Mindlessness: A Message from the Earth Element

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The mindfulness movement is big right now, and thank goodness for that. But it isn’t new. It’s the basis for Buddhist practice and has been pondered, pontificated and practiced for thousands of years. I happen to feel that “Mindfulness” is a misnomer. Our minds are too full already. They take over our lives too much. I prefer to call it “Mindlessness.” 

If we could all focus on our bodies, our senses, our lived experiences of sensuality and joy, perhaps we would suffer less. Or, even better, regard our suffering differently. There will always be suffering. It is a guarantee of our human existence. We are guaranteed to suffer, grow old, experience pain, lose everyone and everything we love and eventually die. But in the mean time we have access to so much beauty and joy if we can help ourselves see it.

If I could choose an acupuncture point or mix an herbal formula or compound a pill that would end the phenomenon of overthinking, I’d retire young, knowing I’d changed the world for the better. I’d probably win some major award. Something humanitarian. It would be a quick fix that could propel us past the self-obsession/self-criticism game, something that would allow us to invest our mental energy into more meaningful endeavors. 

I have many theories as to why we are this way. The most simple, is that in our Paleolithic lives, the ones that humans lived for 2.5 million years before we very recently found ourselves existing in the lifestyles that we now inhabit, our negative bias- our brains’ ability to seek out danger and obsessively figure out how to avoid it- kept us alive. Now it mostly makes us feel crazy, caught in the maze of our minds. It makes us isolate ourselves from the people we love, beat ourselves up for not being perfect, and generally obsess over things we have limited control over. 

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The good news? We have the power to change how our brains work. The bad news? It’s hard and takes dedication. 

Late summer is the season of the Earth element, the digestive system and colors that range from orange to yellow. It is the harvest season, cast in a golden light. The energetic of the earth element is circular. As the earth itself rotates, so does the earth element in each of us. It represents boundaries, nourishment of self and others, the intellect, and literal grounding. The earth element out of balance contributes to obsessiveness and overthinking. The mind that cannot help but chew continuously on a thought. The idea that keeps circling back again and again, digging itself deeper.

The more we practice thought patterns, the more comfortably those neural synapses fire. It’s why practiced movements in our bodies become natural. But to change mental patterns, we have to work with the muscle memory of our brains. We have to practice good thinking hygiene. We have to remember the world around us and connect with it. We have to keep our perspective.

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I asked my brilliant community what they do when they are overwhelmed with thoughts. Rather than me, an “expert,” telling you what to do, I’d rather suggest that we all have an intuitive sense of what we need to move through that stuck place. Even if that feels hard to access while you’re immersed in it, and even when intuition and fear/instinct feel hard to differentiate.

Valerie says: Meditation. Exercise. Mindfulness. Being aware that I am not my thoughts. Using imagery like a gust of wind blowing away the negative or excessive thoughts. Or clipping the thoughts like flowers.

Jensen says: Run. Exercise. Any type of intense physical exertion. It allows you to either completely forget your vexing issues while you concentrate on the demanding task-at-hand, or conversely analyze an issue while you avoid thinking about the physical discomfort. Either way, you come away feeling better.

Tobi says: I practice somatic exercises as well as refocusing and redirecting, not only my physical line of vision, but sounds and smells. Breathing into what ever I am experiencing in the moment

Zoe suggested gardening and this meditation I had never heard before that made me laugh and also let go.

Jessica says: I have a 20 min dance playlist, that is guaranteed to make me dance, and I dance, for at least 1 song

Emily says: Talk to someone you feel safe with, who just listens and doesn’t try to change your thoughts

Webster says: I discovered singing is good for overriding internal monologues

Megan and Caroline agree about journaling.

Li says: stop judging the feeling, and breath into it, see what giving it a little more space does to free it up

Erin says: I lift really heavy weights. It helps me get grounded

And of course Lilly and I say acupuncture. I’m copying all of these quotes because they begin to suggest something that Brooke brought up when I asked her, which is the polyvagal theory. She put it very clearly when she said, “story follows state.” She continues, “Essentially if we calm our nervous system the story falls away. The story is a result of our nervous system telling us we are unsafe and our mind trying to figure out why.”

And this is such an important point. We are narrative creatures. If something happens, we want to know why. We want to make sense of things, and to do so, we weave our life’s happenings into a story. It is a mechanism of the brain we have little control over, but when we see it for what it is, the story has less power. We begin to train ourselves to drop the story mid-sentence.

Cyclical thinking centers itself around a story we’ve made up to explain why our autonomic nervous system, the unconscious one that reacts and responds to the world around us- sympathetic “fight or flight” or parasympathetic, “rest and digest”- feels heightened. When often the story should go like this: “I waited too long for breakfast” or “I stayed up too late watching shows” or “I’m worried about not having enough money to pay the bills” or “I almost got hit by that car.” It goes like this: “That person hates me” or “I said the wrong thing during that conversation” or “Maybe this relationship isn’t right for me.” 

“Modern life for the average human is full of imaginary lions, stressors that keep our bodies out of optimal balance, and full of inflammatory chemicals.”
— -Victoria Albina, FNP-c, MPH

And then we fixate, elaborating the story, detailing it so it stretches from our past to our future, distracting us from our present. What’s brilliant about what everyone said in response to my question, is that all of those things calm and settle the autonomic nervous system. When we are no longer in “fight or flight” mode, we don’t need a story about why we feel the way we do. The story falls away. We can get back to “rest and digest”. 

Let’s talk about how to get the nervous system regulated in difficult moments. I will defer to my dear friend and stellar practitioner Victoria Albina, who wrote a whole article on how to regulate the vagus nerve, which is the cranial nerve responsible for stimulating our organ systems to function properly and is the most direct way to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system.

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“Stress” and “Inflammation” are household terms now, inevitabilities of how most of us live. The work ethic and food industry in the United States have changed dramatically over the last 50 years in a way that negatively impact both. Systemic oppression and injustice have created stress and therefore inflammation in our society since its beginning. We only have so much control over those things. When able to, finding a healthy, grounded lifestyle within these systems is helpful. But we can also take a shortcut, by stimulating the vagus nerve directly when we can. I encourage you to read Vic’s article in full, but I will list a few things that stimulate the vagus nerve to intrigue you: 

  • Singing, chanting and gargling: vibration to the throat stimulates the vagus nerve

  • Meditation

  • Exercise: movement stimulates the digestive system and encourages food waste to move through

  • Deep, slow breathing: everything speeds up when we are stimulated, making us feel an urgency that isn’t actually there a lot of the time. Slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve but it also slows us down so we can make a conscious, good decision instead of a quick one

  • Yoga: sun salutations specifically stimulate the vagus nerve

  • Acupuncture: it’s proven to stimulate vagus nerve function 

  • Massage: even self massage to the feet, neck muscles and abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve

  • Cold water or air: exposure to cold slows everything down and brings on the parasympathetic nervous system

In Chinese medicine, the link between the gut and the brain has always been known. The digestive system helps us digest food and information. The intellect is paired with the digestive system as our way of integrating the external world in a way that nourishes our internal world. Now it is finally proven by Western science that our digestive health is a major factor in our mental health. The vagus nerve has a major impact on digestive health and letting go of the stories that no longer serve us. 

Next time you find yourself mid-story, within a long narration about why you’re feeling bad, consider just letting it go. Take a walk, breathe deeply, make up a silly song, dance around the room, stop and notice the world around you. There doesn’t need to be any judgment about the story. You can even thank your brain for keeping you alive and tell it lovingly to shut up.

Photo credits:

Bryan Minear,  Ashley Batz, Tachina Lee, John Arano, Jason Rosewell

Posted on September 18, 2019 .

Life’s Work: Wisdom of the Water Element

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It seems likely that each of us has some important work to do in this lifetime. And I don’t mean the capitalist-style, work-your-butt-off-make-the-money-til-you-die kind of important work. Our work might be creative. Or invisible. It might be transformative. It might not show up in our lifetime, lost in the stream of a shifting, changing world. Our work might be about learning how to love deeply. Or making beautiful things that enrich other people’s experience of being alive.

The winter season is associated with the water element. The water element is from where we are born and to where we return when we leave this life. You could call it the collective subconscious. You could call it the deep creative force, the subconscious movements of the universe. Some might call it god. The void. The great unknown.

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When you return a drop of water to a puddle or an ocean it immediately becomes one with the other drops of water. It effortlessly belongs. Our experience of life as individuals is mostly an illusion, and one that causes a lot of pain. Everything in life is interdependent, and if we really think about it, almost nothing we touch or use escapes the dependence or influence of others.

Even if you grow your own food, the soil, sun, rain and air are integral to the existence of that food. We are never in isolation. Our cells, our vibrations influence each other. We are always having impact on each other. Some of this is obvious, some of it is very subtle.

Life’s work is always a collaboration. We are always working with, for and about others, even when it seems solitary. What each of us channel is something we are all connected to.

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Although the winter season tends to inspire a kind of hibernation and we might find ourselves being less social, the energy of the season encourages us to take care of ourselves as part of the seasonal cycle that impacts all living things. It is the time to root deeply. Just look to the natural world if you are unsure how to feel harmonious with the winter season.

An inward energetic doesn’t have to mean isolation. It offers the time and space to connect with the deeper layers of ourselves and there I think we find that our pains and joys are collective. The human experience, our genetic make-up, even, is far more shared than different. Which is why when people are suffering in the world, we all suffer and why individualist greed and hoarding of resources is so misguided.

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We each have our own path, at times direct and at times winding and mysterious, but all paths are interwoven. Winter is a good time to connect with our water element and ask ourselves if we feel we’re on our path, to set intentions to be doing our life’s work, to dream deeply of all the things spring and summer energy will help us manifest.

I’ve never been someone to fixate on the “meaning of life” or the point of all this. Of course there are certainly times I want to know why things happen the way they do, what the lesson is to be learned from misfortunes and pain. And I wonder if some of what we are playing out is what has been passed down to us genetically. Is my tendency to focus on what isn’t working out in my life (called the “negative bias”) part of the strategy humans used to survive as defenseless beasts in a world of prehistoric predators? Is my anxiety there in part because my great grandparents fled the Ukraine to avoid anti-Jewish pogroms? How much is passed down through all our human genes and how much is more personal, more familial?

What is Karma? What is a legacy? What is destiny? What is it to you?

In Chinese medicine the idea of destiny is related to the water element, the organ systems of the Kidney and Bladder and the winter season. Our destiny or life’s work is thought to reside in those aspects.

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A basic physiological understanding of Chinese medicine is that the interaction between fire and water is essential to our health and well-being. This plays out in many body functions, and is a great example of the interplay of yin and yang, but what I’m going to focus on is how it plays out in terms of this question of our life’s work.

The Kidneys are thought to house our blueprint, our destiny, our DNA. How this plays out in our lives, that’s up to the Heart, an organ system of the fire element.

