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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

11 Wellness Habits

A special note to readers of this blog. I am very excited to announce that my new book: The Five Gifts: Experiencing the Divine in Everyday Life has been published by Balboa Press, and is now available in paperback. Electronic versions are still in the works, and will be available, soon. Learn more at Namaste, Joe.

11 Wellness Habits

In a recent wellness course I led, we talked about how we can improve our wellness by moving away from habits that weaken us, and creating new habits that strengthen and support wellness. Lately I have been thinking about the habits I want to cultivate. I've decided to share these ideas with you, to help you enhance your well-being. Using the Five Gifts as a guide, here are 11 wellness habits that will empower your life.

The Gift of Divine Grace

Habit #1: Intention

Divine consciousness is the source of all that is manifest, including all of the gifts we receive. When we wish to manifest something new, the most powerful approach is to return to the source. We do this through intention. Intention is more than just setting goals. With intention, we place our wishes in the field of consciousness that creates each moment, and we allow the outcome to unfold in this field of intention. Cultivate this habit by creating a short list (not more than 5) of what you wish to see manifested, and review this list each morning, offering your intentions to the divine source. Here's an example of an intention I express each day: Divine Spirit, make of me an open channel of love and grace, and let divine grace flow through me into this world.

Habit #2: Gratitude

We could define intention as asking for the gift of divine grace, and gratitude is receiving this gift. Gratitude opens the channel, allowing the fountain of grace to flow freely to us. With gratitude, we simply acknowledge the gifts we have received as coming from the divine source. Since all that we are and all that we have comes from this source, we can express gratitude for anything and everything. Cultivate this habit by ending each day with an expression of gratitude for the gifts in your life. And, when you receive something new - perhaps in response to your intention - be thankful. Here's an example. This past week I was pondering what to write next in this blog, and I asked for guidance. This morning, the ideas you are reading now came to me in a flash of insight, along with the impulse to share them. I recognize this insight as a gift of grace, and am thankful, as I write, for the capacity to express them.

The Gift of Awareness

Habit #3: Be Present in this Moment

Much of what we do in meditation and spiritual practice is about cultivating the habit of present moment awareness. Practice is necessary because we have many influences that take us out of this moment. While it is useful to think about the past and the future, dwelling on such thoughts only serves to cloud our awareness in the present. Many of our daily activities - driving, watching TV, surfing the internet (yes, that includes this blog!), working with numbers, and much more - draw us into a mind-space that is disconnected from the present moment. What's more, we live in a culture that is thought-centered, and not grounded in the now. Cultivate the habit of presence by practicing silence every day. This does not need to take a lot of time - a ten-minute meditation is a very powerful practice if done each day. Also, find moments during the busy day to pause and return to the present. I find that I can do this while stopped at a red light. I pause, breathe, become aware of my body, quiet the mind, and allow myself to simply be.

Habit #4: See the Divine Light in Other People

Twenty-plus years of exploring spiritual traditions from around the world has helped me recognize a common thread in the messages of the great spiritual teachers. Now, my personal theology can be stated in the following simple phrase: Each of us is a unique and beautiful expression of the divine source, and we all share the same divine light.. When we are centered in the gift of awareness, we feel the glow of grace within ourselves, and we can see this same glow in others. Even persons who commit horrible acts have this light within them, though they may not be able to see it. Our task is to see it in everyone. This is the key to all relationships. And, this is the habit that allows for non-violent conflict resolution. When we recognize the light in others as the same light within ourselves, we no longer have any harmful intent. Not everyone will acknowledge this shared light, so those of us who see our lives as a journey of the spirit must lead the way. Cultivate the habit of seeing with the heart more than the eyes. And at times when you can't - maybe somebody just cut you off in traffic - remind yourself that, even when you can't see the light in another person, it is still there.

