Tag Archives: better relationships

Beyond Hormones: The 5 Elements in Love & Sex

yabyum-tantraIn the beginning, when love is new, romance, courting and conquest are aphrodisiacs, stimulants that increase our appetite for sexual union. Eventually the chase ends, hearts are won, and lifetime pledges are made. The happy couple says “I do,” strolls off into the sunset together, destined to be lovers forever.

So what happens? The newness fades, the passion flees. Where does it go? Does it get mortgaged along with the house? Disposed with the diapers?

Years ago, Mary, age 49, shyly told her family doctor that she had lost interest in having sex with her husband. She was told this was a natural event, that women eventually lose interest and that’s the way it is. For some women, she was told, it comes earlier. Today, Mary might be offered testosterone patches to fire up her lagging libido.

Martin, age 59, is having erectile difficulties. Viagra® to the rescue.

Times may have changed, but is it really just a story of diminishing hormones and loss of blood flow? The popularity of these new biologically-based treatments attest to their effectiveness as sexual aids. Yet we continue to yearn for the fulfillment of a deeper intimacy. Reviving the mechanics of our sex life may help, but it does not fully address the hunger in our hearts.

We desire even more than the wonderful climax of sexual release. We crave a connection with our partner’s soul. We ache to embrace a love that lights up our eyes, that enlivens our very being.

More than one divorcee has stated, “the sex was great, but there was no intimacy.” Without intimacy, sex is not lovemaking. Without lovemaking, hearts are empty.

Laura, married 22 years, loves her husband immensely. Therefore, she has “sex” with him at least once a week, because he has “needs” that must be met. Yet each time, when it is over, she experiences loneliness and loss. Something is missing.

A Chinese saying tells us that “young love is from earth; mature love from heaven.” Could it be that our bodies are trying to tell us something as they slow down and cool off? Could it be that it is not our biology which needs assistance, but our spiritual self?

If we look at relationships from a perspective of the Chinese five-element system, we can gain some insight and direction. In this ancient understanding of the cosmos, the elements that describe all the phases of creation are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Each influences the next, in a nourishing cycle of harmonious development.

Wood is represented by the flexibility and rapid growth of bamboo. When love is first born, it too grows rapidly. Its season is Spring, a time when plants sprout new life and blossom profusely. There is tender excitement, exploration and discovery. As the day brightens from dawn to noon, relationship proceeds to the next phase, which is fire. Wood provides fuel for fire.

Fire burns erratically and represents the passion and turmoil of life. The season is Summer, and the heat is strong. In relationships, fire represents the energetic and creative clamor of life’s demands, the tears and laughter of sexual drama and delight.

When fire burns out, ashes remain, which turn into earth. Earth gives shape and structure to relationship. Although more than fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, this does not seem to slow down our “urge to merge.” We keep trying, looking for the right partner, a life partner, a lover forever.

It is the nature of earth to slow things down, providing stability and a sense of restfulness. It is here, in the earth phase of the five-element system, that our relationships are often lulled to sleep. The sex medicines and hormones temporarily awaken us, remind us of the burning fire we thought we had left behind.

Yet something is missing. We cannot stay here or we will get stuck in a rut! What is essential in the Chinese system is a dynamic balance of all the elements. What will energize our relationships is a movement forward from earth into metal. It takes effort to draw metal from the earth, to extract the gold from the dirt. Yet it is here, as the day darkens and the season moves to Autumn, that we can best harvest the deeper love that we desire. Dr. Victoria Lee writes in Soulful Sex, “each moment in which you are conscious of the sacred sexual energy that runs through your veins becomes one in which you experience the divine.” The key words here are conscious, sacred, divine and sexual.

From this perspective, we mindfully transform our relationship into a meaningful spiritual path that finally brings the fulfillment we have longed for. Our sexual love becomes the aphrodisiac and opens the doorway to our soul. We draw on ancient wisdom, we explore the energy of sexuality through Tantra, we communicate, we touch our beloved attentively and with intention.

Ultimately, the cycle releases into the element of water, as we awaken to our inner self in the presence of our beloved. Water, cradled by metal, nourishes the growth of wood, and thus the cycle continues, passion is renewed and our relationship becomes an ongoing love affair.