The Heart is like the authentic you that shows up for every moment. The Heart is the true self, which is changing all the time, so it lives fully in the present. In a healthy relationship, the blueprint of the Kidneys is guiding the course of our lives and the authenticity of the Heart is in turn influencing that blueprint and the path we are on. In balance, they keep us on track to having a deep, meaningful life while allowing flexibility, growth and new understanding about how we can best contribute to the world.

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You see why this concept feels relevant to our life’s work. Finding a balance between the talents, skills and interests we have with the work that needs doing in the world’s present circumstance ultimately leads to fulfillment of the Kidneys’ desire and satiates the Heart’s authenticity. We call this Heart and Kidney communication. A common diagnosis in Chinese medicine is “Heart and Kidney not communicating” and this can lead to problems of a physical or spiritual matter. Or anywhere in between.

You could look at the Kidneys as the genetics and the Heart as the epigenetics. Genetics refers to our genes, the tangible material that is contained within our cells. Epigenetics refers to what actually shows up, why certain genetic material gets turned on and not other genetic material. Although epigenetics as a concept has been around for a long time, it didn’t start getting mainstream attention until the mid-90s. A lot remains unknown about why people with the same genes manifest them differently. You can have a marker for cancer or Alzheimer’s but never get it.

What’s cool about epigenetics, is that it is malleable, reversible and ultimately more within our control than just what genes we were born with. Everything is not predestined. We get to make a lot of choices about how our physical, substantial beings evolve throughout our lifetime. That’s based on lifestyle, environment, diet, exercise, relationships, meditation, creative and emotional expression, stress. It’s based on everything that isn’t just what we were born with. So essentially, in the “nature vs. nurture” debate, the answer is always both. They are inseparable. How we live determines what of our genetics manifest.

Because of the brilliant nature of the language of Chinese medicine, it is assumed that whatever happens to us, happens on all of our levels. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. There isn’t even language for separating those layers of our being.

This means that if someone is denying their true, authentic nature, unable to show up for the moment, they might become sick. If fear is allowed to control a person, preventing them from moving forward on their path, fulfilling their life’s work, they may experience physical pain. Some people who are chronically stressed develop heart disease. Under chronic stress, who is really able to honor the Heart by showing up as their authentic self? And so the Heart becomes sick. If a lifestyle is careless or unrewarding, it may increase the likelihood of disease manifestation. And likewise, an illness might be our way back to the path. It feels like a punishment, this pain and suffering. But as Buddhism teaches us, pain and suffering are an opportunity for transformation. And opportunity to really show up for your life.

I’m starting to believe my path is meant to be a wandering one. I have many passions, hobbies, communities, interests. Sometimes that makes me think I’m flaky or unfocused. Can’t I just pick one thing and get really good at it? The answer is no. That has been frustrating in the past, and it still is, but I see how all of my different interests influence each other in an expansive way.

My legacy isn’t going to be a piece of music that gets played for hundreds of years after my death. It isn’t going to be a building that I designed or built. But I like to think it will be a slow and steady presence, a vibration of compassion, deep thinking, healing, inspiration and joy that impacts the people around me and then gets transformed and passed on. That might be the most I have to give to the world.

These words, seen or unseen, might be my legacy. There’s only so much control we have over that anyway. But when I show up with my authentic self, when I’m present and compassionate with the people around me, all the disjointed parts of my life make sense. I don’t feel the loss of a major, definable, direct purpose. And if I happen to write a prize-winning novel that’s read for centuries, well that wouldn’t be a bad thing either. But it will be a story based on everything I’ve learned about being human through all the different paths I’ve wandered. It will be something about the human condition that hopefully most people can relate to. It will be because I showed up with my authentic self.

Posted on February 26, 2019 .

Moderation: A Challenge from the Earth Element

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I consider myself a “yes” person. Yes, I want to climb that mountain, yes, I want to dance around sweaty at the show, yes, I want to sit quietly and talk about the moon. Yes, I want to eat fried chicken with my fingers. Yes, I want to make elderberry syrup and take it daily to stay healthy through the winter. Yes, chocolate cake is one of my favorite foods. Yes, I feel better when I avoid sugar and eat mostly cooked vegetables and protein.

Moderation is a “yes” person’s best and most challenging friend. It asks us to say, “no,” “maybe” or “just a little” more often than we’d like. But it allows for a settledness. An opportunity for quiet. With internal reflection, the true answer can reveal itself. And it doesn’t ask us to deny ourselves the things that bring us joy. It just asks for balance.

We don’t live in a moderate world. We live in an environment of extremes, that makes us feel guilty for our indulgences and also prone to binging. But what if we can have it all? Just not all of the time.

Moderation is an interesting concept, seemingly almost contrary to our human nature. As I sit with patients I sense an extremism in how many approach life. And I find it in myself. That, “To hell with it!'“ attitude if I am going to indulge. The impulse to stay out all night, eat the whole cake, push oneself beyond the obvious limitations. We do this for many reasons: our highly capitalist, production-based society, our own needs, goals and desires in our busy lives, our lack of modeling on how to live moderately.

Diets of extremity are prevalent. Folks want to lose weight, have more energy, feel better and avoid the foods that upset their digestion and mental health. These are all understandable motivations to adjust one’s lifestyle. But so commonly it is the extreme adjustments people are drawn to. The “Change your life in 30 days!” model. The truth is that these habits are much less likely to last, and to benefit us in the long run. Maybe we just need to eat less and chew more. Cut back on the things we know don’t sit right with us.

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Sure, the occasional fast or very restricted diet can be helpful, especially when one is ill or uncomfortable. Yes, when a person has food allergies and intolerances it is recommended to avoid those foods. At least for a while. And addiction may require substances to be strictly avoided. For very sick people diet can make a huge impact on recovery. But does our extremism end up biting us in the backside more often than it helps us? Does it set us up for failure and disappointment in ourselves?

Moderation offers many lessons, but I hope that one of them is an ease and gentleness with the self. Moderation allows us to not be perfect. It sets achievable goals, a reasonable pace. It accepts our flaws and also encourages us to aim higher.

I often look to Buddhist principles for inspiration and I am seldom disappointed. In the Buddhist tradition that I follow, we use a meal practice called Oryoki, which feels to me like a perfect lesson in moderation. The word Oryoki is often translated to mean “just the right amount” and it is the practice of serving, eating and tidying up after a meal with efficiency.

An Oryoki set consists of three bowls that nest together, a spoon, chopsticks, a napkin, a wiping rag and a small rubber or wooden spatula or setsu. These are all stacked precisely and wrapped tidily in a larger cloth. When food is served, the bowls are laid out in order, with the main dish in the largest bowl and often pickles or a small side dish in the smallest.

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The meal is served, eaten and the bowls are cleaned in silence or with prayer. Once the food is gone, water or tea is poured between the bowls and the spatula and rag are used to clean those and the utensils. By the end of the meal the bowls are cleaned, stacked and wrapped in the knotted cloth, ready for the next meal. This is conducted simply, with few steps to allow for deep meditation while eating. For intention with every movement.

John Kain writes that “Each movement of oryoki is compact, subtle, and designed to unfold in harmony, demanding meticulous awareness to what is happening in the moment.”

There is no place for wasted or uneaten food, so when serving oneself, the amount of food taken must be consumed. It must be just the right amount. When eating with others, the food is to be consumed in a mindful way but efficiently, so as to not make others wait. Because of this, it is important to gauge the level of hunger, the right amount of food. One must check in with the body, tune in to hunger, acceptance of nourishment and the resulting fullness.

Oryoki can reveal the internal state by showing us our tendencies to take too much or to little, to be controlling or disorganized. Of course mistakes happen and the goal is not perfection, but instead we get to observe our behavior for what it is, outside the lens of judgement.

The beautiful efficiency of Oryoki inspires me to be efficient and moderate in the ways I eat and live, beyond the sangha and the meditation cushion. It reminds me to choose my food deliberately and chew it well, to have gratitude for the things I have and to accept my limitations.

You can be a runner without completing a marathon. You can eat well and conscientiously without being on a diet.

Writer, acupuncturist and functional medicine practitioner Chris Kresser says in his book, The Paleo Cure, to find the healthiest food practice for your body and do it 80% of the time. Set your habits well for a healthy life and then allow some wiggle room. Let yourself be spontaneous and free if it brings you joy.

The earth element, which resonates with the late summer season, is represented in the body by the upper digestive system, the stomach and spleen/pancreas. Our ability to nourish ourselves and others with appropriate boundaries. The earth element is of a cyclical nature, with the intellect as the spleen’s intangible manifestation. Cyclical thinking is associated with the energy of the earth element when it is out of balance and our overthinking is often what leads to our inability to be moderate.

If I could cure overthinking I’d be the most successful acupuncturist in the world! Unfortunately I can’t. But I can support a settled, body-oriented existence with encouragement to follow practices that include moderation.

Set yourself up for success with achievable goals that are longer lasting than an extreme you can’t stick to. Run two miles a day instead of five or nothing. Drink alcohol a couple nights a week but not every night. Reduce your sugar intake but don’t feel you have to read the ingredients of everything you put into your mouth for the rest of your life. Once these practices begin, you might find yourself running longer than you planned to or just not craving sugar anymore.

I have a challenge for you. When you do indulge, can you do so without feeling bad about it? Can you make the choice to eat a piece of cake, take a day off from exercise or watch an hour of TV without feeling guilty? It’s often the guilt that leads to disappointment that leads to giving up and binging on sugar, sloth and television. But if we can feel okay about our decisions, even when they are not the healthiest, and really find joy in the thing we have chosen, then we can also move back into our healthier habits without much effort.

Moderation is an exercise in self-reflection. It asks the question, “What do I need and what can I live without?” It reduces the amount of stress we put on ourselves so we can enjoy the indulgences we take and also move forward with our goals. 

For more on Oryoki: https://tricycle.org/magazine/eating-just-right-amount/

Posted on September 18, 2018 .

The Power of Love, the Power of Fear: Undulations of the Fire Element

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As summer unfurls with a lushness and sense of abandon, we are asked to find our interconnectedness and joy. Joy is the emotion associated with the fire element, early summer’s realm, and the fire’s energetic is to reach out, to connect with others. I find myself struggling to find and justify joy. Families are being separated at the border. A country that was founded on in the pursuit of religious freedom is now discriminating against certain religions. Our very basic human rights are under threat. Where is there room for joy?

And then I remember my old marching band, the Infernal Noise Brigade. Our practice was joy as a form of rebellion. We would come clattering in formation, all 20-some-odd of us, in punk-fabulous attire, with handmade harnesses for our instruments and flags and whistles. When we showed up to the protest, the march or the rally, when we blasted horns and beat drums in the street, people used joy as fuel. They danced and smiled and kept fighting the good fight, anger still present but transformed, sustainable. We all remembered why we were there: to demand joy as a human right. To fight with love.