The Gift of Thought

Habit #5: Understand the Usefulness and the Limits of Thought

In the book The Five Gifts I describe the uses of thought as the four D's - discern, describe, design and decide. These thought uses help us to comprehend the world we live in, and our own experience. From the gift of thought, we get language, which allows us to communicate our ideas to others. Everything written in this blog is created and understood in thought. Through the gift of thought, we can set intention, make plans, and choose actions that will move us in the direction of our goals. Thought is a very powerful gift. Yet, thought has limits, and it is a good idea to be aware of the limits of thought. When we use thought to judge others, we are mis-using this gift. Furthermore, when we allow our thoughts to define us, we are creating limits for ourselves. Thought can become a straight jacket which binds and limits the spirit. So, cultivate the habit of recognizing when your thinking is useful, and when it is not. Meditation practice is helpful, here; in meditation, we learn to observe the stream of thought that enters into the mind space, and to choose to let go of the thoughts that don't serve us, while dwelling on thoughts that empower us. Take a few moments throughout the day to be present and observe the thoughts that you are experiencing. Notice when thought serves you and when it doesn't. And, practice replacing non-useful thoughts with ones that nurture and empower you.

The Gift of Life

Habit #6: Breath Awareness

We all know that we need to breath to survive. Without oxygen, the body will fail to support life in a few minutes. Yet, the breath is more than just a source of oxygen for the body. In the ancient tradition of India, where yoga originates, the breath is called prana, or life energy. The breath is our connection to life itself, the gift of life that animates all living things, including us. When we are aware of the breath, we can choose to move the breath with intention, and thereby expand our access to this empowering energy field. Cultivating this habit is fairly easy. Take a few moments throughout the day to simply be aware of the breath. When you do, if you find that the breath is shallow or ragged, consciously expand the breath, making the flow long and gentle. Breath for five cycles of the breath, making each breath longer and deeper than the one before it; use this simple approach several times a day. You can also learn many techniques of breath expansion - called pranayama in yoga. Use these techniques in your daily practice, and remember to be aware of the breath all day long.

Habit #7: Movement

We live in a sedentary society. Much has been written about the negative impact of this lifestyle on our physical health, and I won't repeat it here. My point is this: we are given the gift of life, which is a moving, flowing energy. To fully experience the delight of this gift, we must move. What's more, the life energy must move, to keep us alive. When energy stops moving, it ceases to be energy. Our bodies are designed to move, and when we move well, we expand the gift of life and empower our wellness. The best way to cultivate this habit of healthy movement is to practice yoga. I say this, not only because I am a yoga teacher, but because I have seen the powerful wellness benefits of yoga in my own life, and in the students who come to my classes. Cultivate this habit of moving well by learning yoga. (There are, of course, other practices like Qi Gong, T'ai Chi, etc., that you can learn that are healthy movement practices. Yoga is the one I know best.). Take a yoga class. Learn to move with healthy alignment, and with the movement of the breath. And, practice each day. Fifteen minutes of yoga each morning will energize you for the day. You may choose to pursue a more rigorous practice, too. My yoga practice is 60 minutes, 3 to 4 times per week, plus 15 to 30 minutes on other days. And, you can move with the breath all day long. For example, in the time I have been writing this, I have stopped twice to stand an move a bit. It has helped me stay focussed, and kept the energy flowing.

Habit #8: Water for Wellness

In the Holistic Wellness workshops that I teach, I often say, "water is the most important substance you put into your body." So, why do I talk about water here, instead of as part of the physical body? Actually, I had a difficult time deciding where to best fit this habit into the model of the five gifts. Since 60 to 70% of our physical bodies are water, this habit has a profound physical impact. Beyond the physical, water is essential for life. Water is key to movement, and the dynamic life processes within the body cannot take place without water. What's more the work of Masaru Emoto shows us that water is the medium for awareness within us. The water we drink affects our life energy field, our thoughts, even our awareness. Again, I say that water is the most important substance you take in. Cultivate the habit of water for wellness by making sure your water is fresh and clean. Don't drink unfiltered tap water, or water that is stored in plastic bottles. (In my opinion, bottled water is worse than tap water, and there is lots of research to support this. So, don't drink bottled water.) And, remember that most other drinks are not good substitutes for water. So, drink water. Pure and simple. Here's a link that can help you understand water better.

