row, using these instructions: “Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”

One thing I add to this exercise is to choose a future date when you want to be living as your best possible self and write that date on your journal entry. Then write in present tense, as if you are already living this life. Write in the style of “I am doing this” instead of “I will do this.” Using present tense for a future event helps you to move toward your goals by making them more real to your brain.

If you like, you can begin by sitting quietly for a few minutes, eyes closed, and letting your best possible future blossom in your imagination. Then pick up your pen and go!

For the best results, do this exercise on the next two days too. You will learn more about yourself and your priorities. You might also better understand your motives and emotional reactions, along with gaining a feeling of more control over your life. All of which will enhance your Living, Breathing Story.

Untangling the Story

As soon as I learned to read, I read. And read and read. Books by the armful, even entire volumes of the Golden Book Encyclopedia. Did I say I loved reading? And even though I knew I could never be a writer, when the editor of our eighth-grade classroom newspaper (on whom I had a serious crush, by the way) asked us all what career we would like to have, I said, “writer.” How amazing it would be to use words to entertain, move, and inform other people the way so many writers did for me! But no, I could never be a writer.

In college my first major was English because I didn’t know what else to choose (and it meant a lot of reading!). I changed it after a couple of years because I never wanted to teach and knew I could never be a writer. After graduation, I ended up in various jobs, none of which ever fed my soul, and even left me miserable at times. Then in my mid-30s, I applied for a corporate writing job, thinking, Why not? To my amazement, I was hired. I learned so much there and finally became a real writer. After six years, I liberated myself to begin a freelance writing career of nearly 20 years, which I loved and which taught me so much about myself.

The Universe works in mysterious ways, does it not? I am deeply grateful for all the twists and turns, beautiful as well as ugly, that delivered me to that life-changing job (and finally to my calling as a journal facilitator). As Don Henley sings, “For everyone who helped me start and for everything that broke my heart, for every breath, for every day of living, this is my Thanksgiving.”

Looking back, I can see how various experiences, beliefs, and often improbable circumstances kept me on the crazy path that eventually took me to where I needed to be, even though I had mistakenly believed—all together now!—I could never be a writer. If all those story threads could be mapped (and they can’t), the result would resemble an immense nest that could never be untangled.

Even so, I’ve enjoyed tugging on some of those threads in my journal: how going here instead of there led me to this person, which led me to a new experience; how listening to my intuition at a particular moment opened up new avenues of perception and experience; and yes, how so many books seemed to fall into my lap to expand my awareness at just the right times.

In this on-and-off writing over the years, I have learned so much about my Living, Breathing Story that would have remained hidden in memory. Far more than thinking alone could ever do, the writing has revealed an ongoing story arc I had never realized before and which I am learning to use as a guide into the rest of my life.

If you would like to attempt untangling some of your Living, Breathing Story, here are some ways to go:

  • The Steppingstones (by Ira Progoff) This exercise might seem too involved at first, but once you do it a couple of times, you’ll see how powerful it is. You can do it many times about many aspects of your life. https://www.lifejournal.com/articles/the-steppingstones-of-ira-progoff/
  • Recall one significant experience that put you on a new path: What brought you to that experience in the first place? Who played a role in it? Was it expected or a surprise? What made it significant? How did it change you? etc. You can write about it or do a cluster or mind map.
  • Imagine holding one thread of that nest of your Living, Breathing Story in your life right now or some aspect of it. If you start following or tugging on that thread, where does it lead? Is it a straight line or does it loop or spiral or circle back on itself? Can you see the other end far away, even if you don’t know the in-between part, and describe it? What’s at the place of origin? etc.

Expressing Doubts

“Send me someone who has doubts about it/Who has conquered their own fear and lived to tell about it.” This line from David Crosby’s song “Dangerous Night” always touches my heart—-so much pain and longing and hope there. Admitting doubt these days requires courage and, oddly enough, great conviction—-that if perhaps I am wrong after all, if I am willing to start again should that be necessary, then perhaps I can believe in and live a new Story. Those who gather up their bravery and publicly admit, however hesitantly, that they are now not quite so sure of a position are quickly pounced on, called “cowardly” or “weak” by those who, underneath all the bluster, are the real cowards and weaklings.

