On Letting Yourself Have What You Need

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Goodness, what a week. What weeks. What a lot we have to process. Fires raging throughout California. Evacuations. Homes, community centers, businesses burnt to the ground. Lives taken. Thousands of acres of natural landscape scorched. And the fucking relentless, hate-fueled shootings. The mass shooting at a dance hall in Thousand Oaks, CA. The mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The mass shooting at a yoga studio in Tallahassee. The mass shooting at a supermarket in Jeffersontown, KY. And the continuing chaos in our country’s capitol (in spite of some groundbreaking, historical wins in the House and gaining back the Democratic majority, neither of which should we lose sight of).

So much loss to process. To hold each other in. To hold while figuring out how to continue to find hope of creating a different world.

On top of grappling with the seeming homeostasis of tragedy and tumult that typifies our current reality, we have…the holidays. Not at all to be compared in likeness to the aforementioned traumas; solely acknowledged in this context as a time, in spite of its best intentions, of additional stress. A time rife with social expectations and obligations; extra financial spending; potentially activated triggers around food; potentially activated triggers around family or lack thereof; and on and on.

It’s a lot.

It’s a lot in and of itself. And. It’s especially overwhelming during this time of year when our natural inclination is not actually to be hyper-social, but to turn inwards. With the shorter days, the extension of darkness, winter’s slower, more contemplative energy emerging as we draw nearer to her dawn, the fibers of our being that are energetically tied to the earth are asking us to slow down, too. To rest. To get ready for our winter hibernation, as metaphoric as that may be. I wrote about this energetic shift and what it asks of us around this time last year. The trouble is, what the earth is asking of us now and what society is asking of us now are in rather direct conflict with one another.

Which is why it is paramount—especially at this time—that you give yourself permission to take care of yourself.

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We all process things differently. Some of us recharge and recalibrate by being around and in conversation with other people. Some of us need solitude and quiet spaces to regroup. The array of ways that ‘taking care of myself’ can look are vast and are all entirely valid.

Let yourself have what you need to take care of yourself.

If you don’t already know what the spaces or activities are that help you process, reset and recharge, I invite you to sit in stillness for a handful of minutes, focus your attention on your breath, and see what arises. What ideas, what longings, what images in your mind’s eye. Stillness is essential, for it is in stillness that the intuitive wisdom of our bodies has space to emerge and where our attention has the opportunity to listen.

Maybe taking care of yourself looks like spending half an hour out in nature, by yourself or with someone dear to you. Maybe it looks like a hot bath with Epsom salts and essential oils. Maybe it looks like going to a dance class or a restorative yoga class—engaging in some form of cathartic movement. Maybe it looks like meditating. Maybe it looks like journaling. Whatever you need to slow down and reconnect with yourself is of utmost importance in these trying and demanding times.

And while we’re getting comfortable with the practice of giving ourselves what we need to take care of ourselves, here’s another gentle reminder: You have the right to say no. To invitations. To cooking requests. To eating any food item. To demands of your attention, your presence, your time. Acting in alignment with your bandwidth, your desires and your needs is a huge part of showing up as your authentic self. We so often agree to things out of a desire to please others (or, in the inverse, out of a fear of displeasing others or “falling short”); yet this only breeds resentment and exhaustion within ourselves. Boundaries are an essential aspect of self-care. You can say “no,” still be kind about how you articulate it, and maintain your positive relationships all the while.

As we practice this prioritization of self-care, we will be better equipped to empower others to take care of themselves, too. Better equipped to honor each other’s individual needs—even within these next couple months of heightened obligations and expectations—and especially within these trying times.

Take good care, dear ones. <3.

On Balancing Your Energy

©  Illustration by Brooke Balliett

© Illustration by Brooke Balliett

Last fall, I had the opportunity to TA a class in the Integrative Health Masters program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Called Mindful Health, the course offered an in-depth examination of how and why meditation and mindfulness are essential practices in cultivating overall health and wellbeing. We talked a lot about energy, suffering, self-compassion, ambition, burnout, the nervous system, the brain and, taking these all into account, the ways we can manifest our own vibrant health—and support others in doing so for themselves. One of the teachings that Megan, our instructor, shared with us has felt particularly resonant as I've struggled to show up in this space over the past six weeks. As such, it feels worthwhile to share with you here, now.