Originally published in 2011

Increasing sexual repression: call for transformation.

Imagine that you are watching a movie with young kids and a war scene is playing. Now imagine the situation with the same young kids but instead of a war scene, a lovemaking scene is playing. In which situation would you ask those kids to turn their eyes away from the TV? Most likely it would be when the lovemaking scene is going on, right? If that’s the case, you are not alone.

There are many people around the world who turn kids’ eyes away when they see a lovemaking scene playing on TV, but surprisingly, the same people don’t mind when those kids are spending half their day watching horror movies and playing violent video games, which depict killing and essentially devalue human life.

What is surprising is that kids are not allowed to watch something which shows an expression of love, yet they are allowed to watch something which depicts hatred and violence. The act of sex celebrates love and brings people into the world, while the other is aimed at killing humans and propagates hatred. People love to see a man dying on the battlefield but act like they can’t tolerate watching a woman make love in a passionate manner, even though it is often a guilty pleasure.

We need to understand that by repressing sex, we are making ourselves more sexually obsessed. Do you ever wonder why Playboy is one of the bestselling magazines or why the pornographic industry is a billion dollar business? It’s all because sex has always been repressed.

D.H. Lawrence, a famous English writer, says, “Pornography is the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it.” Secretly watching porno films or daydreaming about sex all day shows how sexually sick we have become. The consequence of sexual repression results in the large number of teenage pregnancies every year. These teenagers are being taught so-called ‘sex education’, which creates more curiosity and fascination about sex. The reason is simple: We are always attracted to something that we are advised to stay away from. It doesn’t matter what it is, we just want to experience the pleasure of breaking the rules. This is why abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work.

Another problem is that we all think we know what sex is. Our definition of sex is limited to having fun and satisfying our physical desires. However, sex is much more than that. It’s a completely different phenomenon.

Sex has always been misunderstood for lust. You have sex just because you want to get to that “next step” in your relationship or simply because you are “old enough” to have it. In reality, sex should be a celebration of love. It’s an act that does not need any planning. If it is happening out of love, you will see that it happens automatically. You have your first experience of bliss during those wonderful moments.

On the other hand, when sex comes out of lust, it’s often nothing like your daydreams. One can’t grow as a human being if his or her mind is not developed well enough about sexual energy. The matureness is needed mentally, not just physically. Be aware that sexual energy is as good as any other emotion of life if understood properly, and as bad as any other activity if misused or not understood properly. The key is to transform it with understanding rather than repressing it, always.

There Are Good Men Out There!

It wasn’t until the age of 30 that I – smart, successful rising marketing executive and m.b.a. student – realized that men were supposed to be nice to me. Three weeks into dating the man, Noah, I am married to today, he said to me, "Christine you can’t like a guy because he’s nice to you, he’s supposed to be nice to you." With that one sentence Noah changed my life and made me painfully aware that I had come to expect men to be controlling, short-tempered, hypercritical and unpredictable and with that my boundaries of what I considered acceptable behavior by my partner were extremely ‘messed up.’

I learned to turn the cheek when he swore at me, when he got really angry at me for using the grill the wrong way, or when he grabbed my wrist harder than felt good. I learned to get by doing activities I loved by myself, to look to my friends for emotional support, and to put my bigger dreams on hold. And I came to find it totally normal to become a crazy banshee during our fights, to fall asleep to Roseanne Barr instead of snuggling with him, and to let the business contract of our relationship – which worked well – be enough.

Fast forward 9 years, lots of personal work, good boundaries re-established, and married to Noah, a good, loving and sexy man, I found myself in a conversation with Noah that brought another deep, and frankly shocking belief about men to the surface of my conscious awareness.

Noah has been part of men’s group for over 3 years. They meet weekly for a few hours on Thursday nights and talk. Not about sports, business or the latest playboy pin up, but about their lives, their dreams, and their problems. Each of the men supports the other men to break through whatever is holding them back. While I knew Noah couldn’t tell me what these men talk about specifically, I found myself curious about what kinds of things they talked about the most, so I asked him.

