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Change and Transition

Back in 1999, I joked with friends that I was living in a rut so deep, it might be time to hang pictures on the walls. At the same time, I could sense that a big shake-up was on the horizon. Fortunately, past experience had taught me to not force change in my life, so I patiently waited for the answer to appear. Eventually, it did: a move from Southern Indiana to Tucson, Arizona. I had met some good people there on a work visit earlier in the year, so I knew I would have some company as I adjusted. Amazingly, all the details fell smoothly into place. As a renter, I had no house to sell. As a freelance writer, I didn’t have to worry about finding a new job. Even the moving company gave me a huge discount on hauling my stuff across the country because I recently had written an article about them. I got to Tucson, found a lovely apartment in a beautiful complex where some of my new friends lived, and settled in.

Despite all that, the transition was not so smooth.

Change and transition: Back then I did not know they are different. If I had—and if I had known how to better prepare for transition—my early months in Tucson might have been easier.

“Change is the event, the outer reality facing you: job loss or job promotion, change in a career, move to a new town or country, major change in the family, or the loss of a loved one,” writes career and life transitions coach Leia Francisco in Writing Through Transitions: A Guide for Transforming Life Changes. Transition, though, is “a reaction to a change in role, relationship, situation, or life view significant enough to affect your life and functioning,” according to Leia. It’s the psychological and emotional process you undergo while moving through the event.

My transition resulting from the cross-country change in location required a lot of emotional adjustment. My new friends were not as available as I had hoped, and I sorely missed my large circle of friends in Indiana. Tucson is a huge city, compared to Evansville, and required a lot of driving and often being unsure of my way. Even some small things, like no longer needing my favorite cuddly sweaters in the desert “winter,” made me sad and homesick. I remember standing on my balcony one day and crying as I talked on the phone with Lynda, my best friend back in Indiana, wondering if I had made a huge mistake. She assured me that I had not and that eventually all would be fine.

And it was. The move proved to be one of the best things I have ever done. The best of that best thing: I met Ken, now my husband, who later became the inspiration for finding my calling as a journal facilitator. I slowly gathered a circle of wonderful friends, including a wonderful writers group, and happily adjusted to having only two seasons: “really hot” and “not so hot.” And I discovered Trader Joe’s and shopped there weekly. (If you are a TJ fan, you know what I mean!)

Change is happening everywhere, all the time. Just when we think our lives are settled, wham! Change. Just when we think we have it made, look out! Change. When a cherished dream falls apart, more change. Even when the change is a positive, desired one that makes us happy, we still have to make the internal shift. All these changes require a transition process.

These days, I’m coming to the end of yet another cycle of change and transition. As I wrote about in my last post, Wandering, Meandering, and Yet…, I had to grieve and let go of a journaling program I created and loved, but which didn’t work out as I had hoped. (This was a “non-event transition,” which requires adjusting to the reality that a goal or dream will not come true.) Fortunately, I have found a new path, thanks to wise and compassionate coaching from Leia Francisco, who now also offers a class to train journal facilitators in her Writing Through Transitions program. This past summer, I became certified as a Transition Writing Specialist and will soon begin offering proven journaling programs in navigating through life’s transitions. Some will be local, here in Indiana, and I also hope to eventually offer them online. I will also continue to offer some of my other journaling programs too.

I’m excited about this transition—and about knowing how to better navigate the many more that are sure to come. I’m even more excited about sharing this valuable information with you. Stay tuned for future posts about writing techniques and exercises that can carry you through any transition life can throw at you.

Wandering, Meandering, and Yet…

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.” Thomas Merton

Ever have one of those days—or weeks or month or years—where you just can’t seem to get where you think you want to go? Instead, you wander and meander and backtrack and….finally end up exhausted and frustrated. Maybe you even choose to quit. Yet, later on, you come to see that this was the best route to get where you really wanted to go, even if way back in the beginning you didn’t know you wanted to go there.

When I look back over my life, never in a million years could I have predicted I would come to this good place where I am now. Married to the love of my life after being divorced for more than twenty years. Leaving corporate life in 1993 to be a freelance writer (and actually succeeding at that for about two decades!). Then in my late 50s finding my calling in becoming a certified journal facilitator, originally inspired by the experience of caring for my husband after his brain injury. Who woulda thunk? Not me.

Life is like that, as you already know. The weirdest, seemingly most inconvenient, painful, or unexpected experience can send us down a whole new path, which can lead to places we never imagined. I’m grateful for everything that has brought me to this point, maybe even more for the painful than the pleasant ones because they taught me more.