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Love is a radical rebellion against capitalism, against the status quo. Joy is a revolution against the prison industrial complex, against corporate greed. Joy and love connect us to our humanity. Our humanity reminds us why we all deserve equal access to secure homes, clean water, nourishing food and physical safety.

From a very young age I yearned to know what motivated some people to be freedom fighters and others unjust persecutors. I couldn’t understand why some are committed to uniting humans through kindness and love while others wrap their lives up with practices of threat, intimidation and violence. It feels like a polarity of human nature. It is so evident in our current political climate, in social media rants, in the way my city is changing.

Looking at the delicate interplay between love and fear as motivators for human behavior fills some gaps in the puzzle. Our lifestyles have evolved speedily away from those of our recent ancestors, the threats to our wellbeing are quite different than they used to be, and yet our systems haven’t had much time to catch up. We react as though our survival is threatened when a coworker is in a bad mood or our partner is incommunicative. In some ways, until recently in our human history, our tribe was our survival. And being able to respond quickly to subtle variations in our environment might have been the thing that saved us.

There are many models of how this polarity shows up in human body and behavior. I am highlighting some of these theories to suggest that the state of our bodies, the impact of our lives on our nervous systems, can shift us back and forth between our survival instincts and our compassionate nature.

There are many reasons humans become disregulated and live in a hyper-vigilant state. It is very hard to love and put energy into human connection when one’s life feels endangered. This is a daily reality for some people, because of police and racial violence, not having a safe place to live or access to enough food. Others find themselves in constant fight or flight mode for more mysterious reasons, even when they are relatively safe and have access to resources.

Heart and Pericardium

“The healthy experience of intimacy with others is based on knowing what lies in our own heart.” – Lonny Jarrett

Because I now see many puzzles through the lens of Chinese medicine, I am choosing the Heart and Pericardium as my first model for a conversation about love and fear.

In Chinese philosophy the Heart is considered the benevolent leader, the true self. The Heart is both where, how and why we seek to connect with each other. To be truly open to intimacy with others, we must know what is in our own heart. We must be on the path created by our own truth.

Anatomically, the pericardium is a membranous sac that surrounds the heart with a protective fluid. In Chinese medical philosophy, it is called the heart protector, and it is seen as the heart’s fortress. The Pericardium decides what is allowed into the heart and what isn’t. The heart knows no fear or mistrust, and so it needs a firm bodyguard to decide who is worthy of the Heart’s golden light. The Heart would give itself freely. The Heart would welcome everyone to the dinner party. But the Pericardium is weary of freeloaders and those with mal intent. The Pericardium knows the value of the Heart.

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The Heart and Pericardium are both organs of the fire element, the joy, laughter and love of our lives. The hearth to which we come home. The fire element helps us reach out and communicate with others. In balance, the Heart exerts its energy appropriately and the Pericardium is open but discerning. The fire element out of balance doesn’t know how to warm itself, lacking in engagement with intimacy, or it over-warms- burning through relationships- burning through life. The fire can gently warm and invigorate or it can sear and scald. It requires balance. Without human contact and connection, the Heart withers. With too much, it is overwhelmed.

Trust and safety are essential to a healthy Heart dynamic and often, with betrayal or lack of intimacy in formative years, the heart protector becomes rigid, over-controlling. Fear of being hurt again prevents true openness to intimacy. Fear blocks love from truly taking root.

I often ask myself, “Is my Heart big enough to hold everything this human life has to offer? Can it make room for all the beauty and joy while not turning its back on the pain and grief? Can it love even when it sees all the hate and fear in the world? Can it love when there is no guarantee of love in return?” I ask myself these questions a lot these days, as I coax myself to be a loving person as an act of rebellion against the forces of hateful ignorance.

Recently I was at a meditation retreat. Within 24 hours I had witnessed a dear friend give birth and found out another friend lay dying in a hospital of a drug overdose. I sat in the quiet room filled with collective cultivation and I asked myself, “Is there room in my heart to hold it all?” I wasn’t sure, stretched as I was by the marvelous phenomenon of birth and the dark mystery of death occurring so close to each other, so I asked my teacher. I sat on the cushion across from him during our private meeting and I explained my feelings about the present moment, having to experience so fully the extremes of human existence. I asked, “Can I hold space for all of this?”

He said, in his calm and thoughtful manner, “No, you can’t.” It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. He continued, “You can’t do it alone. But you can when you tap into the collective heart. When you connect with the whole of humanity. You can’t do it by yourself, but you don’t have to.”

Autonomic Nervous System

I speak a lot about the autonomic nervous system because of how greatly it impacts health and the ability to heal. We are equipped with two complementary autonomic (unconsciously directed) nervous systems and together they allow us to achieve balance.

The sympathetic nervous system is dominant during activity, exertion, arousal and stress. It responds quickly to our environments, activating our muscles, speeding up the heartbeat. It is balanced by the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart down, facilitates digestion and rest and allows human intimacy and connection.

When the collaboration between the two systems is balanced, we are able to move appropriately between the two, in sympathetic when we are exercising, running late for work or feel endangered in some fashion and in parasympathetic when it’s time to rest, eat a meal or spend time with someone we love.

When the body is under stress from overstimulation, overwork, fear and anxiety or denial of basic human needs like enough sleep, nourishing food and physical safety, the balance gets thrown off. The body stays in sympathetic mode and reacts in a hyper-activated/hyper-reactive manner. This interferes with digestion, sleep and intimacy. It’s hard to be patient, to listen and respond appropriately and to connect with others when we exist in that space.

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Polyvagal Theory

The vagus nerve is the cranial nerve that enervates the organ systems. It is one of the prime tools of balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems by bringing on the parasympathetic. It has two branches in humans. The more primitive dorsal branch is common to all animals and is greatly impacted by trauma (both big and little traumas), which can cause a total shutdown of the system. The ventral branch is newer in our evolution and unique to mammals that raise live young. It initiates facial expressions and expression-recognition for social contact. Cardiac and digestive changes have proven to be associated with facial expression via the ventral branch of the vagus nerve.

Social engagement stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and allows us to settle. Stress stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and keeps us on guard.

Ancestral Trauma

Trauma can be transferred through generations via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms.

Through clinical observation of myriad populations of people who have gone through traumas such as genocide, slavery, abuse, starvation, extreme poverty and family separation, and how those traumas were passed down through generations, the term intergenerational transmission of trauma was introduced. Studies of epigenetically transferred stress hormone patterning suggest that trauma is passed not just through nurturing influence, but that stresses of this severity actually have a genetic impact and can be passed on for generations via genetic coding.

Attachment Theory

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Attachment theory attempts to explain close personal relationships and why people respond to intimacy the way they do based on developmental conditioning. Psychologist John Bowlby defines attachment as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Three main attachment styles were originally identified: ambivalent-insecure (anxious), avoidant-insecure and secure. Adult behavior in intimate relationships can be categorized and understood based on these attachment styles.

A secure attachment comes from a place of love and ability to connect in a regulated manner. For the more anxious attachment style, love and anxiety are often intertwined, making it difficult for love to blossom without a lot of fears coming up. People with an avoidant attachment style are more guarded against letting love in or out, similar to an overactive Pericardium.

Humans are hard wired to connect to other humans. Sometimes our attachment styles interfere with our ability to do that, but with acknowledgement and practice we are all capable of getting back to our innate ability to love deeply.

Love and Fear

All humans have an enormous capacity for love and all humans have a system wired for fear and survival. We are always navigating our way through the biological responses of our bodies to survive and the desire of our hearts to connect through community, intimacy and love. That is the human condition. And it’s a bit of a contradiction that we have to live with.

We know through studies of neuroplasticity that the central nervous system responds by strengthening the pathways we practice. When we are able to practice kindness, love and honoring of other people, those practices become more natural to us. When we communicate well, open ourselves up to others and take in the beauty around us, we have more capacity for joy. And joy can be our fuel, even in a difficult world where people are treated unfairly and our future is unknown.

Joy can help us fight for freedom and equality for all. Joy and love can help us undo the power of fear, which causes people to hate those that are different from them and hoard resources they don’t need. I remind myself that when people are behaving that way they are acting from their more primitive instincts. They are forgetting their humanity. And they are suffering as a result. This allows me to have some compassion.

How We Move Forward

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This struggle in us, between our compassionate human nature and our animalistic instinct, will continue. But we are not helpless. We can take care of ourselves in order to show up for others. We can nourish our human connections and reinforce our compassionate nature by practicing it. We can be excellent to each other. We can look out for strangers. We can admit when we are hurt or insecure. We can be emotionally accountable. We can find joy in the little things life offers and let it fuel our resistance to greed, hate and fear. We can write love letters. We can practice kindness, even when we feel we have nothing left to give. Often practicing kindness is a gift, too.

Photos by: Ian Schneid, Tanya Heffner, Vlad Tchompa, Bruno Nascime, Helena Lopez

Posted on July 3, 2018 .

The Healing Power of Rest: Reflections on the Water Element

The Water Element

The winter season welcomes in the water element, and as I have written about before, it is the element and season that houses our great potential. The seed of our ambitions. The deep well of our creativity. Cultivation this time of year is potent. As is self-reflection. Just as the smooth surface of a lake shows us the reflection of a winter sky, a calm surface allows us to look within.

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We can sit with the sense of our own accomplishments, those behind us and those still to come. Because the water element represents death and also birth, the murky mystery from which we all emerged and to which we are all slowly returning, the season of the water element offers a chance to consider our life’s path.

Winter, when the natural world around us has let go its blooms and leaves and settled its potential deep inside the earth, tells us to slow down. It tells us to stay home, to move less, to sleep more, to fatten up a little.

Our world is very stimulating, especially for city-dwellers. Artificial lights allows us to party or work all night, artificial stimulants allow us to think we have the energy to do so. They let us push past the gentle urging of the body and limitations of the natural world to “burn the candle at both ends.” But it catches up with us sooner or later. We are of the animal world, after all. We need sleep to reset our neurotransmitters and cardiovascular system, regulate appetite, build blood cells, repair tissues and improve memory. And all of the stimulants we surround ourselves with make sleep harder.

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“Sleep hygiene” is a term that gets thrown around a lot and I admit that while I usually say it to patients with air quotes, I end up referring to it a lot. We are asking a lot of our brains to be in full throttle all day and then to suddenly shut off when we turn out the lights. Most brains need a little wind down time before they can turn inward and allow sleep to come. I’ve always been envious of the people who lie down and are immediately breathing contentedly in sleep as I toss and turn. My brain and I usually have to battle it out for a while before the stillness comes. But there are things that bring it on faster.

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Good “Sleep Hygiene”

Anyone who struggles with sleep or chronically doesn’t get enough of it knows how essential it is for living a good life. A lot of patients who come to see me for acupuncture are hoping for more energy. We do an initial intake interview and I ask them questions about all their systems. When it comes to answering questions about energy, they say it is chronically, inexplicably low. When I ask about sleep, they will often tell me they get four to six hours of sleep a night.