But how do we know what we truly believe unless we can turn it over in our mind and examine it first, poke and prod it for a while, to see if it contains mysteries—-wondrous or scary-—to be revealed? How can we make changes for the better unless we first question our experience and the meanings we have attached to it? After all, we create our Living, Breathing Story with those meanings we invent—-and that creates our experience of reality. Unless we can admit doubt and question those meanings from time to time, we remain frozen in the current reality and can never blossom into our fullest, best selves.

I understand that doubt or questioning can lead to severe consequences. We can be cast out, shunned, by those who we thought loved and supported us. We can be trolled and threatened online. Or kicked out of political office or of a job, even a family. Still, those among us who can admit they might be having second or even third thoughts are to be heard with respect and compassion. We must honor their bravery. Whether they ultimately change their beliefs or not, they did the most important thing: they asked the questions. As individuals and as a society, we cannot survive—-and most certainly cannot thrive-—without questions and doubts about what we have come to believe.

If you keep a journal, you already have a safe, private place to ask your questions. There, in its pages that quietly and without judgment accept everything you have to say, you can express all doubts, questions, fears, anxieties, whatever is on your mind. Your journal is the place where you can ask them first, formulate and revise them, work through them. Then, once you have gained clarity on your position, you can share them with others if you choose. Or not. It’s absolutely up to you.

Here are some prompts to get you started:
• I used to believe _____________, but now I’m not so sure because ….
• The question or doubt I most want to express is….
• I am doubtful….
• The scariest thing that might happen if I express my doubts….
• The best thing that can happen if I express my doubts…
• In the past, I questioned ___________ and I….
• I survived doubting ____________ and now I can survive (even thrive) when I express my doubts about….
• Imagine the best possible outcome of expressing your doubts or questions and write about it, with as much detail as possible.

The Good and Bad of Labels

Democrat. Republican. Christian. Muslim. Atheist. Gay. Straight. Transgender. Environmentalist. Polluter. Pro-choice. Pro-life. Black. White. Capitalist. Communist. And on and on.

I’ve been thinking lately about how we so naturally place labels on things and people and how they affect our Living, Breathing Story. Neurologically speaking, that labeling is a good thing—it allows our brains to make sense of the world so we can more easily navigate through it. Imagine if every time you saw a maple tree or a cell phone or a stop light—or anything else, for that matter—you had to stop and decide what it did, how it would affect you, what it meant to you, and what it was called. You would spend your life in utter confusion and chaos. Thankfully, your brain is very good at naming and categorizing things.

But these names and categories don’t exist in a vacuum. They all have emotional associations connected to them. While this further helps you function more easily in the world, it also leads to many potential problems in interactions with other human beings, each of whom has his or her own associations with the labels (see how confusing this can get?) .

The words at the top of this post are simple words we invented to describe people—but each one is also loaded with a host of mental, emotional, and physical responses. We all have our own positive or negative reactions to them (remember that “negative” and “positive” are relative terms, depending totally on the perception of each individual), and so we react accordingly. And not always for the better.

What about the labels we assign to ourselves? You know, like “too old/fat/dumb,” or “not good/smart/accomplished enough.” And on and on. You’ll notice that those labels are all negative or limiting in some way. Of course, we have positive labels for ourselves, too, but because our brain has a natural negativity bias, it’s oh-so-easy to fall into its clutches and tilt towards the negative. As you well know, that kind of self-labeling doesn’t exactly leave us feeling good about ourselves or eager to explore new situations.

Our labels originate from many sources: family, teachers, religion, society, culture, history, to name only a few. In reality, most of them are false. But when we believe them, they solidify within our Living, Breathing Story to become our self-image.

In Mark Matousek’s brilliant new book, Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation, & Self-Discovery, he writes eloquently about self-image, that “portrait we carry in our head, representing the person we imagine ourselves to be…It’s a distorted, subjective view made up of stories, beliefs, emotions, desires, biases, and insecurities that have little factual basis. As an inside job, self-image is entirely personal and subjective. While it may evolve over time, self-image tends to glue into place like a photograph fixed on a moving object, concealing the truth of who we are.” (My italics.)

“How does self-image become so entrenched?” asks Matousek. “Through the imposition of narrative labels. Putting names to thinks solidifies them in our minds.”