These past few months have been particularly vexing. I spent most of 2017 working to get a new journaling program off the ground, one I loved and was excited about. For whatever reason, it didn’t work, and finally, I had to grieve it and let it go. Then, I wasn’t sure what my new focus might be. Like the river in the photo above, I felt like I was wandering aimlessly in a bleak landscape.

Fortunately, I have been through this kind of situation before and trusted that somehow the answer would reveal itself. I journaled and pondered, contemplated and journaled some more. Talked with wise friends, who were very patient with me.

And slowly the answer appeared. I now have a new focus for my journaling work that makes me happy and enthusiastic once again. I’m not ready to reveal it yet but will soon. (Don’t you love suspense?)

The Thomas Merton quote above has long been one of my favorites. I can go for long stretches and forget its wisdom. But every time I come back to it, it restores me and encourages me to embrace my wandering, knowing that I will eventually come home.

For your journal:

Write about a time when you believed you were headed to a certain destination, only to be (apparently) thrown off course by Life, but you later discovered it offered you a whole new landscape to explore. What were the circumstances? What did they mean to you? How did your life change as a result?

What is a quotation that inspires or energizes you in some way? Copy it into your journal and describe how it makes you feel, why it resonates with you, times it has helped you. (I have a tiny journal into which I only copy short quotations that are meaningful to me. It is a valuable resource when I need to be uplifted or inspired.)

Find a photo that symbolizes the way you feel. What metaphor does it evoke in you? What emotion does it produce? Why is it such a good symbol at that moment? Write about it with as much sensory detail as you can, even wax poetic if you like.

Gratitude and 1000 Things

I recently spoke at the local Unitarian Universalist church about gratitude and gratitude journaling. This is one of my favorite subjects because people generally feel good after writing about something for which they are grateful. And I love it because I can include a little of the fascinating information that research has discovered about gratitude. People might be a little more encouraged to be grateful when they know that an ongoing practice of sincere gratitude can help lower their blood pressure and strengthen their immune system, help them feel more optimistic and less depressed, and also block toxic emotions, among other benefits.

But this time, I wanted to do something a little different, so I created an experiment for myself. A week before my talk, I decided to see if I could write a really long list of things I am grateful for. One journaling technique I often use and include in some of my programs is a List of 100. This can be a list of 100 anythings, like things that stress me out, things I want to do before I die, or, yes, even things that I am grateful for. The idea is to go as fast as you can, write one word or short phrase, and you can repeat.

But listing only 100 things I am grateful for is way too easy. I could do that, and probably not repeat myself, in about 20 or 30 minutes. So I chose to write a list of 1,000 things I am grateful for. I figured I could do 100 a day. But midweek, I realized I didn’t have 10 days, and I was going to be gone all of Saturday, the day before my talk. So, on Friday, I listed about 350, and then finished up with the last 20 on Sunday morning before leaving for the church. Some of the items are repeats, but not many.

Some are profound, including Ken and all the love and support he gives me, my good health, my parents and siblings, my work, waking up every day for nearly 66 years, and even “all the events over all of history that led to me being alive and writing my list.” Others were much less profound, like canned beans (we love them and I hate cooking beans from scratch), pens and paper, ceiling fans, and nonstick pots and pans. In between were clean hot and cold running water, the autumn colors on the trees, and wine. And yes, chocolate was there, too. I am grateful to one degree or another for everything on my list. Plus, the act of listing them opened my eyes to so many things I take for granted but without which my life would not be so happy, satisfying, and easy in many ways.

I gave my talk and at the end asked people to write down 10 things they are grateful for. Most of them had no problem with that. Then I revealed my list of 1000 and asked them to write “990 more things I am grateful for” under their 10 and invited them to try it sometime. I said they could write it in chunks over time but to keep going until they reached 1000, including repeats. I don’t know if anyone at the church will respond to my invitation but hope they do.

I added one more research tidbit about gratitude in my talk: Gratitude can actually change your brain in positive ways. When you start actively cultivating gratitude, your brain will encourage you to keep looking for more things for which to be grateful. That’s because gratitude activates brain regions associated with dopamine, the “reward” neurotransmitter. Dopamine is important in initiating action, which makes you more likely to do the same thing again because it makes you feel good. So once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for even more things to be grateful for, which creates a positive cycle, which can change your life in a beneficial direction.