I expected him to say something like "Their careers, work or money." When he said, "What these men talk about more than anything is their relationships," my mouth dropped to the floor in disbelief. And inside my head this sarcastic voice said, "Really men, care about relationships, c’mon. Men don’t care about having intimate, close, fulfilling relationships."

"Wow! Where did that come from," another voice shockingly replied in my head. What I didn’t realize is that my lips were also conveying these thoughts out loud to Noah, who looked at me back, a little shocked, as I was that I would have these kinds of feelings about men – especially given that I had such a close, intimate relationship with Noah. Why would I believe that there weren’t other men like Noah who were both caring and loving as well as masculine and sexy? Why wouldn’t I believe that men, just like women, wanted to be deeply loved, seen and supported by their partners.

The why goes back to the fact that other than Noah, my gay male friends, my two best, straight male friends (both good guys who married not good girls), and my spiritual teachers (all over the age of 50), I hadn’t experienced the ‘imprint’ of these good, heterosexual men. And therefore I didn’t really believe they existed. It was like ‘good men’ were an endangered species or something. I had plenty of sightings of the narcissistic, self-absorbed males (my girlfriends and I have all dated or married them), and living in California I had also come across many ‘Soft, nice men who’ve lost their mojo’ (many women I know  married and dated these guys to stay safe, only to find themselves unsatisfyingly both the man and woman in the relationship.)

But then on Noah’s 40th birthday, I got the imprint of ‘good men’ washed all over me – yes it was as good as it sounds! We threw a party for Noah and many of the men from his men’s group came, some married, some single, all ages, and all good men. Open, present, able to have a meaningful and stimulating conversation, caring, loving… and hot, handsome, funny and manly. All men who I could tell would very much care about having a strong, supportive, dynamic partnership just as much as any woman would. And this made me very happy.

And it also made me a little sad.

You see, I know, after seeing Noah transform through his connection with this men’s group, that men just like women need support from other men. They need a place where they can come to talk, be real, and explore the truth of who they are, without all the macho puffery b.s. and beyond the surface connection points of football and business. And while these groups do exist, they are nowhere near as plentiful, accessible or socially acceptable as all of the tele-classes, workshops, retreats, and book clubs out there for us women.

So what can we women do to support men to get what they need, without emasculating them or turning them into soft ponytail boy? Here are a few suggestions and inspirations I have had, including one that my guy Noah was inspired to create:

Don’t

  • Emasculate your man
  • Take up all the masculine space in the relationship and then get mad at him for not being a man
  • Put all the responsibility on yourself and then get mad at him for not doing his share
  • Shame him for not being perfect or living up to your standards
  • Compare him to another man
  • Make fun of him for being too sensitive
  • Measure his worth by his paycheck, his papers, or any external measure.
  • Put up with him not giving you unconditional love and respect – but that means that you have to give it too
  • Settle for a man who isn’t willing to be honest with himself and do his own personal growth work, or get mad a man who won’t change for you.

Do

  • Value him for his ability to act and do as well as be and love; see his strengths and support him
  • Be honest about your personal expectations, and take your personal hang ups out of the equation
  • Expect a man to be honest with himself and do his personal work, and be compassionate with him along the way
  • Believe that there are good men out there.
  • Drop your unrealistic expectations and see your man as human, without giving up or settling for what your heart and soul truly desires.
  • Encourage him — not mandate, plan or sign him up – to explore activities geared towards men coming together in powerful groups (the 5-week virtual class Tackle the Inner Bully is a good example of some of the cool experiences starting to pop up www.tackletheinnerbully.com )

    If you have a good man or an emerging good man in your life, my guy Noah Martin and his friend Chris Kyle recently held a 90 minute call with men around the world called, Tackle Your Inner Bully – all about helping men break through what’s holding them back. It was a super powerful call – and anyone can download it for free at http://www.TackletheInnerBully.com

    Also really powerful – encourage all you women to listen to – is a shorter 5 minute segment with men giving voice to the self-sabotaging voices inside their heads. If you ever wondered if men were hard on themselves too, listen to this …http://tackletheinnerbully.com  (scroll down just a little to get to the recording)

     

 

Sustaining Healthy Growth In Relationships

Of any quality or state of being, integrity is the most essential in long-term relationships. Without it, the soil of the relationship is unable to sustain healthy growth and renewed life after seasons of challenge. However, once the ground has been tilled and fed nutrients, the ability to grow a rich, fulfilling, long-lasting relationship is virtually guaranteed. The problem is that the one basic element – the foundation of integrity – is something that might not sound as exciting as terms like "manifestation," "co-creation," etc.