There are a lot of reasons people have low energy- thyroid disregulation, lack of nutrients or nutrient absorption, auto-immune disease, poor diet, chronic stress, depression- all things acupuncture can treat very successfully, but at this point in the conversation I usually laugh and say, “Bingo! That’s probably why you have low energy! You need about three more hours of sleep a night.” A lack of sleep can bring on all kinds of symptoms and exacerbate chronic conditions. Maybe we think we’re beyond the needs of our animal bodies, but we aren’t.

Sleep is cyclical, like everything else. When there are more dark hours than light, the body follows the cues of nature and prefers more sleep. To deviate from this biological need can sometimes send the body into a reactive state, stimulating the Sympathetic Nervous System, which gets called upon when the body feels survival is threatened. When our basic needs: safety, nourishing food and substantial rest are denied, it impacts the nervous system. Just like a healthy diet based on foods that are in season, consider that your sleeping habits can change season to season. Winter is the season of darkness, to our bodies that means it is the season of sleep.

But of course just because you’ve committed to getting enough sleep doesn’t mean you will just fall into blissful slumber the minute your schedule clears. Sometimes sleep takes cultivation.

Suggestions to Increase Quality and Quantity of Sleep

-Food: Eat your biggest evening meal at least a couple of hours before going to sleep so your metabolism has time to process it. Hunger at night can induce low blood sugar, so a small snack before bed can help regulate the circadian rhythm and calm the brain without affecting weight. Likewise eating first thing in the morning stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System, grounding our systems and giving us good footing for the day.

A small carb/protein-combining snack is best before bed, like cheese and crackers, apple and nut butter, yogurt and granola. Click here to learn more about this.

-Stimulation: Avoid stimulating foods and activities before bed. For some people caffeine should be avoided after 3pm at the latest (and for some it should be avoided completely). Remember chocolate has caffeine in it! Vigorous exercise late at night can awaken the system when it is trying to settle down.

-Eye Stimulation and Sleep Hormones: Screens and the blue light they emit can interfere with the sleep hormone melatonin and can even increase the stress hormone cortisol. Avoiding screens for at least a half an hour before bed can increase the ability to fall asleep and the quality of sleep. I know this is a tall order. My realistic recommendation is to at least apply a pink light filter like f.lux to all screens so the light they give off is less stimulating to brain activity once the sun goes down. Some phones and computers have a “night mode” option under display preferences. Learn more.

-Environment: If it is possible to have your sleeping space be dark, quiet and free of stimulation in general, this helps set the tone for relaxation. Even a curtain around the bed or a room-dividing folding screen that suggests it is a separate space helps the brain make the association of rest with the spaces of sleep.

-Rituals: It is helpful to have some form of nighttime ritual that inspires winding down. This can come in many forms like a hot Epsom salt bath, gentle stretching, meditation, bedtime stories, body scanning (see here for more), a little writing to reflect on the day.

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There is a Chinese herbal formula that is sipped at the end of the day and with each sip, one is urged to let go the happenings, judgments and thoughts of the day, clearing the way for a sound, neutral sleep and a new day upon waking. This kind of self-reflection ritual can unwind the cyclical thinking and allow a deep mental settling.

For Early Morning Wakers

Perhaps your problem is not that you can’t fall asleep, but that you sleep well for hours and then wake and have trouble returning to it. Deep sleep tends to happen in the earlier hours of sleeping and we are more prone to waking in the early morning.

Through historical literature, documents and transcripts it has been uncovered that sleep used to come in two phases. According to A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Past Times, “We didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.”

This time between sleeps was considered ideal for reflection and contemplation, small projects, tasks and social time. Our 8-hour chunk of sleep now is credited to chronic exhaustion and fatigue that lets us resist the pull to wake between “biphasic” and “polyphasic” sleep.

According to the Chinese clock, 11pm-3am is the time of the Gall Bladder and Liver. This is the wood element, representing our creative output, our upward energy, an element of momentum and growth. Many people find themselves struggling to fall asleep within the hours of the wood element. They are more likely to want to get up and make something. These hours may also correlate with the preindustrial arousal time between phase one and two of sleep.

I urge patients who find themselves waking inexplicably in the middle of the night or early hours of the morning to not pathologize it. If you can’t fall back to sleep try getting up, drinking a little water, taking a wander around your dark home, doing a small task and then trying to sleep again. Warning: looking at screens could set off that cascade of hormonal sleeplessness, so I wouldn’t advise that.

Finding a way to ease back into sleep after waking is a challenge. Using some of the “Sleep Hygiene” suggestions previously mentioned could be helpful in those wee, quiet hours as well.

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Self-Reflection

The last point in the suggestions for how to inspire better sleep brings me to another gift of the winter season. Self-reflection. I want to emphasize the difference between self-criticism, self-judgment and self-reflection. The point of this is not to make ourselves feel bad about the ways we haven’t been present or in control in our lives. It isn’t meant as punishment. In fact it is rather the opposite. You could call it a check in. Am I the person I want to be in the world? Am I enjoying my life? Am I here at all, or am I living somewhere outside of myself, just getting through each day?

These questions activate a varied response because surviving and getting through the day looks different for everyone. I want to acknowledge that societal injustice, economic disparity, homelessness, trauma, systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, chronic pain and mental illness make every aspect of life harder for some than others. I want to suggest that joy is always a possibility. That beauty is all around us. That self-acceptance and self-compassion are radical acts that directly combat those oppressive forces.

We are all enormously imperfect. We all make mistakes. Sometimes unforgivably. Life is not simple, people are not good or bad, relationships are nuanced and indecipherable at times. We can use the moments we get called out or realize our errors as opportunities to be accountable, to apologize, reflect, to dig deeper into compassion and love, to begin to forgive ourselves, to set a good example for others. Or we can shrink from those opportunities and wall ourselves away in defensiveness.

For some people just getting through the day is an enormous accomplishment. Others are busy saving the world. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, trying to be good people, succumbing to stress and distraction, losing control and then bringing ourselves back again. Winter and the water element represent the deep seeds of our intentions. This season is an opportunity to set a new standard for ourselves. Owning our past mistakes and limitations and growing beyond them is a kind of liberation.

Going inside, focusing on the self, it seems selfish at first glance when we are looking at the big picture. But then I think about myself and what I have to offer when I haven’t slept enough or eaten well or exercised. When I haven’t made time to be creative or take in the natural world. I’m impatient, I distract easily, I can’t focus. It’s hard to be present with my patients, I get impatient with my dog, my family, the people I treasure most. My well of resources dries up. My wisdom is murky. I don’t have as much to offer.

One of the reasons many people avoid self-reflection is because at the root of it is always fear. Winter and the water element resonate with the concept of fear and the deep inner strength that comes when we face fear instead of letting it run our lives. Human existence is fragile; we are living in uncertain times. But times are always uncertain and the balance of our lives is always fragile. That doesn’t mean we have to be fragile. We don’t have to run away from the fears we know to be truths. We can make them a part of us, reflect on the very delicate nature of our lives and allow the uncertainty at the root of that nature to actually bring us peace, strength and joy. One of the most useful tools I have found for this is working with the Buddha’s Five Remembrances, often taught and shared by Thich Nhat Hanh. They are as follows:

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The Buddha's Five Remembrances.

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to avoid growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to avoid ill health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to avoid death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.

There is no way to escape
being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot avoid the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

There it is. Everything we fear. Loss, death, pain, loneliness, irrelevance, lack of control, uncertainty. These things do not make us helpless. In fact they remind us of how valuable our actions are. They speak to the importance of showing up for each moment. How big an impact our treatment of one another has. How our nature may change the world and the experience of others who live in it, but the world and our actions cannot change our own nature. We will lose everything material, everything superficial. We need not lose our integrity, our compassion or our love.

Resources:

At Day’s Close: Night in Past Times by A. Roger Ekirch

No Fear, No Death: Comforting Wisdom for Life by Thich Nhat Hanh

Photo credits:

Ramdan Authentic

Jay Wennington

Anmol

Hisu Lee

Ben Blennerhassett

Benjamin Balazs

Posted on February 5, 2018 .

Grief Brings Us Home: Contemplations on the Metal Element

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
-Leonard Cohen

Grief has never been easy for me. I am fortunate enough to have not lost someone I am close to suddenly or out of turn, with the exception of my first dog. When confronted with another’s grief I stumble through apologies, condolences, overwhelmed by the knowing that I, too, will lose those I love most. We all do. It is the nature of being alive.

If we are lucky, we slowly lose all that we love, possessions dropped or left behind, people passing away or just passing out of our lives, activities and abilities that we hold dear- we think we cannot live without- and find one day we are unable to do.

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My grandmother is 100 years old. She gave up skiing long ago, and more recently her garden plot, her car. She gave up cooking for herself, travel. Soon she will no longer be able to go to the grocery store on her own. And yet when I tell people my grandmother is 100, it is congratulatory, the way they say longevity runs in my family. As though seeing the state she is in, relatively healthy for her age, makes me want to live forever. As though holding on at any cost is better than letting go.

“We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.” 
― Joan DidionThe Year of Magical Thinking

Letting Go

Letting go is something we do daily: exhaling, defecating, shedding skin, forgetting names, leaving jobs and homes, letting go of relationships that no longer serve us. These leavings are natural, part of moving forward, part of moving. They keep us from being stagnant and falling into monotony, repetition, depression.

To make room for growth, to welcome newness, we must leave things behind. But also it is okay to grieve the significance of what we let go. We must acknowledge the impact of walking away from what we care about, even if walking away is the right thing to do. We must be willing to make room for pain so there is also room for joy, pleasure, love, enlightenment, a full range of feelings. We don’t get to pick and choose what we are numb to when numbness is the path we have chosen.

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“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.” 
-Rumi

The Metal Element

The autumn season, in the Chinese philosophy of the five elements, corresponds with the metal element, as does grief. It is the season of letting go summer’s extraverted abandon, watching things that were vibrant and green give a last joyful shout before withering away. It is about shifting the gaze internally, constricting and quieting as the weather turns cold, nurturing the roots of our inspirations. It is about letting go, focusing inward and conserving resources to get us through the dark, still season.

The Lungs and Large Intestine are the organ systems associated with grief and the metal element and they are experts at letting go.

The Lungs let go breath many times a minute. The Large Intestine lets go food waste that is no longer serving us. When these organ systems are well regulated and strong, we do not notice these functions, they just happen. I always say that a person has to be breathing well, eating well, sleeping well and eliminating well to have a shot at comfort and health. If any of those systems are not functioning right, it doesn’t take long to be in extreme discomfort. Two of those four systems are related to the metal element, which signifies its importance.