And then, when we believe a label, when we “settle upon a story,” says Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, “we must live it as if it were true. We must perform it by living it. By enacting the story, by living as if it were true, we make it so. We make it true.” (Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process)

In other words, we invent these labels—these little stories—and then when we believe them, we live them.

But there’s good news! Since we invented them in the first place, we can re-invent them or what they mean. Or create new labels altogether. Remember that it’s not always healthy to believe everything you think.

I invite you to try some journaling to experience labeling for yourself. Please be as honest as you can. Your journal is private, so no one else will see what you write.

• Look at the words at the top of this post. It’s likely you will have some strong reactions to some of them (and it’s okay to admit that). Choose one that describes you and write about yourself in that context. Then choose one you believe is its opposite, and write about your beliefs regarding someone described by that word. Do this for several word pairs.

Now change your focus. Choose one of the “opposite” words you chose earlier and write about yourself in that context. Do this for several word pairs.

What did you discover? Do you think your beliefs are true? If so, why?

• Consider the labels or names you apply to yourself. Write down five of them. Where did they come from? Do you believe them? Live them? How? For the ones that don’t serve you well, what would you like to replace them with? (Even if you don’t yet believe you can replace them with something more positive, write anyway. Give yourself permission.) How do you feel emotionally and physically when you compare the two versions of yourself?

What did you discover? Do you think your beliefs are true? If so, why?

How Have Your Personal Myths Shaped You?

Your life is built on any number of myths. I don’t mean that as an insult, or that your life is not true or has not happened. Far from it. As one of my favorite authors Unitarian Universalist minister Kate Braestrup said in a sermon some years ago: “A myth is a story that illustrates the organizing principles by which we are able to understand and live in the world.” While we often think of myths as cultural stories, such as those from ancient Greece or many indigenous cultures, myths can be personal as well. Each one of us is still creating—and living—our own myths, our own organizing principles, today.

Our personal myths are those stories we naturally create, mostly unconsciously, to make sense of our lives and our world. Blended together, they create our Living, Breathing Story, the personal account of who and what we believe ourselves to be, which determines how we experience reality. (See more.)

Here’s one of my myths. I grew up believing the only way to support myself was to work for someone else. By fitting into some kind of corporate structure and doing the work assigned, I would receive a paycheck, which would pay for all of life’s necessities.

Yet although I worked in Corporate America for several decades and even moved up the ladder, my deepest heart never fully committed itself. Despite often feeling a fraud but believing no other options were open to me, I soldiered on. After all, this myth implanted in the structure of my brain (as are all our myths) insisted I did not have the skills, talent, or courage to live any other way. Believing it, I lived it.

However, desperate circumstances forced me to explore and finally change that myth.

My last “real job,” as I jokingly call it, became so physically and emotionally painful, the only way to save myself was to break free. Yet doing this took several years of tortuous questioning and self-exploration, which filled up many journals. Gradually, I became able to “listen with the ear of my heart,” to quote St. Benedict, and realized I could live in an entirely new way. My old myth morphed into a new one that gave me the courage to take a risk: I liberated myself from corporate life and eagerly jumped into the life of a freelance writer. After all, I thought, if it didn’t work out, corporate life was still available, however painful it might be.

To my amazement, that was never necessary. I was fortunate enough to succeed.

By changing my inner myth (but not knowing that’s what I did), I was able to follow my soul’s calling and do my work wholeheartedly and often joyfully. Later I realized that the traumatic nature of my last job forced me to stop coasting along, living half a life out of fear. In all the years since then, my life has changed for the better in innumerable ways. I am grateful for all of it, even the original pain, because, like a baby bird pushed out of the nest, I learned to fly.

What are some of your personal myths? What do you believe about yourself and your world? What are the organizing principles that that shape your experience of reality?

You can use your journal to explore these elements of your Living, Breathing Story. Here are some prompts you can use. Write for at least 20 minutes for each one you choose:

• Jot down a list of five ideas or concepts you believe about the world (examples: religious beliefs, political leanings, life is a bitch and then you die, or life is good, etc). Then choose one and explore it: Where did it (or might it have) come from? Has it changed over time? In what ways? How does it affect your life? Does believing it help you feel better—or worse?

• Write about one time in which you deliberately changed your life, as I did with my work. How did you come to that decision? What was the result? What did you learn from the process? How can you use what you learned in other situations?