And it doesn’t provide the compulsive drama of a good argument filled with blame and finger pointing! It is, however, vital to relationships and spiritual growth. This one thing is self-responsibility. In truth, self-responsibility is a very fresh approach. What could be more exciting than stepping out of an old cycle and seeing it through new eyes? What’s more enlivening than finding liberation from our emotional habits?

Relationship patterns often express themselves as withdrawing, arguing or submitting. Our dramas unfold and here we are, back at square one. We may have reached great spiritual heights and become intuitive, loving, high minded people. We may even base our whole identity on being "spiritual," and yet, where does all of that go when we suddenly find ourselves in blame, judgment and colluding in negativity?

These very human reactions can exist in tandem with a very loving, spiritual nature. It’s not something to judge ourselves over, but to be aware of, love ourselves through and use to further our spiritual growth. We have both humanity and divinity. The more we bridge the two, the more integrated and harmonious we can become.

How do we do this? By honestly and compassionately looking at how we contribute to the disharmony. Outwardly, it may appear that the other is fully to blame. We say, "I’m innocent. I was just minding my business and…" It is much more comfortable to be a justified victim than the guilty one. How much time have we spent proving our innocent victimhood in any given situation? This impulse fuels the divide in our relationships.

Instead, we can unplug from this divisive reaction and use the situation for introspective growth. There must be two people to argue or create rifts. Both take part, either subtly or overtly. When we hold ourselves accountable, drawing our attention inward and refraining from blame, we can eventually become self-contained. When we learn to embody love instead of separation, we can become whole.

When we reach an impasse with a friend or mate, we can start by gently asking ourselves:

  1. How am I inviting this kind of insult into my life?
  2. What did I do that was not respectful?
  3. How is this situation mirroring how I treat myself and, especially, what I believe about myself?
  4. And finally, what form of love do I need to give myself for healing?

Relationship patterns dissolve with our humble inspection and healing attention. When both partners get to the bottom of their own contributions, truth can be found. This creates more room for love, respect and honoring of self and other. And this results in relationship integrity.

Three reasons why mindfulness meditation helps relationships

 In my work as a psychologist, I see a lot of very bright, insightful people who still struggle with relationships, and when I suggest that they start practicing mindfulness meditation, they want to know why and how sitting and meditating can help their love lives. They may know that they “should” meditate because it’s good for them, but how is it going to make things better between them and their [fill in the blank: Wife/Husband/Boyfriend/Girlfriend/Partner…]?

 

Here are three of the many reasons I give to them, with some examples we can all relate to.

1. Mindfulness meditation turns down the volume on stress. One of the most widely known benefits of meditation is reduced stress. “Stress” in this case doesn’t mean that meditating will reduce the number of urgent e-mails in your inbox, but rather the reaction that your brain and your body have to what’s going on inside you and around you. What I see in myself, and in the people with whom I work, is that the response to stressors is less intense, takes less time to recover from, and doesn’t tend to linger on the sidelines. “Well, sure,” you might say, “anybody can be relaxed right after meditating.” What seems to happen, though, is that the effect of meditation on decreasing the stress response extends well beyond the meditation session itself, for more and more of the day as people develop a consistent practice.

When you’re less stressed, your nervous system is less likely to overreact, less likely to be hypervigilant to potential “threats.” You’re less defensive, and better able to hear and respond to what’s actually going on. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, mindfulness leads people to be better at approaching stressful events as a challenge, rather than a threat.

Under threat, we’re geared to quickly — and without much thinking — fight, flee, or freeze. With challenge, we see an increase in the brain’s ability to pull ideas together and come up with informed, balanced solutions.