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When emotions and life experiences are not processed efficiently, it aggravates these systems. When grief is not acknowledged it can linger in the lungs, causing respiratory problems. When we hold on to experiences and emotions, often bowel troubles will occur, constipation being the physical manifestation of holding what is no longer serving us.

Not One More Article About Grief (Yes, one more article about grief)

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“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” 
― C.S. LewisA Grief Observed

I resisted writing this article for a long time, thinking “not one more article about grief!” Not one more thing telling people how to feel when they’ve lost, when there are others more qualified to report on such feelings. And then I remembered something. A story I could offer. In place of telling anyone how to feel, I can tell you how I felt, the absolute strangeness, the gift, of the loss of my first dog, Sasha.

She was hit by a car one night, a dog who was never on a leash, who ran on the sidewalk while I rode my bike through the streets of New Orleans, always stopping at each curb until I checked for cars and gave her the okay. A dog who had a healthy fear of cars. It’s the last way I would have expected her to go. But go she did, darting out when I wasn't looking, with just one flicker of a glance at me after she was hit, as I arrived at her side. One last gaze of love and then nothing. She looked perfect, like she was sleeping, but when I carried her body the few blocks home, it was broken inside. I put her on her bed, surrounded her with flowers and candles. I sat vigil for her.

If any of you have lost a dog or other animal you are close to, you know it is like losing your shadow. Or a limb. Something that has been an unspoken part of your body, your identity, the loyal extension of yourself, the unquestioning love and acceptance that most of us can’t feel for ourselves.

I mourned Sasha for a year. I still mourn her. Through tumultuous years of my life, she was my home. But in the days that followed her death I found something else beside the mourning I would have expected. Her last great gift to me.

Every morning had started with a jar of maté, and when I stirred a spoonful of honey into the jar, Sasha would hear the clinking of metal on glass and know it was time for her walk. She would gracefully pull herself from a nest of pillows and come join me in the kitchen. The neighborhood was quiet on those early morning walks and I held the warm jar to my chest between sips as Sasha trotted several yards ahead of me exploring the smells of the snaking, overgrown streets.

When Sasha died it blew everything wide open. There was no Sasha to be roused by the clinking so why stir the honey into the maté? Why drink the maté? It made me let go of every detail of the life I had lived with a steady and rigorously ignored routine. It made me wonder at the small things, only letting back in what felt right. Curiosity is a powerful emotion. It is coupled so closely with wonder, and they together can pull us into the moment, into a state of openness, non-judgment.

I understood how grief can unravel what you think you know about the world and force your heart open. For weeks I floated in a place of light. Sasha felt close, like she was with me, but without her gentle reminders of the rituals of the day, everything was rewired. She left me raw and open and filled with such sorrow that I was actually able to feel how huge my heart was. The great capacity it has.

“It is our grief
heavy, relentless,
trudging
us, however resistant,
to the decaying and rotten
bottom of things:
our grief bringing
us home.”
-Alice Walker “Turning Madness into Flowers”
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Pathologizing Emotions

The question of whether or not emotion is pathological comes up a lot in my acupuncture practice. Patients often come in observing themselves in a state of depression and/or anxiety and it is my job to suss out whether these feelings are appropriate, circumstantial reactions to life events, or if it is a matter of physiological imbalance in the brain chemistry.

Oftentimes one leads to another. A lifestyle of not sleeping enough, eating an imbalanced diet and experiencing chronic stress creates an environment for depression and anxiety to flourish.

It’s impossible not to feel the effects of an unjust system, a precarious political situation and a capitalist society that values money over human rights, health and safety. Depression and anxiety caused by this is not pathological. It means you are paying attention.

Sadness and grief experienced after a loss are not pathological. There is no logic or reason behind how we all feel sadness. There is no appropriate or inappropriate way to grieve. There is no course to navigate. We are all running blind. We are crashing into things. We are picking ourselves up again.

Even though these feelings aren’t pathological, they can become so if we don’t move through them. Not to a logical conclusion, but in the ever churning waters of transformation, we can allow ourselves to be altered by our grief, to move forward anew.

Supportive community, therapy, acupuncture and self-compassion are tools. Books, poems, words, ideas, music, are all reminders that grief is part of the human experience. Uncertainty is our human prediction. To quote Francis Weller, a grief counselor, in his incredible interview with The Sun magazine, “Poetry and music can play a significant role in grief. I think poets are more in touch with sorrow because they pay better attention to the psyche. Blues music is an American tradition that can help us find our way through suffering. And the choral music in churches: the requiems, the songs of lamentation — these were all designed to assist us in dealing with grief.”

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Grief can exhaust our systems and so it is important to take care of the body while it is grieving. Eat simple foods like congee and broth. Prioritize time outside and sleeping. Studies have found grief to affect blood pressure, pain levels, and white blood cell counts that impact immunity. Grief can increase the likelihood of a heart attack by 21 times. For more on this: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/understanding-how-grief-weakens-the-body/380006/

More pathological than expressed grief is unexpressed grief. In Chinese medical thinking, unexpressed grief impacts Lung health, leading to excess fluid in the lungs (unshed tears), Lung qi deficiency, shortness of breath, trouble deeply inhaling (taking in the current world and reality), trouble exhaling (letting go), a feeling of weight on the chest, trouble focusing. It impacts the Heart, and this we know from western and Chinese medical systems of understanding. We even know it in our language. Heart sick. Heart ache. Heart broken.

Animal Grief

“Dolphins, I learned from J. Worden of the Harvard Child Bereavement Study at Massachusetts General Hospital, had been observed refusing to eat after the death of a mate. Geese had been observed reacting to such a death by flying and calling, searching until they themselves became disoriented and lost.” 
― Joan DidionThe Year of Magical Thinking

Animal behaviorists and enthusiasts alike have observed animals grieving. Wolves, chimpanzees, magpies, crows, elephants, dolphins, otters, geese and sea lions are among many animals with grief rituals. Grief is part of our animal nature. It is part of the life cycle.

Chimpanzees sulk, cry and lie still for long periods of time. Baby elephants whose mothers have died wake up screaming. Wolves howl and hang their heads. A goose’s eyes will sink deep into the sockets.

I once witnessed a crow death ritual. Walking my dog on a busy Seattle street, meandering slowly as the dog sniffed and explored, at first I paid little attention to the bustle and noise. There are always crows cawing in my neighborhood so at first it seemed insignificant. Then the enormity of the sound struck me.

There weren’t a few crows calling. There were close to 100, filling the telephone wires and surrounding trees, beaks open to issue a magnificent discord. I looked up in wonder, confused until I noticed a dead crow in the middle of the street, its body flattened, feathers waving in the wind. Crows gathered on the sidewalks, hopping, restless, unable to reach their companion through the cars.

The crows gathered like that until a woman braved the intersection to scoop up the dead crow’s body in a newspaper. The mourners stayed as their cacophony faded. Every person on the street was silent with awe.

Grieving is necessary to move forward. As Alice Walker reminds us, the way forward is with a broken heart. The truth is that we lose everything anyway, including ourselves. Fear of loss cannot protect us, and when it stops us from loving, committing and being willing to feel deeply, it harms us greatly. Grief is something to move through. It is something to take with us. It is something to make us different, to differentiate our present from our past, to carve from us the very essence of life. The Japanese art of kintsugi, repairing broken pottery with gold and other precious metals, is my favorite metaphor for moving forward with a broken heart. It is the art of embracing damage. The art of believing something is more beautiful, more precious because it has been broken.

 

Resources

Books:

Jessmyn Ward, Men We Reaped

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Mark Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals

Articles:

https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/478/the-geography-of-sorrow

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/understanding-how-grief-weakens-the-body/380006/

“The Funny thing about endings is, whether we feel we’re victims of fate or whether we’ve consciously decided on our own that it’s time to move on, there’s still a void that forms between the ending of the old circumstance and the beginning of the new. We’re highly programmed in our society to fill that void as fast as possible. But the void is not actually empty, but silent. The void is, in fact, the home of all the possibilities in the universe.”
-DK Brainard, Words for the People

Photo credits:

Nine Kopfer, Cristian Newman, JJ Thompson, Sam Burriss, Gus Moretta. Bowl paintings: Alexandra Ceulen

Posted on October 31, 2017 .

Where’s the Joy? Meditations on the Fire Element

Years ago, when I was living in New Orleans and having a particularly difficult summer, I received a letter from my father. He had just been at a meditation retreat, where a friend told him about this question, “Where’s the joy?”

In the midst of a difficult moment or a destructive thought, just stop and ask yourself, “Where’s the joy?”

My father had found great solace in this question, engaging in it throughout the day. So simple, but it stuck with me. I had been dragging myself out of the house every day for work, biking slowly against the thick air and my own resistance, head down, plagued by mosquitoes and threats of another devastating hurricane. So I began to ask myself, “Where’s the joy?” And when I looked, it was everywhere. It was in the sweet smell of the jasmine bushes, the little breezes that found their way through my hair, sips of iced tea on a hot afternoon. It required that I get out of my head and connect with my body. Joy lived in my sensory experience of the world.

I told friends about this question, Where’s the joy?

They came back to me, telling me that asking themselves that question slowly began to remodel their consciousness, allowing them to see beauty in places they had missed it before.

I wrote out the question and taped it to a friend’s sun visor as he prepared for a drive across the country. He told me he moved it from the visor to the steering wheel, letting it be his meditation for the entire drive.

I wrote back to my father, telling him how profound that simple question had been, how it had become crucial in a difficult time, for myself and others. He quoted my letter in a talk he gave later that year. And years later I quoted his talk, quoting my letter, to a group of acupuncture students I was speaking in front of. The message got passed back and forth, slowly looping in more and more people over the years. This is how fire spreads.

People came up to me after my presentation, days and weeks later, telling me how that question, Where’s the joy? had infiltrated their reality, creating openness where there had been constriction, bringing in the senses and the somatic experience when previously there had been only thoughts.

I’m telling this story because it represents the fire element so perfectly. In Chinese philosophy, the summer season is a manifestation of the fire element. Its color is red, its energy reaches out, connecting and bonding people to each other, and its emotion is joy.

The creativity that manifested from our deepest consciousness in winter and bloomed upward in spring is now bursting out in summer. This represents the peak of our endeavors, the fruition of our rumination, the culmination of our efforts. It is a time of joy and celebration, an excuse to reach out to others in conversation and collaboration.

I will bring up New Orleans again, because it is a place where hardship, violence and oppression are part of everyday life, and yet I have never known a place where people understood better how to be joyful. When someone dies there is a second line to celebrate their life, where music, food and booze are plentiful, where the beloved departed appears on t-shirts and signs, where stories are told with so many tears and so much laughter as hundreds of people parade through the streets to live brass music.

Joy is not the antidote to sorrow, but could it be grief’s boisterous companion? Can we find room in our hearts for all of the big feelings to live together? Can we feel fear and anger and grief and still find the joy?