• Knowing what you now know about personal myths, what are some of the organizing principles you use to understand and live in the world? Make a short list and choose one to write about in more depth. Does it serve you well, or not? Do you want to keep it, or change it? Why?

• If you could exchange one of your less-than-happy personal myths for a better one, what would it be and how would you change it?

The Power of “Yet”

This tiny, common word packs a ton of hope—and your body knows it. “Yet” can be a trusted guide through the Foreboding Forest of Fear or a safe passage across the Ocean of Doubt. It encourages you to keep going when perhaps you would rather just turn around and climb back under the covers. While it does not guarantee success—a fish will never be able to climb a tree, no matter how much it tries—it can improve your odds.

Think of something you want to accomplish but haven’t been able to. Maybe it’s not so grand as a desire to complete your first marathon, although it can be; perhaps it’s just making it around the block after years of too many doughnuts and not enough exercise. Maybe, despite numerous hours of practice with your violin, you still can’t play that one passage in “The Lark Ascending” with the right touch of passion, and sometimes not even the right notes. Perhaps your attempts at knitting have several times fallen flat. Or you may be grieving a lost dream and believe you will never be able to release it and move forward.

Think about your situation as you sit quietly, eyes closed. Then say aloud several times, “I can’t do this,” and really mean it. Pay attention to how you feel in your body.

Then do it again, only this time say, “I can’t do this—yet” several times with emotion. Once more, pay attention to any physical sensations you might have. Do you feel different than when you said you could not do it? If not, that’s fine. But with practice, you will begin to notice that you likely feel lighter and somehow more uplifted. Those sensations are your mindbody at work, instantly transforming your thoughts into the physical sensations that blossom from the hormones and neurochemicals your body produces in response—and building new networks in your brain that will help you reach your goal.

You have just experienced the power of “yet.” Can’t or can’t yet: Each one is a story you tell yourself, and each one creates your particular experience of reality.

“Yet” is a marker of a growth mindset that can help you improve your brain power and motivation over time. In her research with students, Carol Dweck has discovered that, “Just the words ‘yet’ or ‘not yet,’ we’re finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence. And we can actually change students’ mindsets. In one study, we taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time, they can get smarter.”

This holds true for you grown-ups too.

You already know the power of journaling, and now you can put the power of Yet to work in those pages, too.

Once again, try the experiment above, where you first tell yourself “I can’t do this” and then “I can’t do this—yet.” After each time, write for a few minutes about the experience: what did you feel in your body? How were your emotions affected? Then compare your writings about the two statements. Which reality would you rather experience?

Another way is to make a brief list of at least five difficult transitions you have experienced over your lifetime, such as a promotion, the birth of a child and the attending exhaustion and fears, heartbreak and grief, illness or recovery, writing your first book. Then for each one, write a few sentences about how at first you were not sure you could navigate the transition and accept the change, and then about how you did. You were experiencing the power of “yet” at those times even if you did not realize it.

You can also use your journal to envision and create your path to the new way. Choose a current transition in your life or one you are considering. Jot down your doubts and fears about moving through to the other side and how you’re not sure you can do it. Be honest and open with yourself. Then, write again, but this time, use your imagination to envision the best possible outcome, even if you don’t believe it—yet. Over time, you can revise and update this vision as necessary. Writing down your dreams can prove a great help in achieving them.

For a fun look at the Power of Yet, watch this lively number from Sesame Street:

http://pbskids.org/video/sesame-street/2365319589

Culture is the “Water” We All Live In

Fish live immersed in a universe of water, and because it is such a normal, natural part of their existence, they don’t realize that fact (until they are taken out of the water, of course). The same is generally true for humans and the oxygen we breathe. It’s always there, so we don’t think about it much—until we are somehow deprived of it. These are rather obvious examples of what we might call “invisible immersion.”

Yet there is another kind of (generally) invisible immersion that actually controls a good chunk of our Story with little realization on our part. These are the stories that make up culture and society. Those stories are the “water” in which we are immersed every moment of our lives. We are so deeply embedded in them, and they in us, we tend to believe “it’s just the way things are.” Our individual Living, Breathing Stories are shaped to a large degree by them.