The Gift of the Physical Body

Habit #9: Create Body Balance

I don't like to talk about diet or weight loss, because much of the diet discussion in our culture leads to unhealthy habits. We have an excessively thin ideal of what is healthy, and, at the same time, we have an obesity epidemic. Both of these extremes are caused by the way we eat and the ideas we have about food. Both are out of balance. Each of us has an optimum body weight, which we achieve by creating a balance between what we eat and what our body needs. Creating body balance is a dynamic process; our ideal weight can and should change over time. Our physical bodies are in constant, dynamic exchange with the environment. Molecules and atoms come and go with each breath and in each moment. Over a couple of years, every atom in our bodies is replaced. We can't control this process - in fact, we are usually completely unaware of it. What we can do is take in what is needed to keep the body in balance. Nutrition is the source for the building blocks of the molecular structures of the physical body.  Contrary to popular ideas, food is not only about calorie needs.  Cultivate this habit be eating only what you body needs to be in dynamic balance. Organic, natural whole foods and supplements are the best sources for your body's nutrition. Avoid putting toxins in the body.  This includes alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, refined sugars, and the artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors found in processed foods.  All of these are all toxic, creating imbalance in the body. What's more, over-eating creates imbalance, too. Eat to create balance.

Habit #10: Alignment of the Structures

The gift of the physical body is consciousness expressed as structures: macro structures, cellular structures, and molecular structures. Much of what we discussed for habit #9 is about molecular structures, so I won't repeat it here. But what about the macro structures of the body? Clearly, are bodies are designed to be a certain way, and when we align the structures of the body with their intended design, we experience greater wellness. How do we do this? Through our yoga practice.  I know, I talked about yoga as a movement habit, and it is. Yoga is also an alignment practice. When we learn the alignment principles of yoga, we can apply them in all movement, on and off the yoga mat. Make sure the yoga you study includes an understanding of alignment. Anusara and Iyengar styles are both steeped in alignment, as are other yoga styles. Make this part of your daily practice.

And, finally...

Habit #11: Take a Holistic Approach

One of the challenges we face in using the five gifts as a model for wellness, is our propensity to see the elements of the model as separate from each other. In our culture, we are steeped in the scientific method, which breaks everything down to its component parts to facilitate understanding.  Looking at the different parts is useful. But, we must not carry this view too far. Remember that there are no separations. It is only our thoughts that perceive divisions. All of the five gifts are inseparable from the whole, and the whole is who you are. What happens in your body affects your life, thoughts and awareness. Your wellness is a whole-person affair. Keep this perspective as you move along your path to greater wellness.

Be well. Thanks for reading. Please share any comments you may wish.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Never Judge the Day by the Weather

"Never judge the day by the weather" - Earl Nightengale

I first heard this years ago, listening to one of Earl Nightengale's many recordings, and then, as now, it struck me as very powerful advice.  The weather is a metaphor for that which is not ours to control.  This includes most everything that happens to us.  Mr. Nightengale's message is that, since we can't control what happens to us, we ought not let what happens control us.  If we allow the weather to determine how we feel, then we will feel bad about half the time.  What's more, since there is almost always something to complain about, if we allow what happens to determine our mood, we'll spend most of our time in a bad mood.

Recently I have come to appreciate this metaphor with a deeper meaning than when I first heard it years ago.  It is easy for us to see the uncontrollable effects of external phenomena like the weather.  But, what about our inner world?  What about the "inner weather," as Tara Brach puts it.  Are we any more in control of what happens inside us than we are of what happens outside?  We like to think so, but I am not so sure.  