“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.” 
― Jalaluddin Rumi

 The Heart is the most significant and representative organ system of the fire element, accompanied by three other organ systems (fire is the only element to have more than 2 organ systems affiliated, that is the power of fire).

For now I will focus on the Heart and its yang organ pair, the Small Intestine, whose job is to filter the pure from the turbid, sorting substances that have made their way from the stomach and deciding what gets reabsorbed and what goes on to be flushed out the bladder or large intestine. The Small Intestine decides what is serving us and what is not. On every level. It is our discernment, our quality control, our truth-seeker.

The Heart, the Yin organ pair of the Small Intestine, is called on to house the spirit or Shen, in Chinese, and while it has a set of body guards, the Pericardium and Triple Burner, the Heart itself is considered to be our essence, the purity of our selves, recreated and burgeoning in each moment and reflected in the complexion, the eyes and the tongue. If you speak your truth, you are calling upon the Heart via the tongue.

Many factors can affect the Heart.

Fire is necessary to create life. It catalyses the chemical changes living creatures are reliant on, promotes circulation and allows synapses to occur in the nervous system, connecting and passing messages between our brain and bodies in every moment. Fire heats the cooking pot of our digestion, allowing us to transform food and drink into the substances and functions of our bodies. As with everything else, fire in balance with the other elements sparks life. Fire out of balance can destroy it.

In the body, excess heat and fire tend to create symptoms in the upper body, as heat rises. Some symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Skin rashes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heartburn
  • Dry throat
  • Acne
  • Burning, red eyes
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Flushed face
  • Fevers
  • Urinary Tract Infections

Heat is a common pathogen in our modern world because not only is it generated by spicy food and stress, it is also brought on by visual and audio stimulation, overpopulation, overwork, caffeine and alcohol. Inflammation is a common manifestation of fire in the body and can dramatically affect our joints, muscles and bones, or digestive systems, our skin and our moods.

Spending time in nature or quiet spaces, turning off screens and distracting technologies and sitting with ourselves can resettle our Hearts when they become heated by over-stimulation.

Deficiency of heat and fire can lead to depression, or lack of joy. Heat and function are often interchangeable as concepts in Chinese medicine. We need heat, a yang energetic, for circulation, uplifting of the organs and the mind, for fluidity, flexibility and engagement in life.

Joy is the balanced emotional manifestation of the Heart, where mania, anxiety and lack of joy are the fire element's emotions out of balance. A Heart stays in emotional balance when its truth is known and valued, when it is able to express itself appropriately.

This is not always possible in a society where resources are not equally accessible to all and those in power wish to silence the oppressed. For some, true self expression is dangerous and freedom of speech a great risk. If we live in a society where leaders and those with privilege do not want to engage with truth and weave elaborate stories to protect themselves from it, we all suffer. There is no joy in gaining at the expense of others. There is no joy in holding on to old beliefs and systems that have never represented or served the whole of our community.

Joy is fuller and deeper if we share it. Ultimately, an entire society benefits from the comfort, safety and protection of its most vulnerable members. Joy comes from giving and receiving, from opening the Heart to let love in and out, even when love grows in uncertain grounds. Even when love might lead to loss. Trusting the Heart, connecting with other people, engaging in compassionate practice toward self and others and finding the joy are ways of honoring the fire element this summer season.

For more on complicated emotions:

The Hilarious World of Depression podcast

For more on compassionate practice:

Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong by Norman Fischer

Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (video)

Self-Compassion Guided Meditations and Exercises

For more on the Chinese Medical energetics of fire and the summer season:

Wood Becomes Water by Gail Reichstein

Nourishing Destiny by Lonny S. Jarrett

For more on acupuncture:

The Spark in The Machine by Daniel Keown

If you enjoy following the cycles of the season and haven’t seen my other seasonal articles, find out how we got here, to the fruition of our efforts, with my winter and spring articles:

The Empowerment of Anger

Living through the Season of Fear

Posted on July 10, 2017 .

The Empowerment of Anger

Anger is a societal issue as much as a personal one. We have come to associate anger with violence, although studies show that anger leads to violence only 10% of the time. Anger expressed in a healthy, timely manner can actually prevent violence.

Still, anger is one of the more difficult emotions, often flinging us out of control. Anger and frustration, with their elemental wood association in Chinese philosophy, are emotions that push us. They offer growth, determination and motivation, but if that strength has no direction, it can go awry, ungrounded like directionless wind.

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The wood element is associated with wind. Like a great storm, anger comes quickly and when channeled appropriately, also quickly passes. Wood represents vision. Not just because the Liver and Gallbladder organ channels in Chinese medicine go to the eyes, but also metaphorically. Wood energy is a motivating factor, differentiating us from our family of origin by giving us each our own vision and purpose in life.

When that vision is stunted, when we can’t put it into action, when we are lacking in or unjustly denied access to the resources to do so, it is a compromise to the sense of self. This plays out in childhood and young adulthood, the life phase associated with the wood element, as we push against our parental figures. It also happens in an unjust society, where some are given more privilege, access to resources and societal priority than others. This is why we need to defend each other.

“If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up.” 
Adrienne Rich

This stunting also happens on a physical level. When qi is not allowed to flow freely, it stagnates and causes exhaustion, heat or unpredictable, intermittent symptoms. This can play out in the physical and emotional body. For more information on the physical and psycho-emotional symptoms that tend to flare in spring, see my article Spring Winds of Change.

“Anger” is the translation of the emotion associated with the wood element in Chinese philosophy, but I like to add the concept of a fierce sense of justice.

 Justice, comprised of strength, vision and flexibility, perfectly embodies the energetic of the wood element. Thusly, when any of these characteristics are compromised, the result is often anger. When one is not allowed to thrive in society. When one watches one’s community suffer at the hands of economic and social oppression. Or when one feels misunderstood and judged by the people to whom they are closest.

Constructive Anger

“When I am angry I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Anger can bring up important, unspoken issues, reveal one’s own faults for improved self-awareness, lead to important conversations within all kinds of relationships and allow a kind of vulnerability, intimacy and communication.

Constructive anger is described as anger that is justifiable and framed in such a way where a mutual problem can be rectified. Anger actually leads to a deeper connection between people.

Anger, as an alternative to fear or despair response, is more empowered, with more sense of control and motivation. According to an American Psychological Association article: “Participants primed for anger gave more optimistic--and, as it turns out, realistic--risk assessments…than those primed for fear.”

Fear and sadness tend to elicit a shutdown response, while anger is motivating. From the same article: “[Anger] can spur an entire culture to change for the better, as witnessed by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's and the earlier Women's Suffrage movement.” (1)

Further research suggests that anger leads to better performance, better negotiation skills and more creativity. Anger can lead to important conversations and revealed truth. And suppressing anger has actually been found to create health problems:

“Dr. Ernest Harburg and his team at the University of Michigan School of Public Health spent several decades tracking the same adults in a longitudinal study of anger. They found that men and women who hid the anger they felt in response to an unjust attack subsequently found themselves more likely to get bronchitis and heart attacks, and were more likely to die earlier than peers who let their anger be known when other people were annoying.” (2)

Anger has a healthy place in our society when it motivates us to express our needs, ask for help, unify and motivate groups of people to make greater social change and get to know our inner selves. It is a powerful tool, necessary alongside kindness, compassion, love and diplomacy. Anger is mobilizing. It’s what got one of every 100 Americans and upwards of 3 million people worldwide into the streets in January for the Womxn’s March. Anger got tens of thousands of protesters to shut down airports in support of immigrant rights and millions to learn how to influence local and federal government. Anger has taught us the names of all the Black lives that have been taken through racial profiling and racist brutality.

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Anger will be our ally in the months and years to come as we attempt to mold our country into a more just society for all its inhabitants. When anger arises, we feel called upon to protect our own welfare, and the well-being and survival of those we care about. It causes us to stand up for the rights of those who have been marginalized, known and unknown. Anger reflects our humanity.

Perhaps we have all heard this before and know that anger has an upside, but find that using anger positively and in a balanced way while in the intensity of the moment is more of a challenge.

How to Change the Way You Get Angry

When expressing anger in a personal situation, one thing you can try is explaining in advance that you are experiencing intense emotions and that your perspective and communication may not be as clear as if you were not emotionally charged. This has the advantage of allowing the person to whom you are speaking to choose not to be defensive, but to hear you out.

If you can approach an argument with the idea that your goal is finding a solution, even when you are shaky and somewhat out of control, you may be able to communicate this desire and inspire a more thoughtful, open-minded reaction.

“When someone hears that you are uncomfortable and that the conversation is difficult for you, it increases the likelihood that they will approach what you have to say with empathy. After using this opening, you can then delve deeper into what bothers you, what you think and feel in the aftermath of whatever happened (why anger emerged instead of other feelings).” (2)

If we can notice when we get angry and why, then we can learn what to do to improve our reactions to the things we do and don’t have control over. Anger can motivate self-awareness and positive change.

“An honorable human relationship- that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’- is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”
-Adrienne Rich
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Here is a break down to help explain how to use anger constructively:

-          Recognize the difference between events that you can change and those that are beyond your ability to control.

-          Use a tone that is not demeaning or inflammatory.

-          When you’re angry, take a moment to slow the situation down. Your impulse is to speed things up because the sympathetic nervous system gets involved and tells you there is a threat to your safety, slowing down and taking a deep breath can calm that reaction then you can…

-          Choose to make good decisions rather than fast ones. This is about reminding yourself that you have options to choose from, even in an emotionally charged situation.

-          If it’s helpful, use visualization to keep yourself focused on a positive outcome. What does the situation look like if your energy is not escalating it? What does it look like if you feel safe?

-          When you are able to take a minute to slow yourself down, calm the nervous system and return to regular breathing, you may be able to observe the other person’s reaction more intuitively. What tone of voice and body language are they using? Are they responding by lashing out or are they looking for a solution?

“Psychologist John Riskind has found that the experience of anger is not as problematic as the belief that the sequence of events triggering that anger is accelerating, that the danger is escalating, and the available window for taking action is quickly disappearing. This sense of impending danger pushes people to do something that might stop the immediate threat but in the longer term will make the situation worse.” (2)

This is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) talking. The threat response of fight or flight. Anger can trigger body memories of other times that did not feel safe, in which the SNS was called upon to react. Fortunately, through awareness and practice, we can notice the shift into a sympathetic response and try to let it pass without being reactive. This can be hard work and may be assisted by therapy, bodywork and other forms of recovery from PTSD.

The more we practice new responses to our own anger and angering situations, the more our brains adapt to find those responses natural. That is the beauty of neuroplasticity, the science of brain adaptation; the more neurological synapses fire in response to a specific situation, the more likely they are to fire that way in the future.

Whether on a personal or societal level, viewing anger as an ally and learning how to use it to make important, positive change can bring us closer to our goals and our vision for a better life.