We can change them, or choose to not live within their boundaries, but that’s often uncomfortable or even dangerous because many people have a lot invested in ensuring that they remain “true.” Fortunately, progress continues along the lines of positive change.

Here are a few of the strongest examples of these embedded stories.

  • There is no logical, earthly reason why women should be considered inferior or somehow “less than” men. Yet a long, long time ago, it was decided that women are inherently subservient to men. This is probably one of the most entrenched stories in all cultures on the globe, and over the millennia it has caused more misery, terror, and death than nearly any other cultural story—not to mention the loss of all the abilities, talents, and skills that billions of women were not permitted to express. Even today, in the “enlightened” 21st century, women around the world are prevented from reaching their full potential because of sexist or misogynistic practices. These range from being paid only 78 cents to every dollar a man makes to being prevented from determining their reproductive choices, to not being allowed to drive or be educated, or, horrendously, being stoned to death after being raped for “shaming” their family, while the rapist remains blameless. (See Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future to read the story of how half of humanity came to be viewed as inferior to the other half and how we can change that story.)
  • Much the same can be said for people of differing skin colors. Why is pale skin (and the person who wears it) still considered by many people to be superior to darker skin? Once again, this terrible story developed in the distant past and is still in play today. Slavery in the United States was only one horrible result of this story.
  • Economics is another such story, and it is playing out to dire effects on the planet and every living thing aboard. Take the example of trees in a forest. They provide life-giving oxygen to the atmosphere; habitat for innumerable birds, animals, and insects; food; shade; and a stabilizing effect on the soil in which they live (this prevents erosion and mud slides); not to mention their sheer beauty. But our economic system gives them much more value when they are chopped up and turned into toothpicks than when they remain alive. While making money is not necessarily a bad thing, when it is coupled with a Story such as this, the effects on our environment are devastating. (For a powerful look at the true costs of this story, see the article here: http://tinyurl.com/y8jfeahc)
  • Systems of government and the politics surrounding them arise from a wide variety of beliefs. Monarchy, democracy, socialism, communism, tribal governance, and other forms were all invented and sustained to keep a certain kind of order and generally to keep certain people or class of people in power. As only one example, look at what is happening in the U.S. these days. The stories here are growing stronger and angrier as venerable, respected traditions are being twisted and denied or discarded, and even outright lies told by the highest officials are promoted as truth. None of this is new, but what is new is the vehemence and speed with which these stories are being told and the gulfs of separation they are causing among greater numbers of people.
  • Like politics, religion is another story we are often warned not to discuss because of its potential for being a power keg of emotion. Religion is one of the most pervasive and entrenched stories humans have created. It has given rise to, and permission for, both utmost goodness and terrifying evil. The variety of religions that have flowed across the globe over the centuries demonstrate the creativity humans use to explain the deepest mysteries of life and to make some sense out of the inexplicable, random events that happen to us. Religion is often the basis of other cultural stories as well, such as the inferiority of women and the concept of nature as something to be dominated.

The one thing all these cultural stories, and thousands more, have in common is that humans invented them. People with their innately story-making brains created them for many reasons and to serve many purposes that eventually were lost in the mists of history (which itself is another story, usually told only from the viewpoint of the most powerful to keep their preferred story alive).

Yet as the human race has progressed and evolved, we have begun to see how some ingrained cultural stories do not serve us well, such as the subjugation of other human beings, the exploitation of nature for profit, and the need for war. The previous two centuries have been witness to much progress, which occurred as people woke up to the negative impacts of these stories, as well as the possibility for more positive, healthier stories for greater numbers of people. Despite the seemingly backward swing of the culture pendulum at the moment, these changes will not be stopped. Those old stories are changing because more and more people are creating—and living—new and better ones. These changes in individual Living, Breathing Stories are the foundation of change for our cultural stories. When enough people live the new stories, the cultural ones follow.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

Take a look at your life and your culture, and explore one of the cultural stories you live within. It can be one of those above, or another one, even one that comes from your ethnic heritage. You need not judge it in any way, unless you want to.

How does it affect you or what does it mean to you, in positive or negative ways? If you know or suspect that it is not serving you well, can you work to change it? How? Do you know where it came from and how it has changed over the years or centuries? Write for at least 15 minutes—and do this as many times as you like with as many cultural stories as you like. It will be an eye-opener, for sure!