I invite you to write your own list of 1000 things you are grateful for. If you think about it, over the course of your entire life, there would be way more than a mere 1000. With enough time and determination, you can hit that number even before Thanksgiving.

One of these days, I will do this exercise again. By then, there will be even more things I can be grateful for. Probably even 1000 more.

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.

Do Old Habits Have to Die Hard?

The other day Ken sneezed and I immediately said, “Bless you.” I’ve done this thousands of times over my lifetime when someone sneezed. My Catholic parents trained me to say “God bless you” so I still do it, decades later, even though I’m no longer religious. When I don’t say it, a feeling of incompleteness hangs in the air, waiting to be filled.

But this time, I got to wondering why so many of us automatically say it—how did this habit become part of the cultural Living, Breathing Story for so many people? Where did it originate?

Turns out, there are several possible explanations. Using this phrase most likely began because of an ancient superstition that a sneeze either let the body release evil spirits or opened the body to them. “God bless you” was a way of offering protection. Since people hundreds of years ago believed evil spirits were real and did not know a sneeze was simply a physical response to an irritation in the nose, offering this blessing made sense. Still, it continues today when we know better (although it never hurts to offer kind words or blessings to someone).

You have probably heard this story, or a similar one: A woman has a holiday roast ready to bake, but before putting it in the oven, she cuts off both ends. One day her husband asks her why she does this, since to him this seems a strange, wasteful habit. She says she grew up watching her mother do this same thing. So when her mom comes for dinner, the woman asks her about it. The mother’s response: Her oven was very small, so she had to cut the roast down to fit into her only pan that would fit into the oven.

We all do this same thing all the time: unthinkingly repeating habits and beliefs handed down to us from our family, community, or culture, believing they are real or necessary or “that’s just the way it is.” They can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive.

Innumerable ancient habits and beliefs—positive and negative—remain implanted in us in the 21st century. They are part of the “water” of Story in which we live immersed, so much a part of us and our thinking we do them automatically. Like sending blessings to a sneezing person, they have become part of our traditions or cultures, even woven into our DNA and brain structures.

Whatever these beliefs or habits may be, they fill a need, answer a question, or make meaning out of something confusing or incomprehensible—or at least they once did. We humans do not like uncertainty; there is safety in familiarity, often no matter how painful or ridiculous. Furthermore, from the last trimester of pregnancy through age 7, our brains are like little sponges without defenses, simply absorbing without question whatever we learn or experience—and much of that is not positive, by any means. Our experiences during that time shape our reality, locked into our subconscious and thereafter running the show—as much as we like to believe we have conscious control of ourselves, the conscious mind is a mere 5 percent of our entire mind! (More information here.)

Fortunately, though, we can change those old, subconscious beliefs if we realize they no longer serve us well. Many methods exist for this undoing process (see the link above again). I include journaling, since it’s a proven method of self-directed change and is adaptable to every person and circumstance. Remember that you need not be a “good” writer and that journaling has no rules. When you write regularly, it’s common to see patterns and trends in your life—and to notice when some of those no longer serve you well. If you want to explore some previously unexamined areas of your life, here are some journaling prompts you can use:

1. When you have a negative behavior or thought you would like to release, or you’re simply curious about one, write a letter to it. You can begin by writing a brief description of the behavior or thought, and then continue with “Dear (behavior or thought),” and go from there. Simply write whatever comes to mind about it. Allow yourself enough time to let your mind wander over the subject as thoroughly as you can. Do this exercise as often as necessary until it feels complete.

2. As a twist on the above technique, you can also write a letter from your behavior or thought to you, in which it explains, perhaps, how it came to be, why it wants to stay or is willing to go, etc. You can let your imagination have fun with this one! It can give you an entirely new perspective on the situation.

3. You can reinforce your new habit (whether it be healthier eating or a replacing a negative belief with a more positive one) by writing often about how it feels to live with a new pattern. Write in the first person present tense: “I am doing this now…,” rather than, “I will do this…” By doing this exercise repeatedly over time, you override the neural pathways holding the old habit in place with new pathways that reinforce the new habit.

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

Cancer, Mindbody, and Living, Breathing Stories

As Living, Breathing Stories, we are composed of innumerable elements that blend together to create the “I” we inhabit at any given time. Some of these elements we define as positive, and some not so much. Yet our experience of reality depends in large part, if not entirely, on the thoughts we think about these elements—the definitions we assign to things and experiences, the beliefs we hold about anything, the meanings we bestow on seemingly random events—and how our physical bodies respond to those thoughts.