So what does this do for improving relationships? Imagine that your brain is stressed out over deadlines at work. You’re already late for your date with your girlfriend. Your body, thanks to the brain’s messages that things are dangerous, is tight, prepared to fight, flee, or freeze, and in a magnificent feedback loop, your brain gets the body’s tightness as a message to keep on the lookout for trouble. You walk into the restaurant for your date, aware that you’re late, and you see a look of annoyance on her face — which your brain detects as an additional stressor-threat. Your girlfriend sees the body language of your stress even before you get to the table, and her fight/flight/flee response gets further ratcheted up. Add in the restaurant noise she’s been sitting with, the problems she had finding a parking spot to meet you close to your office, and the fact that you’re both hungry.

In the bad date scenario above, we’ve got an overabundance of stress hormones raging through both bodies, tight muscles ready to react — basically, two hungry people with hypervigilant “danger detectors” in their brains chomping at the bit to help them rapidly and decisively defend themselves. And neither one of them is able to readily access perceiving any of this as a challenge, rather than a threat. How well do you think the date is going to go?

Now imagine that at least one of them practices mindfulness meditation regularly. At the very least, if all we’re looking at is the benefit of overall decreased stress and an ability to recognize, let go of, and recover from stress more easily, we can see how much better the evening is going to be.

There’s so much more to mindfulness meditation than stress reduction, though. Let’s take a look at two other ways that mindfulness meditation gives your relationship a boost.

2. Mind the Gap. Research on the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain is increasingly showing that there is a beefing up (in activation and even in size) of the middle prefrontal cortex (mPFC). The mPFC is an area which neuroscientists believeplays in important role in integrating our higher, “intellectual” brain areas (for example, your frontal cortex) with those down below in our more raw, “emotional” areas (like your amygdala).

Having a more formidable mPFC allows your brain to bridge the gap, as it were, between your “thinking” and your “feeling” areas. Your brain can better integrate what’s going on in your “emotional” brain areas and your “intellectual” brain areas.

Here’s an example of relationship argument, with emotions and intellect banging into one another instead of being integrated — as you read it, see how this plays out in each individual, as well as in the couple:

A wife comes home, somewhat exasperated after being out with a good friend, but one who can be self-involved at times. “She did it again!” she exclaims to her husband. “Jane managed to make the whole evening about her!” Afraid of losing a friend, and also tired, she begins to cry, bemoaning how hard it is to make friends, how alone she feels, and wondering what’s wrong with her that she can’t figure it out.

Her husband sees her distress and wants to scramble to respond, to help her “fix” the problem. So, he tells her, “First, you need to stop beating up on yourself. Jane’s the problem, not you. I don’t know why you stay friends with her, anyway; you’re always upset after seeing her. Just go out and make some new friends who treat you better. Weren’t you going to join that book club to meet new friends?”

She proceeds to lash out at her husband for being insensitive and overly intellectual, and accuses him of not caring. He’s hurt and angry that his attempt to help her solve the problem has gotten her angry at him – again – and he responds by yelling at her “Of course I care!” and that she’s too emotional and can’t think straight enough to remember that.

Here, the wife came in the door with a flailing amygdala, almost pure, raw emotion. The husband responded with a rational frontal cortex, trying to help while also trying to avoid or staunch the emotions.  The result is that they’ve completely missed each other.

Imagine if they could integrate the two: Being tuned in to the emotions, but not overwhelmed by them; searching for a calmer, rational response, without losing sight of the emotions. That integration and connection is what mindfulness meditation helps cultivate and grow, quite literally, in the brain — as well as between couples.

“Minding the gap” — shorthand for practicing mindfulness in order to bridge that gap between thinking and feeling — helps protect you from the dangers of having either your emotions or your intellect become a runaway horse, dragging your partner and your relationship in the dirt behind you.

3. “Getting” your partner better. As you practice mindfulness meditation, you’re practicing, over and over again, the act of noticing when your mind has wandered off. (By the way, if you think your brain is too busy for you to meditate — think again (pun intended) — and take a look at this video explaining how a busy brain can actually make for more effective mindfulness practice.)