——————————–

PS. It’s been a while since my last post here, so thanks for your patience. My thyroid surgery went remarkably well, I’m fully recovered, and despite what the docs thought, there was no active cancer, only precancerous cells. So I require no further treatment and am feeling wonderfully healthy and energetic once again. Thanks to all of you for your support and positive energy in whatever form you sent it.

Help Yourself Heal With An Unsent Letter

Would you ever consider writing a letter to a body part that was giving you trouble, or to an illness? Or have that body part or illness write a letter to you? Pretty weird, right?

Actually, not so weird. Letters are a wonderful therapeutic journaling technique, particularly the Unsent Letter. This technique is just what it sounds like: you write a letter you will never send. Keeping it personal allows you to express yourself honestly. And, if for some reason you really  never want anyone else ever see it, you can destroy it.

When I was facilitating journaling groups for people with brain injury, participants sometimes wrote an Unsent Letter. Everyone knows what a letter is, and they were able to use it well, sometimes in profound ways. They would write a letter to their brains, delivering a message, such as “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you better,” or asking questions, including “Why did this terrible injury happen to you?” When they shared their letters with the group, we often were deeply touched, sometimes to the point of tears.

Because we are living, breathing Stories, we are embodied Stories—we hold within our physical selves everything we have experienced through our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and beliefs, and this process creates our experience of reality. So if we pay close attention to our bodies—if we listen to them with the “ear of our heart” as St. Benedict might say—we can access the vast storehouse of wisdom held within them. This revealed wisdom can help us heal and live in a more joyful, positive way.

When I had breast cancer six years ago, I wrote both to my breast and to the small tumor there. This exercise allowed me to explore my feelings about the situation, and it was immensely helpful for my emotional state, which I am sure enhanced my physical well-being too. Dealing with recent health issues has once again caused me to listen more closely to what my body is trying to tell me with the changes it has manifested. So, I’ve been writing letters to and from my thyroid. Some enlightening information has emerged, and I know it will help me restore my good health.

How to write an Unsent Letter? First, know that you can write a letter to anyone—living or not, real or imaginary—or anything. Perhaps you need to vent your anger or displeasure with someone but do not want to express it to them (letting it all out in a letter you will never send can sometimes clarify your thoughts, so that you can write another, send-able letter to the person or have a conversation minus the anger). Or perhaps the person is no longer in your life or you don’t know how to reach them, yet you have something important to tell them. You can write such a letter to a part of yourself, say your Procrastinator self or your 10-year-old or future 80-year-old self—or write it from that part to you. Or perhaps you have an illness or injury and have a desire to tell or ask it something. The Unsent Letter is perfect for all of these situations, and many more.

Now I’m that exploring this new health issue, as I write and meditate, my body’s deep wisdom is slowly emerging and allowing me to discover information I can use to become more positive about the situation, or perhaps even to heal it.

 

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

I invite you to write an Unsent Letter to a person, a situation, or anything in your life with which you would like to express yourself. Be as honest and sincere as you can, keep your pen moving, and trust that the right words will come. (No one will see this except for you, remember.) Begin with “Dear ____________” and be sure to end with a closing such as “Sincerely,” “Love,” or whatever you feel is appropriate, followed by your name.

You Are Not a Mind and a Body

You are a mindbody. Or a bodymind. The point is, your mind and body are not two separate entities sort of stacked on top of one another. They exist together as one entity, with inseparable connections:

“There is a complex relationship between thoughts, moods, brain chemistry, endocrine function, and functioning of other physiological systems in our bodies. While an in-depth discussion of this relationship is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that our thoughts can actually trigger physiological changes in our body that affect our mental and physical health. Basically, what you think affects how you feel (both emotionally and physically). So if you increase your positive thoughts, like gratitude, you can increase your subjective sense of well-being as well as, perhaps, objective measures of physical health (like fewer symptoms of illness and increased immune functioning).” http://www.umassd.edu/counseling/forparents/reccomendedreadings/theimportanceofgratitude/

It’s so easy to let our thoughts get the best of us, for better or—usually—worse. We get so trapped in our thought loops and ruminations that we frequently don’t realize we’re having the same not-so-positive thoughts yet again. But I as said in the previous post, if we can learn to recognize physical feelings connected to certain thoughts, we can use that recognition as a signal that there’s something we need to be aware of.