Resources:

1. http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar03/whenanger.aspx

2. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_right_way_to_get_angry

3. http://www.spring.org.uk/2012/03/the-upside-of-anger-6-psychological-benefits-of-getting-mad.php

4. http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/12/12-laws-of-emotions.php

Posted on March 28, 2017 .

Living Through the Season of Fear: Self Care in Difficult Times

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

- Audrey Lorde

The days are getting shorter and even before the sun sets, the horizon is dim. Darker, wetter, colder, winter is the season of Yin. It is a time for replenishing resources, sleeping more, eating more, and cultivating stillness.

In Chinese philosophy and medicine, winter is the season of complete Yin. Yin refers to everything colder, darker, wetter, slower and more substantial. The associated organs are the Kidneys and Bladder, the colors that characterize the water element are black and dark blue and the emotions are deep inner strength and its opposite, fear.

Winter is a time to check in with our deeper selves. External distractions are at a minimum. The interior landscape calls. The deeper we go the more we can connect with the collective subconscious, the ancestral energy, the endless well of resilience.

Although winter can be a time of solitude and hibernation, we don’t have to do it alone. Our connections with others are extremely valuable in the darkest hours. They keep us true to ourselves. They keep us from getting lost. And our love for and from others is actually able to regulate the nervous system. 

The Autonomic Nervous System

Fear triggers deep instincts in the human nervous system. Fear contracts the body into a sympathetic response, fight or flight mode, where our resources are preserved in the form of mobile energy. Also called “hyperarousal,” or the “acute stress response,” it is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.

In ancient times that was the system that told you to run from the bear. Most of us don’t encounter dangerous predators of the animal world on a day-to-day basis. The threats to our survival come in other forms, from other directions. We have different perceived threats. Still, the body’s response is the same.

If a part of the brain called the amygdala perceives a life-threatening situation, it will contact the hypothalamus which sends out a call through the autonomic nerves to the adrenals to release epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline.

This leads to dilation of the vessels in certain muscles- the ones that poise us to run and fight- while constriction of blood vessels in other parts of the body slows down or stops the digestive process, the immune system and our ability to rest and replenish. A stress hormone cascade affects all of our hormones, dilating the eyes, relaxing the bladder and inhibiting erectile function, narrowing peripheral vision.

Epinephrine and Non-epinephrine, which initiates the balancing parasympathetic response, are produced by the adrenal glands, which live on top of the Kidneys.

The parasympathetic nervous system inspires rest and digestion, and together with the sympathetic makes up the Autonomic Nervous System, which regulates the body’s unconscious actions.

After the alarm bells have sounded, the body has responded and is no longer in perceived danger, the sympathetic nervous system falls back into balance with the parasympathetic, into a “Window of Tolerance” which is a balanced form of arousal that allows us to thrive in the everyday.

Yin and Yang in the Body

This relationship between the sympathetic response and the parasympathetic response illustrates how yin and yang work in the body. When there is a good relationship between the substantial resources (Yin) and functional energy (Yang) then we are in health.

If the body is often in a sympathetic state, it can be hard to bring it back to homeostasis, or into that “Window of Tolerance.” A constantly heightened state then leads to continued production of stress hormones, deduction of digestive function and difficulty with sleep and relaxation. One might feel more agitated, anxious, dissatisfied and frustrated.

Over time this can wear the body down. Burn out can lead to adrenal fatigue and collapse.

So thank goodness for winter and the energetic shifting of the natural world. Our season to rest and repair. To become resilient again. It is a good time of year to take note of the deep resources of the body. Our “Jing,” or essence, which is stored in the Kidneys. By resting enough and eating well, one can rebuild those deep resources. By engaging with community and coming back to a sense of wholeness we can move forward into the fray once again. 

The Importance of Self Care in Difficult Times

To refuse self-care, to ignore the guidelines of nature that requires a season of rest is to risk total burnout. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we not burn out. It will take all of us, lifting each other up, finding safety in community, connecting and pooling together our resources to make it through this difficult time. It is the only way to face fear, to be bigger than the fear, to stay awake and mobile. The alternative is paralysis. The alternative is to give in.

Uncertainty and lack of safety are part of life. For some to a much greater extent than others. For some the worst is yet to come. Which is why it is essential for us to take care of ourselves so we can show up to support those most in need. We must cultivate our inner strength.

The two emotions associated with the water element and winter- deep inner strength and fear- are opposites, in a sense, but sitting with and contemplating fear can lead to great inner strength. But we also must sit with and cultivate joy. It is essential in difficult times to ask oneself, “Where is the joy?”

Now is one of those times when it is necessary to remember joy. We must cultivate the joys of friendship, collaboration, the deep wells of creativity that push us beyond what we thought possible, into an endless pool of possibilities. The formlessness of water is the well from which our creativity springs. I use these water metaphors intentionally. To show you that intrinsically we know all of these human pleasures to be based in our watery oneness. Our deep mysterious origin. The collective sea of our being. Resilience requires the quiet rest of water. The still season of winter.

It is a great challenge to live from a place of love instead of a place of fear. Especially in a time when things are changing quickly, beyond our control, with the threat of taking essential resources away from the people who need them most.

Fear is our animal nature and love is our humanity. Fear causes us to contract, to hoard, to be weary of the “other.” Love brings about opening, reaching out, connecting, drawing from our deepest resources for the good of all. It inspires compassion, resilience, awareness, creativity.

Fear is real. It is appropriate during difficult times, when because of certain ideologies and patriarchies our freedom, our bodies themselves are under threat. All the emotions have their place, but regulating the nervous system so that fear, anxiety and stress do not replace love and compassion is essential.

Self-Care Strategies in the Season of Fear

Connection

We all have a huge impact on each other. Our compassion toward each other matters greatly. Approaching people with loving kindness is an act of rebellion against individualism, capitalism and bigotry. Even just in passing on the street. Especially now.

Feelings of love, safety, belonging and human connection create a hormone reaction that changes our physiology. They release oxytocin, the hormone associated with bonding, which is a key influence in maintaining the “Window of Tolerance.” It settles the sympathetic response and brings on the parasympathetic influence. Even thinking about people you love and feelings of love and safety can relax the nervous system. A cultivation could be to spend five minutes a day or longer just thinking about and being grateful for loved ones or feelings of love even from those far away. The gentle gaze or kind words of a stranger can be enough.

Coming together to stand up for what we believe is essential, be it in the streets or over food and drink. Direct action can move mountains. Discussion, planning and strategizing can educate and prepare us. We must be willing to show up for each other now and always. It is how great change occurs. 

Creativity

Because the Kidneys govern our deepest resources and connect us to the great void, the mystery, the collective subconscious, they house the source for our creativity. The water element represents our relationship to the universal muse, the drive and inspiration to create. This is a time to create. This is a time to make beautiful things.

Art is an act of political warfare, after all. Art is not just thinking outside the box, it is deconstructing the box and making it into a rhinoceros. Or a song. Or a love letter to someone far away.

Art is transformation. If we want to transform the negativity, the hate, the small-mindedness, creativity is an essential ally. 

Deep Breathing and Meditation

Deep breathing directly stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s free. You can do it anywhere. It reduces anxiety and stress. Deep breathing increases the oxygen supply to the brain, which increases brain function and can help prevent dementia. For more on this: http://www.npr.org/2010/12/06/131734718/just-breathe-body-has-a-built-in-stress-reliever

Breathing and meditation can be used together to inspire a deep calm. Winter is the quiet season, the dark, still season. It is a perfect time to sit with the breath and let thoughts and feelings recede to the back of the mind. Finding a place of quiet deep in the self can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing the body out of fight or flight. Once you find the still place inside, it is always there in difficult times. For some guided meditations by one of my teachers: http://everydayzen.org/teachings/?sort=date&keyword=guided%20meditation 

Cultivating Joy

Fear often lives in the mind. In theory, the body knows what to do in a dangerous situation, but ruminating on these possibilities can lead to chronic worry, anxiety and depression which then tips the body out of balance.

The body houses so many of our earthly joys. Food, movement, music, sex, visual art, the smell of flowers… It is easy to become stuck in the mind. We use our minds so much our bodies can become neglected. When we are only in our minds we cannot pay attention to the beauty that surrounds us.

Find physical practices like yoga or martial arts that bring awareness to the body. Do meditations that focus on breathing, sounds and bodily sensations. Choose to bring your awareness back into the body whenever possible. Ask yourself, “Where is the Joy?” If you look for it, joy is everywhere.

Even bodies that experience pain and discomfort can be filled with joy. Pain, like fear, is something that can be sat with, examined with curiosity. Pain, like fear, is a necessary part of human life. It can be a teacher.

For people who have chronic pain or have experienced trauma and don’t consider the body a safe place, learning to trust and live in the body again is a process. Acupuncture, bodywork, therapy and meditation can be transformational in healing those wounds.  

Adaptogenic Herbs

“Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” –Angela Davis

“Radix” is Latin for root and the word is present in the Latin names for many adaptogenic Chinese and Western herbs used to nourish the Kidneys and essence. The root of our systems. The deep resources called upon in times of trauma and survival.

Dang Gui- Dang Gui is first and foremost a blood tonic. Blood houses the mind and the emotions. When blood is abundant and flowing smoothly, the body has the resources it needs and the spirit has an adequate place to reside. Dang Gui also tonifies the qi, so the blood has direction, movement and circulation. Dang Gui is always bringing you back home.

Rehmmania or “Di Huang”- Di Huang comes in two forms- “Shu” and “Sheng”- prepared and fresh. The prepared herb is a heavy, sticky blood and yin tonic. It resonates with the kidneys and the water element. Shu Di Huang takes you to the bottom of the ocean. A good herb to assist meditation. Caution: its cloying nature makes it difficult for some to digest. Sheng Di Huang also tonifies blood, but it is fresher and so more moving, clearing heat from the blood that may cause agitation and anxiety.

Ashwaganda is used in the Ayurvedic tradition to moderate the effects of stress in the body. It helps transform past traumas into resilience and facilitates the body’s ability to adapt to short and long-term stressors. Ashwaganda is used to directly combat fear and nourish the body, spirit and mind’s inner strength.

Kava Kava promotes a general sense of well-being and calms anxiety of all kinds.

Other herbs that are helpful in these times are light and uplifting, the leaves and twigs of the plant, while berries resonate with creation, creativity, the seeds of our possibilities.

Schisandra or “Wu Wei Zi” is an astringent, helping the body hold on to its resources. This protects a stressed out system from potential burnout through depletion.

Skullcap is grounding and calming to the mind and nervous system. It helps moderate the physical effects of anxiety as well.

Tulsi is good in times of depression and low energy. It is gently uplifting and opens the perspective when one is unable to see beyond sadness.