Being more aware of when your mind isn’t “in the moment” lets you become more aware of what is going on in the moment. You get more attuned to what’s going on inside you, instead of being on “autopilot” or in distracted-reactive mode. You also become more aware that even if you’re feeling something in this moment, it’ll feel a little different if you just sit with it a bit. Your emotions aren’t bags of wet concrete sitting on your head (or in your heart); they’re more like weather patterns moving through.

Getting to be more aware of your internal state allows you to be more attuned to yourself and your experiences — allows you to have greater understanding and empathy for yourself. (If a baby is upset and crying, the caregiver needs to “tune in” and empathize in order to effectively understand what’s going on, and how best to respond — in effect, you’re doing this for yourself when you practice mindfulness.)

As you increase your ability to be more attuned and more empathic with yourself, your capacity to be attuned and empathic with your partner increases as well.

Let’s say that the couple in the example above were both in the process of learning mindfulness meditation. They’d been at it long enough that they knew to stop for a moment, even in the middle of their distress. In this case, it could go quite differently:

The wife stops, takes a breath, and silently checks in with herself:“Tired; mad at Jane for ignoring my feelings; mad at my husband for… hmm, ignoring my feelings; lonely.”  She looks at her husband, and reminds herself that they’re on the same team — they both want to feel more connected. She is able to “get” that he’s angry but wanting to help her.

Through her tears, she manages to say, “I’m feeling tired, and lonely, and I need room for my feelings, even if they don’t make sense. Having you hold me quietly would really help.”

Her calm helps him remember to take a breath and check in with himself:“Frustrated that I blew it; mad at my wife for pointing out that I blew it… but she’s letting me know how I can do it better right now, and right now she seems to be open to me.” He reaches out, awkwardly but with an awareness of loving her, and they both feel themselves begin to relax.

Mindfulness increases the degree to which you are open to your partner’s thoughts, emotions, and well-being — how well you “get” him or her — and the degree to which you are open to those very same things in yourself. By practicing mindfulness meditation regularly, you’re better able to be aware of thoughts and emotions in a way that allows you to be present, rather than reacting on “autopilot,” which can so often be impulsive, habitual, or destructive.

Marsha Lucas, PhD is a psychologist / neuropsychologist in Washington, DC. Learn more about rewiring your brain at ReWireYourBrainForLove.com, where she offers a free mindfulness meditation download and a monthly e-newsletter with meditation tips. You can also follow @DrMarsha on Twitter, and join her on her Facebook page.

 

 

Is Your Relationship Making You Fat?

If one of your goals is to lose weight, there is new research on the horizon about what or even who is responsible for packing on the pounds. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine claims that women in committed relationships gain more weight than their single counterparts. Even if both have had a full term pregnancy, single women are generally skinnier. The lead author, Annette J. Dobson, professor of biostatistics at the University of Queensland in Australia, suggested that physiological changes might be at work. I suspect that lifestyle and stress play a bigger role.

What is the point of this study: Does monogamy breed obesity? Is weight gain an inevitable byproduct of a committed relationship and therefore as acceptable as the aging process? At the very least women should become more aware of gradual changes both physically and emotionally in order to tune into their overall health. Often when one is alert to the possibility of a disease process, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, one can prevent it – it is always easier to prevent than to treat.

The good news: You don’t have to lose him to lose weight. Here’s what women can do to prevent the creeping weight gain which accompanies monogamy:

* Don’t eat the same portion sizes as your guy. He might be six feet tall and you might be five feet four inches tall. Also, note that you tend to eat more calories when sitting next to someone who eats more.

*  Everyone in the family should be on a heart-healthy meal plan, for instance the Mediterranean diet.

* Exercise! Even better exercise together to boost libido and vitality. Bonus benefit: Exercise is the most efficient way to shed stress and improve mood.

* Express yourself naturally and honestly in your relationship. Self-silencing and suppression will cause you to self-soothe with junk food. If you are stressed, communicate and release it. Find that equitable compromise.

* Make yourself a priority on that endless to-do list. When you skip breakfast, eat fast food on the run, or jolt yourself awake with coffee to keep on accomplishing, you are sabotaging your well-being. Put some quality nutrient dense foods into your body.

* Fill up on some fun – and don’t feel guilty about it!