We cannot, for example, control what happens within our bodies.  Most processes within the body - digestion, circulation, immune function, temperature regulation, waste removal, cell replication, and so on - happen automatically.  We can't control these, even if we want to.  What's more, the molecules and atoms of your body are in constant exchange with the environment around you.  You are completely unaware of this exchange, and it is totally beyond your control.  Your physical body is a gift for you to use, but what happens within your body is like the weather - mostly beyond your control.

We experience more inner weather with the gift of life.  Our emotions are an important element of life's survival mechanism.  We are designed to react to what happens as if our life depends upon it.  In humanity's past, survival depended on the speed and energy (emotion) of a person's reaction.  Now, for most of us, the most life-threatening activity we have is driving.  Yet, we still have the same survival reactions of our ancestors.  Can we control our emotions?  No.  We can surpress them, ignore them, or allow them to control us.  Or, we can simply acknowledge that our feelings simply happen.  Emotions are there to tell us something, and to enhance our life experience.  

All in all, we have very little control of our lives.  We don't get to decide when life begins, when it ends, or most of what happens in between these two times.  Life energy flows through and animates our bodies in ways we barely understand, and this life is certainly not under our control.  Life is a gift we receive, for our joyful experience.  It is very much like the weather.

Well, at least we can control our thoughts, right?  Can we?  Not in my experience.  Thoughts come into the mind-field from a place beyond our control.  Our brains are tuned to receive certain thoughts, and we tend to dwell on some thoughts while allowing others to pass, but we don't control the stream of thought.  In fact, more often than not, the thoughts control us.  Thinking is inner weather.  It happens.

To be clear, I am not saying that we have no choices in what we think, say or do.  Nor am I saying that we are not responsible for our actions.  We have choices, and we are responsible for the choices we make.  We are given these gifts - the physical body, life, and thought - and what we do with these gifts is up to each of us.  What I am saying is this: most of what happens within us is beyond our control.

Here's a story from the Buddhist tradition that can help us better understand.  
The Buddha was talking with students one day, and he asked this question, "if a man gets shot by an arrow, will he experience pain?"
A student answered, "yes, he will."
The Buddha then asked, "if he gets shot by a second arrow, will he experience more pain?"
The student said, "yes, he will."
To this the Buddha replied, "the first arrow is unavoidable; the second arrow is optional."

The first arrow is the weather, outside or inside.  The second arrow is our response.  We don't get to choose the first arrow, but the second is under our control.  Or, as Victor Frankl said, "in between the stimulus and the response there is a space, and in that space lies our freedom and our power".

How do we exercise this freedom and power?  Through the gift of awareness.  

If I stub a toe, or injure the body, I don't get to choose the body's painful experience.  However, through awareness I can choose how my respond to it.  

When you get cut-off while driving, and must swerve to avoid an accident, you will have an emotional reaction - fear or anger.  The emotion is automatic, part of life's survival mechanism.  You can't choose the emotion. Your response, though, is up to you.

Thoughts come into the mind space as a result of many complex conditioning factors from our early life, the culture we live in, and thousands of years of human evolution, all of which is beyond our control.  When we are centered in awareness beyond the limits of thought, we don't choose what thoughts come to us, but we can choose what thoughts we dwell on, and what we let go of.  We can choose thoughts that empower us, and let go of thoughts that limit us.  We can also decide what ideas we expose ourselves to, and surround ourselves with a thought-environment that is nurturing and supportive.  The best news is that, with practice, the gift of awareness allows us to change the conditioning, which, in turn, changes the thoughts that come to us.  Through our practice we can change the inner weather.

Embrace the gift of awareness, the limitless expression of being yourself.  Centered in awareness beyond thought, you come to know that the inner and outer worlds are not separate, but one.  The distinction exists only in thought.  Being whole, you realize that what happens is just the weather, and you can choose how you respond.  And you know that, through awareness, you can change the weather, too.