Mushrooms have many beneficial properties to the system. The most commonly used medicinal mushroom in most western and Chinese herbal traditions is Reishi or “Ling Zhi.” It calms the spirit while nourishing the blood and qi. This is a wonderful, balanced combination of properties that helps insomnia, forgetfulness, fatigue and listlessness. Ling Zhi builds resilience by helping us deal with and moderate stress. It is also excellent for the immune system, another form of resilience.

Rose or “Mei Gui Hua” is considered a qi regulator in Chinese herbal traditions. It gently moves the qi allowing a new perspective. It also regulates the liver- in charge of stress response and emotional regulation and resonates with the heart for heartbreak, grief and recovering from trauma.

Blending the raw form of these herbs into tea and sipping it throughout the day can cause an overall calming effect. I recommend a consultation with an herbalist and a personalized diagnosis whenever possible. See your local acupuncturist who practices herbal medicine or local western herbalist or herb shop. In Seattle excellent local herb shops are: Sugar Pill, Rainbow Remedies and the Herbalist. In New Orleans check out Maypop Herb Shop. In Asheville Silver Leaf Apothecary and Take Care Herbals. 

Essential Oils

Essential Oils are strong medicine. They are the essence, or “Jing” of the plant and therefore resonate with our own essence. When using essential oils it is important to use them medicinally and therapeutically. If applying to the skin, most essential oils require dilution. Inhalation has a rapid and profound effect on the system.

Bergamot- Brings light into darkness and is good for depression. It is balancing, uplifting and gently warming; helping to resolve emotional conflict, uplifting the mind and balancing mood swings.

Clary Sage is for people who worry about external factors, the future and things that haven’t happened and may never. It helps to see clearly the things we are afraid of. Calming, euphoric and balancing, Clary Sage oil is for excessive or prolonged overstimulation leading to mental, emotional or physical tension and restlessness. 

Siberian Fir grounds the mind into the body and strengthens in states of grief, fear and insecurity. This oil is also beneficial for emotional roller-coasters. Siberian fir can clarify and resolve confusion, apathy and indecision. 

Frankincense uplifts, calms and grounds at the same time. By producing a focused mental composure, Frankincense oil encourages insight and creativity and helps with meditation. It can reduce overstimulation and relieve worry and listlessness and bring about liberation from sadness, and the cultivation of detachment with compassion. Good for meditation, it enhances levels of consciousness for “the mind that can accompany all experiences.”

Geranium helps treat anxiety, insomnia (applied on chest) and mental overwhelm. It is a good oil for someone who is always questioning their own knowing

Rose is considered the “Oil of Humanity” and allows us to be present with liberation and free expression. Rose is about enjoying the blossoming of each moment.

Sandalwood inspires the harmony of mind-body connection. The oil supports centering, inner security and self-assurance. Sandalwood is also used for withdrawal and worry, and for general tension or apprehension.  

Stone Medicine

Stone medicine is also very powerful and to be taken seriously. Stones resonate with the Jing or essence of the earth and therefore the Jing in the body. I am only going to talk about two of my favorite protective stones. Both are black in color, resonating with the winter season and the water element.

For more information look for The Book of Stones by Robert Simmons and Stone Medicine by Leslie J. Franks.

Black Tourmaline is used for psychic protection for anyone living in challenging places or situations. Which is all of us, right now. It protects against electromagnetic radiation and can keep one’s personal energetic sphere clear of destructive or chaotic energies. You can meditate with it or carry it around with you. The stone also clears its holder of negativity and imbalance. It helps purify the energetic field for deeper consciousness.

Shungite contains Fullerenes, a powerful anti-oxidant. It is said to absorb and eliminate health hazards that affect the mind and body. Shungite also protects against electromagnetic radiation and has been proven to purify and revitalize water. For more on Shungite: Shungite: Protection, Healing and Detoxification by Regina Martino

A Note on washing stones: Because many stones remove negative energy, they can collect it. When you first acquire stones, or after using them for a while, it is good to cleanse them. Here are some tips on how to do that: http://healing.about.com/od/crystaltherapy/a/cleargemstones.htm

Welcome to winter. May we and all living things benefit from a period of rest and reflection. Even amidst what can feel like chaos beyond our control.

Posted on December 13, 2016 .

Help your Brain, Memory and Mood: Eat Well. It’s science. And ancient Chinese wisdom.

We have entered late summer, the season of the earth element. Plants that were a bright and vibrant green in spring and a dark, sumptuous green in early summer have turned golden. It is the time of harvest and preparation for winter and yet the days are still long, warm and glorious.

Earth is one of the easiest elements to characterize because so many cultures consider the earth a nurturing, parenting figure. There are many names for the earth spirit and many images and rituals honoring it. Earth is the harmonizer, the balancer, the stabilizing force. It is a good element to call upon in times of transition and uncertainty.

In Chinese medicine, the organs of the earth element are the Spleen and Stomach. (Note: some translate “Spleen” as “Spleen-Pancreas” because this organ system is credited with some of the functions of the pancreas, like metabolizing sugar and digesting foods with enzymes). They are the organs that take in food from the outer world and convert the nutrients into blood, qi and fluids of the body. When the digestive system isn’t functioning well, the very substances of our body are compromised. Instead of turning food into physiological substances, a weak Spleen can create dampness in the forms of weight gain, water retention, Candida (yeast) and other fungal infections, foggy-headedness and depression to name a few.

The Chinese medical view on the physical functions of the Spleen include:

Digestion and Absorption

Building Blood and Qi

Keeping Blood in the Vessels

Ascending Fluids and Preventing Organ Prolapse

Housing the Thoughts/Intellect

The Spleen, along with the Stomach, is responsible for all the earth element’s functions of bonding, nurturing and grounding. They govern boundary setting, decision-making and memory.

The Gut Feeling

Have you noticed that when you are nervous or upset it’s hard to eat? When the nervous system becomes heightened into sympathetic, or “fight or flight” mode, it affects our ability to digest.

There are 500 million neurons in your gut, or the enteric nervous system. That’s five times more than the peripheral nervous system. The “gut feeling” is real. It is your nervous system communicating with you. It is the body putting in its two cents. The mind doesn’t make decisions alone.

An estimated 90% of the neurotransmitter serotonin is made in the digestive tract. Serotonin affects mood, social behavior, memory, sleep, digestion and even sexual desire and function. Most anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals target the serotonin circuitry (SSRIs).

The cells that produce serotonin in the gut (remember, 90% of it) appear to be dependant on a good, healthy gut bacteria, according to several studies. And gut bacteria is affected by what you eat. Some foods feed the “good” bacteria and some feed the “bad” bacteria and yeast (like Candida). When the bad bacteria outnumber the good -called dysbiosis- and the delicate balance of the GI tract is thrown off, not only are serotonin levels potentially reduced, but it lays the foundation for other disease- and symptom-causing destruction to take place.

But not only that! Many chronic, degenerate and autoimmune diseases are now being linked to compromised gut health. Anything from eczema to arthritis to fibromyalgia to diabetes.

In short: what you eat matters. A lot.

It may be obvious that the state of the mind affects the digestive tract, but the reverse is true as well. The microbiome, aka, all the little bacteria (100 trillion of them) in the gastrointestinal tract have a direct impact on brain function and the immune system. They are responsible for eating up irregular cells and free radicals and protecting the body from foreign invaders. They are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the epithelial cells in the gut lining to prevent leaky gut (food substances entering the bloodstream) and malabsorption (cells not being able to take in the nutrients from food). They also break down food and provide some nutrients like B vitamins.

The main things that cause imbalances in the gut microbiome are:

Antibiotics

Stress

A diet heavy in sugars and carbohydrates

A lack of necessary nutrients and healthy fats

Antibiotics have an important place in our medical system. However they are often overprescribed, and even when necessary, it is very important to take care of the digestive system after taking antibiotics. Antibiotics kills bad bacteria, but they kill good bacteria too, so it is very important to regrow the good kind of bacteria after taking them. I recommend taking probiotics and eating probiotic foods any time antibiotics enter the system. Probiotic foods include:

Sauerkraut (salt-fermented not vinegar-pickled)

Kimchi

Yogurt

Kefir

Kombucha

Miso

Fortunately, these foods are easy to buy or make and taste delicious. They can be added to meals or eaten on their own.

The gut thrives on biodiversity, so the more strains of probiotics you eat and take, the better.

Stress can cause inflammation of the GI tract making the body more susceptible to infection. It shuts down blood flow to the digestive system, affecting the digestive muscles and secretions and can cause constipation, diarrhea, gas and bloating, irritable bowel syndrome and heartburn.

An excess of sugars and carbohydrates feed the unhealthy bacteria, causing Candida overgrowth, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, and heightened cholesterol and insulin levels.

Proteins, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats are necessary to build strong cells of every kind. The cell wall is comprised of 40% fat. Do not believe the hype that low fat is better for everyone! There are people who need to watch their fat intake, but most of us just need to focus on the healthy fats like olive and coconut oil, avocado, nuts and grass-fed animal fats. Once the gastrointestinal tract is compromise, it’s harder to absorb these necessary nutrients from our food. For more on healthy fats and the role sugar plays in throwing off the balance of the digestive system, see my article here.

Chinese Medicine and the Intellect or “Yi”

So how does all this relate back to Chinese medicine? According to Chinese philosophy, each of the yin organs houses a spirit or "soul" of the body. When that organ is in balance, the soul has a safe place to rest and reside. When that organ is out of balance, the soul may lash out, fall out of balance, or become docile and hidden.

The Spleen houses the “Yi” or the intellect. In essence, the Spleen houses thoughts and is responsible for memory, concentration and mental function.

Some of the mental signs that the Spleen is out of Balance are:

Indecision

Mental exhaustion

Poor memory

Lack of boundaries

Clutter

Cyclical thinking is a common sign of Spleen involvement. Because the earth spins and goes through cycles, cyclical movement and circular thinking are pathologies of the earth element.

Mental taxation is a common cause of Spleen imbalance that befalls students and academics, but fortunately there are herbs, essential oils and formulas for just that.

In Chinese medicine, the connection between gut health and mental health is a known. For thousands of year doctors have designed acupuncture protocols and herbal formulas to treat imbalances that affect the gut-brain connection. It’s nice that western medicine is now on board!

More and more scientific studies are showing the important role digestive health plays in mental health. In an age where so many people are burdened with anxiety, depression, insomnia, ADD/ADHD and Alzheimer’s, it is crucial that we examine the body as a whole entity and regard digestive health with the emphasis and importance it deserves.

 

Resources

More about fermented foods and how to make them:

 www.wildfermentation.com

 

More about gut health:

https://chriskresser.com/gut-health/

http://guthealthproject.com/8-common-health-issues-caused-by-an-unhealthy-gut/

http://www.everydayhealth.com/hs/better-digestion/how-stress-affects-digestion/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/

https://www.caltech.edu/news/microbes-help-produce-serotonin-gut-46495

 

A good fall reboot and reset cleanse:

http://heartbeetsholistic.com/cleanseinfo/

Posted on August 29, 2016 .