Take serious illness, for instance. What roles does our mindbody play in it? What are our stories about it? How do they affect the ways we treat it or live with it? Do they tell us to resist at all cost, to be grateful for the lessons it teaches, or…what?

This subject has been on my mind for a couple of weeks now, since I will soon be a two-time cancer survivor. Breast cancer in 2011, and now thyroid cancer, with a thyroidectomy coming up soon. Compared to what many women go through, my experience with breast cancer was a walk in the park—lumpectomy and radiation only, a rare but easily treatable kind caught before it spread, plus good insurance and lots of emotional support. For all of this, I am grateful still.

What might have been the cause of this cancer? Even though I’ll never know for sure, my curiosity sent me to explore.

First up was the usual explanation—it’s in the genes. My maternal grandmother died of breast cancer, and my mom is a survivor (many other family members have had cancer, too—father, grandfather, sister, aunt, probably others). So, as the current cultural belief has it, breast cancer appeared in me because of my genetic inheritance. Maybe so. Yet, epigenetics tells us that genetic determinism (or: you got the gene, you get the illness) exists only in a very small percentage of cases. Instead, gene expression—genes turning “on” or “off”—is due much more to our conscious and subconscious thoughts (they are energy, remember), so having a particular gene does not mean the associated illness will inevitably appear. Perhaps breast cancer genes in my DNA turned on because of my unconscious belief that as part of this lineage I, too, would experience this disease.

But I wanted to explore other possible causes as well. Since everything is energy, including thoughts, next I talked with a gentle, skilled energy healer. She believed that the tumor, which was in my left breast and near my heart, was the manifestation of the traumatic emotions (embodied thoughts) I experienced after my husband’s serious accident about eight years before. Was this true? I’ll never know, but given the intensity and duration of those emotions, which caused physical, stress-related heart issues, it felt like a distinct possibility.

(Note that this does NOT mean I believe I consciously caused this disease in myself—nor does anyone else. Instead, it means that at the very deepest levels, our bodies work in mysterious ways still incomprehensible within the current story told by allopathic medicine. There is good evidence, ancient and modern, to back up what I write here, and you are free to choose the particular story you believe and live.)

Now thyroid cancer has made its appearance. I’ve read that it might be related in some way to breast cancer. Genetics again? Maybe. But the thyroid is in the area of the fifth chakra, which is all about communication, voice, creativity. I have long spoken and thought about how to find my “voice,” to speak my truth, to communicate from my heart (as I am doing here) instead of being afraid to share what is there. Maybe the cause is a blocked or unbalanced fifth chakra. I don’t know, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility.

There could be any number of other causes, too, none of which I will ever know for sure. I simply want to remain open to possibilities because that offers more opportunity for healing and restoration of many kinds.

I am fortunate and grateful that a skilled surgeon will remove my thyroid, along with the cancer, and that pharmaceutical options can replace the missing hormones. Yet I am also pursuing other avenues of healing my mindbody as well. One is working with a Reiki master to help balance my energy and restore physical and emotional equilibrium. In addition, a dear friend, a psychologist who has done medical hypnosis for more than thirty years, has created a personalized audio session that carries me through a skillful, loving surgery free of complications, complete and easy recovery, and quick stabilization of my thyroid hormone replacement. I listen to it each morning to bring this desired, imagined reality into actual reality, using the awesome power of my mindbody (which you have too, by the way).

In meditation, I am also listening to my heart for any messages it might have for me. And in relying on the 40,000 neurons, the wisdom, and the spiritual insight it contains, I’m also listening with my heart, too, bypassing my brain and its rationalizations and delusions in order to sense the deeper reality that lives there.

Of course, I am journaling about all of this, in whatever ways feel best when I sit down to write.

I cannot know the ultimate outcome of this new chapter—or maybe just a long paragraph—of my Living, Breathing Story. Right now, it feels positive. It has already reminded me, yet again, of all the love and support that always surrounds me. It may hold an unseen gift (this has happened before with other difficult experiences) or offer a lesson that will serve me well (so has this). Those things might be wrapped up in dire or difficult circumstances that will require fortitude and faith. Time will tell. As my future unfolds, I am doing my best to maintain my Living, Breathing Story in ways that are mindful, self-compassionate, and grateful. Always grateful.

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.