Years ago when I was still working in Corporate America, my job was so stressful I started having agonizing headaches that knocked me flat (along with being horribly depressed). But one day I realized I was unconsciously tensing my neck and scalp muscles so tightly, a pounding headache resulted. I learned to recognize the physical feeling when it started and immediately consciously relaxed those muscle. Headaches gone!

But I was still working there and still intensely stressed. So next I unconsciously began tensing my neck and shoulder muscles so tightly I could not turn my head. I had to turn my entire torso to look behind me—not so good for driving! I went to physical therapy for a while and felt better–for a while. Thankfully, I soon was able to leave Corporate America behind and become self-employed.

Sometime after my liberation, I read through one of the journals I kept during my last years at that job. During the time of the physical therapy, I flowed right through writing a sentence that did not strike me as significant until I re-read it years later: “I think I’ll just sit tight until something better comes along.” Wow! I almost yelped in recognition! In hindsight, I could see how this unconscious metaphor sent my body a message I did not recognize until much later and how my body acted accordingly.

Since then, I’ve learned to recognize certain physical signs that I’m stressed, and once that happens, I can (often) consciously relax whatever part of my body is sending the signal. Amazingly, this calms my entire mindbody; even if the stressful thoughts are still present, they feel more distant and manageable. I also meditate regularly, to encourage my brain toward more calm feelings more of the time.

Now, I don’t mean you should use this skill to ignore or squash painful or difficult thoughts. They do have to be dealt with in healthy ways—and if they are not, they will find a way to bite back! But if noticing certain physical sensations tunes you into your thoughts, you have one more tool to help you stay happier and healthier.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL     

It’s so easy to live in our heads and be disconnected from our bodies. It’s more common than we realize. Once you get the hang of recognizing the connections, though, you will be surprised by how deep those connections are and how telling they can be about your well-being.

See if you can recall a time when you realized your physical state was a reflection of your thoughts. For instance, when your thoughts were angry, what was going on in your body? When you were happy, what were the physical sensations you felt? Write about this for 15 minutes or more, doing your best to describe your emotions as well as your physical sensations.

Your Thoughts Reshape Your Brain

Really. They do.

The traditional belief was that our brains continued developing until a certain age—hitting the high point somewhere in our 30s—but from then on, the possibility for change ended, leaving us sliding slowly downhill into neural oblivion.

Fortunately, new research has shown that our brains are capable of changing for our entire lives. This capacity, called neuroplasticity, means that even while our brains do slow down with age, they are capable of being shaped and reshaped for our entire lives. (In the case of brain injury, it is often possible for new areas of the brain to take over for the injured portions. See The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Normal Doidge.)

When we learn something new, the old neural pathways are overlaid with new ones (that’s the physical change in the brain), creating new patterns of thought and behavior. While we typically do this unconsciously, the cool thing is that we can do it on purpose for our benefit!

As Dr. Rick Hanson says, “There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. For instance, if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape—will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest  your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.” (Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time)

Your thoughts create physical changes not only in your brain but in your entire body, including your gene expression. In a very simplified explanation: When you focus on stressful thoughts, your body produces stress hormones, like cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline, that stress your body and your brain. If you stay stressed over time, this causes illness. When you focus on peaceful thoughts, your body produces soothing chemicals, like serotonin, that alleviate stress and can help you and your brain stay healthier. (More on this in the next post.)

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

Three parts to this one. It will take a little while but I think it will be worth it.

  1. What is a negative (but not traumatic) thought you frequently tell yourself? Write it down in a sentence or two, and then write in more detail about it for 3 minutes. Pay close attention to how you feel in your body and where you feel it. What does this reveal to you?
  2. Give yourself a few minutes to release the previous exercise. If you like, give yourself a hug, stand up and walk around. Let your attention to it flow away. Now recall a positive thought you frequently tell yourself. Write it down in a sentence or two, and then write about it in more detail for 3 minutes. Pay close attention to how you feel in your body and where you feel it. What does this reveal to you?
  3. Write for at least 15 minutes about what you learned about how thoughts create reactions in your body. If you can become familiar with the feelings associated with certain thoughts, you can learn to stop or release the thoughts that cause you stress and keep going with the ones that leave you feeling calm and peaceful.