Let's take, for a minute, a more expanded notion of suffering than the extreme situations that the word typically brings to mind. Suffering as any state of dis-ease, be it a habitual undercurrent of anxiety; stress related to uncertainties or obligations in one's life; heartbreak or shattering disappointment of any kind; and so on. Early on in the class, Megan re-framed suffering to be defined not by our circumstances but by our relationship to them. I appreciate this framing so much because it gives us agency, which is absolutely essential in the path to self-love, self-worth and mind/body/spirit health.

In this iteration, suffering is not caused by undesirable events or circumstances that are inflicted upon us. Rather, suffering is caused when we try to control the things that are not in our control and when we don’t give determination to those that are. Unfortunately, all too often, there is a confusion about which is which. We need surrender and volition, both. Compassion and determination, both. And we need the ability to identify which circumstances require which approach—which is a clarity that mindfulness and meditation help us cultivate.

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According to the Vedantic tradition (one of the world's oldest spiritual philosophies), everything in existence embodies three basic energetic states at all times: sattva, which is balanced and harmonious; rajas, which is active and impassioned; and tamas, which is resigned or destructive. Called gunas, these energies exist constantly and simultaneously in different degrees. At any given time, they can be in balance—aligned more with sattva—or out of balance. 

Oftentimes, the suffering we can experience on a daily level is reflected in one or more of these energies being out of balance. For example, too much rajas might feel like overstimulation, crazy caffeine jitters, or incessant multitasking. Overly-exerted rajas uses a lot of energy but not necessarily in an effective way. It also leaves little to no space for reflection about the tasks one is doing. This energy is tricky because our culture actually values and promotes an overstimulation of rajas, even though it can easily result in burnout, disconnection from self and dissatisfaction. When rajas is in balance, it looks like circulation, movement and change—which are often, if not always, good things!

On the other end of the spectrum lies tamas, which when overstimulated manifests as resignation or complete depletion. Out of balance tamas is the, "Fuck this" energy, the "What's the point?" energy, the drinking-to-forget or total crashing energy. When in balance, tamas is the energy that allows us to sit, reflect, recharge, process and integrate all the activity of our lives.

Whether or not you believe in these energetic principles, what I have found valuable in learning about them (and hopefully you will too!) is that they have enabled me to label my energetic states when I feel "off," not myself, stressed out or unhappy, and to then identify actions that I can take to help bring myself into balance—or, in other words, change my relationship to and reduce my suffering. Rajas and tamas are in opposition to one another; this means increasing one will help bring the other into balance. If I am feeling crazy stressed and overwhelmed, I can pause and actively choose to tap into tamas energy by taking a handful of deep breaths, doing some restorative yoga poses in my room, sitting in nature or journaling. If I am feeling aimless, unmotivated or physically depleted, I can integrate some active rajas energy to shake me out of my rut by going for a walk, dancing around my bedroom, or—hey!—even cooking something tasty to eat.

We are constantly in relationship with everything that falls into our lives—people, opportunities, failures, our phones, the news, our bodies, our food, our work, our free time, and even our histories. These things all have the potential to be a catalyst for suffering, to varying degrees, at any given point in time. It is essential to remember that it is our relationship to the thing that will dictate if and how much we suffer. By building the muscle that brings our awareness to the qualities of that relationship and beginning to act in ways that generate energetic balance, we can, little by little, begin to cultivate greater internal peace.

On Mindful Eating

©Carolyn Mason, “Pink Frosting,” 2004.

©Carolyn Mason, “Pink Frosting,” 2004.

In one segment of her book Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert recounts an experience she had in a busy office building in New York. Upon rushing into an elevator, she caught a glimpse of herself in the security mirror. Processing the familiar face, her brain registered her own reflection as a friend of hers; Gilbert reacted, for a fleeting moment, with surprise and joy. As quickly as this happened, she realized her mistake and laughed it off in embarrassment.

Gilbert reflects back on this moment in the midst of a night in Rome—where she has been living most vivaciously—when she finds herself suddenly overcome with depression and loneliness. Turning to her own self for support, Gilbert remembers this incident in the elevator. She scrawls in her journal: "Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend."