* Don’t take your mate and most importantly, yourself, for granted. One might argue that some single women wish to attract a potential mate – of course, some don’t – but this could explain the discrepancy in weight gain. Keep in mind that even when you are married, you are still “single.”

 

12 Tips for Mindful Resolutions, Healthier Relationships, and a Rewired Brain

 From my perspective, having a full, authentic life is about having healthy, vibrant relationships — your relationship with yourself, with others you know, with the world at large, and/or with something greater, if that suits you. Without relationships, there can’t be much else.

So how do you make changes in how you do your relationships? What behavioral psychologists know is that making changes — and keeping resolutions — needs to be broken down into small, achievable, and measurable steps.

If you want to make positive changes to support healthier relationships, pick one do-able thing — a small, achievable, measurable change. As you might reasonably guess (based on what I write about here all the time) my suggestion is to practice mindfulness meditation, as a way to rewire your brain to be able to “do” relationships in healthier ways (see my previous post, Nine Ways That A Meditating Brain Creates Better Relationships).

Then, if your resolution is to meditate, break that down into small, achievable, measurable steps as well. More on that in a moment — first, take a look at what goes into making a clear resolution to create a new habit.

Help yourself make meditation a resolution you can keep

First, get clear about why you’re doing meditation: What’s your intention? What’s your motivation? Challenge yourself to boil those two things down to one sentence each. (Or 140 characters each, if you’re a Twitterer.)

Then, know that “stuff” will get in the way, be it external stuff (like your pipes have burst first thing in the morning, so you need to take care of that rather than do your morning meditation), or, more likely, your internal resistance.

“What internal resistance?”, you say. “I really want to meditate regularly, it’s just that other stuff keeps getting in the way.” Consider these commonly lurking thoughts, which can rather sneakily turn into “external stuff,” or the belief that you can’t meditate:

  • Nothing seems to happen when I meditate, so making time for it isn’t worth it.
  • Something does happen when I meditate — meditation is changing me, and that’s scary, because then I’m in unfamiliar territory.
  • I’m afraid of what I might discover or feel if I slow down, if I listen to myself, if I open my heart.
  • I won’t be able to do it right/perfectly, so what’s the point?

All of these can be thought of as ways we shift our gaze away from the real culprit: our fear. The good news is that by meditating regularly, your fear won’t take your brain (or your relationships) hostage the same way any more. You’ll still experience your fear, but it’s more like sitting firmly in the saddle and holding the reins of the horse — it won’t gallop off with you helplessly dragging behind. So, meditating more will help you avoid it less.

Okay, enough about the philosophical part of the program — let’s get down to practical matters.

Here are a dozen tips for making your meditation practice a worthwhile habit that sticks:

1.  Pick a time. For example, get to it immediately when you get up in the morning. Before coffee (gasp!), before a shower, plop yourself down and just do it. Meditation sets the tone for your nervous system for the day, so you’ll reap the benefits that much more – plus, you’ll feel noble and accomplished all day.

2. Let go of the idea that you can’t meditate. One thing I hear a lot is “I can’t make my mind stay focused.” There’s no “doing it right” – it’s apractice. The practice of brining your wandering mind back again and again is actually what researchers believe does the re-wiring in your brain. Having a mind that wanders is actually a useful tool in meditation. There is a video about how a difficult-to-focus mind can be an asset in meditation practice.

3. Set your calendar. Planning to do a new behavior every day for a year is beyond what most of us can accomplish — setting ourselves up for failure. Make your resolution just long enough to become a habit — and then do that same time period over and over.

How long does it take to create a new habit? (Here’s a link to a great post on this.) Estimates vary, because (a) people vary, and (b) the depth of the habit varies. For example, it takes less time to establish the habit of drinking a glass of water every morning than to get in the habit of doing fifty pushups every day. As for developing a meditation practice, in my experience, it takes most people one or two months of regular practice to make regular meditation a habit. The good news is that there are already measurable changes in your brain after just two weeks, according to one leading researcher, Richard Davidson, PhD.

4. Be the exception. Be aware that the dropout rate for new meditators is high — some say that only two in ten will be practicing, even periodically, after a year. Resolve to be the exception to the rule, and also know that you have good company with others who are struggling. Be kind to yourself about how hard it is to develop a new, healthy habit.