What a revolutionary concept: that we can be our own friend. That we can offer our own selves compassion and solace, even in the depths of despair. I would argue that this—this befriending of ourselves, this treating ourselves as we would our nearest and dearest—is one of the most vital practices in which we can actively engage. (And I say “practices” because it truly is evolving; truly takes repeated effort; truly takes disciplined attention.) A practice that makes life easier. Healthier. More fulfilling. And it is not just vital in moments of depression, strife or despair. It is work we can weave into each moment of our lives. What we allow ourselves to do with our time. How we approach our aspirations; our creativity; our play. How and when we work. How we judge and speak to our own selves.

So where does this process of self-befriending begin? There are many points of entry. Combating negative self-talk. Expressing gratitude. Giving ourselves credit for our achievements. Operating from a place of trust rather than fear. But those are not what we're going to talk about today. Today, we're going to talk about the point of entry that sparked the journey of self-befriending, in truth, for me. We're going to talk about food. 

Or, rather, the way we eat our food.

Mindful Eating or The Gateway Art of Attentiveness

I first encountered the concept of mindful eating in Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food, which I highly recommend. He espouses this simple yet somehow radical belief that when you eat you should just eat. Don't eat and scroll through any media or communications on your phone. Don't eat and read the newspaper or even Bon Appetit magazine. Don't eat while driving. Don't eat straight out of the fridge while making your ritual boredom lap through the kitchen. Don't eat standing up, rushing out the door. Don't eat at your desk, working through your lunch break. Don't eat while watching TV or Netflix in bed.

So what, just…eat? Yes, just eat. Eat and give your full attention to your meal (and your present company, if you are sharing the meal with others). Eat and relish the colors, textures, scents and tastes of your food. Take your time. Put your utensil down between bites. Chew thoroughly. Savor the flavors. Take deep breaths and feel the reactions of your body to your meal. Appreciate the care that you put into preparing your meal, or that someone else put into preparing it. Acknowledge and appreciate the hands that nurtured and harvested the raw ingredients and the wonders of our earth that enabled them to grow. And, while we're at it, also be sure to eat off of proper dish ware, treating yourself like the deserving human that you are. You wouldn't serve your guest a meal straight out of a jar, wrapper or tupperware, would you?

These propositions in and of themselves have the capacity to trigger all kinds of resistance—let alone what might come up in the actual act of trying them. Our internal monologue, that voice of defense, has its lines firing. I don’t have time for that! I won’t get to read the paper if I don’t do it over breakfast. I can’t get my work done if I don’t eat at my desk. What, I’m supposed to sit at home alone, at the actual dining table, and have a meal with myself as company? I could never have a meal out in public and not be on my phone—that is way too awkward! Why dirty a dish when I can eat right out of the jar?

These are all valid concerns, but hear me out. Mindful eating has incredible physiological, psychological and emotional effects. For starters, when we take the time to slow our eating and chew more fully, our bodies actually have greater access to the nutritional benefits of our food. Believe it or not, chewing is the first step in the digestive process. When we chew completely, our teeth essentially liquidize our food, which enables our bodies to digest it more easily and frees up internal resources to focus on nutrient absorption. Our saliva also contains digestive enzymes that are necessary to break down the food for optimum conversion into energy. Slowing down and chewing fully means we physically gain more benefit from the food we eat and help our digestive systems do their job with more ease and effectiveness.

These aren’t the only ways that mindful eating benefits our physical health. When we actually pay attention to (or dare even savor!) the process of eating, we are better able to tune in to our levels of hunger and satiety. This helps us avoid overeating and feelings of post-meal discomfort, which in turn helps prevent unwanted weight gain and chronic stress on our digestive systems. Additionally, as our minds and bodies are constantly in relationship, eating with attentiveness helps us remember the experience of having eaten, which actually keeps us feeling fuller longer. 

And then there's the joy bit. The benefit of pure pleasure that comes from truly noticing and appreciating how delicious your food is, how curious of a sound it makes, how many hands it took to get from the field onto your plate, or how wonderful that even amongst your hectic/frustrating/disappointing/exhausting day, you took time to create something for yourself. By making an effort to eat away from your desk, away from your phone or television, off of real dish ware at the dining room table—even if you're by yourself—you are actively showing yourself that you're worth caring for. That, in itself, is something to be practiced and celebrated.

Words really cannot express how radically the practice of mindful eating has changed my life. It has so many benefits and an incredible ripple effect. Start paying more attention to your food and your eating and suddenly everything in your life will seem deserving of increased attention, care and even reverence. The mundane made magnificent. Trust me. You'll see.