5. Keep your expectations in line with what meditation is, and what it isn’t. For example, don’t expect to always get an immediate “hit” or relief like you get when taking medicine (although you might feel that way during, or after, meditation). And remember that you’re changing your brain, not just decongesting your sinuses — it takes time.

6. Start small. I agree with Daniel Siegel, MD, who says that rewiring the brain can be helped by even as little as three minutes of mindfulness meditation, done regularly, and that the brain seems to benefit more from frequent, shorter meditations than less frequent, longer ones. I often recommend starting with five minutes a day, and perhaps working up to twenty if you feel it is working for you. (There are other benefits to longer meditations, but for the purposes of brain integration, it’s fine to go for less time, as long as it is regular and frequent.)

7.  Have fun! Meditation can be serious, but it can also lead you in some delightful directions. I’ve actually fallen off a meditation stool from laughing so hard.

8.  Do it naturally. I strongly recommend against using technological short-cuts like brain-wave inducers. The benefits of mindfulness meditation, from a brain-integration perspective, comes from the practiceof getting different parts of your brain working together. The techno “shortcuts” brag that they force the brain to switch gears — so you can just be the passive receiver. Passively getting your brain activity to change is like having someone else lift your arms for you when weightlifting.

(A relevant joke: A monk ordered a hot dog (vegan, I guess) from a hot dog vendor: “Make me one with everything.” (Insert first laugh here.) The monk pays for the $2 hot dog with a $5 bill. The vendor takes the cash and does nothing. When the monk asks for the $3, the vendor replies, “Change comes from within.”)

9. Learn the basics. When you’re first starting out, you might find it helpful to start with a guided meditation (There are many good resources for this, including a free download, as well as guided meditations from people I respect a great deal, including Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Jon Kabat-Zinn – click here for specific recommendations.)  Eventually, though, for the same reasons in#8 above, once you learn to meditate, and know more about how to guide yourself, then I recommend moving away from guided meditation. It can still be useful if you need a “refresher,” but training the brain to do the task of meditation on its own seems key in the sort of re-wiring seen in the research literature. Also, if you choose to use guided meditations to learn the ropes, then I recommend that it be without background music, if for no other reason than the music is an added “event” for the brain to process.

10.  Change it up. Meditation doesn’t have to happen while you’re seated in lotus position in a perfect tranquil space (again, “perfection” is not required!) Due to an old ankle injury, I can’t sit cross-legged, so I meditate on a chair or stool. People with back or hip injuries sometimes lay down and use a chair under their lower legs to lay in “astronaut” position. You can do a walking meditation, meditation during yoga, meditation while eating — there’s even a raisin meditation. The focus of your meditation can also vary: It can be helpful to balance your practice between the sort of breathing/noticing practice (called insight meditation, or vipassana), and a series of focused intentions like metta practice (you can search “metta” and “Sharon Salzberg” for excellent resources on this form of practice).

11. Aim for imperfection. Know at the outset that you’ll not be perfect in keeping your resolution. Research on creating new habits shows that missing single days doesn’t reduce the chance of forming a habit. Additionally, positive reinforcement (giving yourself gold stars for the days you meditate, or your own personal equivalent) is demonstrably more effective in changing behavior than punishment (beating yourself up for the days that you don’t meditate).

12. Irritation and challenges can be meditation aids. Remember that having challenges when you meditate can make the session “easier,” and even more potent. If I have an itch during meditation, I don’t scratch it at first — I’m usually grateful to have something to focus on other than my breath. (If the itch continues — which, after focusing on it, it often doesn’t — then I can use it as a way to practice being mindful of my hand moving to scratch it, and of the sensation of the scratching — you get the point.) To quote Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, “sometimes negative emotions and problems are good for practice. If everything is good and convenient – there is a nice temperature in the room, I’m not hungry or thirsty – then there is not much meditation because it is easy to forget. But once you have some challenge or suffering, then it is easy to meditate.”

I hope you find these ideas helpful, and I invite your feedback.

I wish you a New Year filled with joy.

 

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