Sunday, December 23, 2012

Making Peace with Food

I got up this morning to find my sweetie going through our recipe file and laughing hysterically. "Look at this one," she said. "It's for Hungarian eggs, but then at the bottom I've written a recipe for deviled eggs with just eggs, mayo, salt and pepper, that takes all the other stuff out. Why do you suppose I thought I needed a recipe for that?"

Our recipe file reads sort of like a life history in food. There are the things we once made when we were young, like my hamburger and tater tots casserole that hasn't seen the light of day since I was 20 years old; the things we'd like to make but won't, like the hundreds of tasty-looking cookie recipes that I won't make because I don't need any more ways to eat sugar in my life; the things we used to make a lot but somehow forgot about, like the vegetable gougere that needs to be reinstated in all its tasty gooey goodness.

The file brings up family history and memories, like watching my sweetie's mother sort through her pile of recipe clippings to find just the right one and trying to convince her that she doesn't need to keep the ones that she didn't like.

My sweetie and I were together for 15 years before we ever combined our recipe files so there is a history there as well of how our lives came together over time.

But there is also my history with food, in all its painful difficulty, because I've never been particularly easy with food. I have learned to enjoy it and appreciate it over the past 20 years but it has been a tough journey at times. I'm a picky eater, so I have many painful memories of sitting at dinners, hungry and tired but trying to be polite while I pushed food around on my plate and waited to get home to some peanut butter and crackers. I also have memories of people telling me what my relationship with food ought to be, and how wrong I was to eat the way I did. I have many days when I come home tired and I just want it to be easy. I have memories of controlling my eating in an effort to control my body. And I have memories of bingeing on sugar in secret and in shame. I have lots of "shoulds" around eating and lots of denial and resistance as well.

I know many other people struggle with food in a variety of ways and I have no easy answers to having a graceful relationship with food, but I do have just a couple of tricks that have helped me with it over the years.

1. Find a way to have fun with food that doesn't involve sugar.

This was a tough one for me, because I love sugar and I love baking. Baking is soothing to me. Cooking, on the other hand, feels mechanical and tedious. However, I can enjoy cooking when I'm doing it with someone I care about. I can also enjoy it when I think about food as fuel for my body and I know that when I cook something I'm using only ingredients I know and like and that are good quality, so I know I'm providing my body with good fuel and with something I know I will enjoy. When I cook something, I know I won't have to pick at it to find the bits I don't like.

Sometimes I can enjoy making food as a science experiment, making it more abstract and interesting. And I figure out which restaurants have cooks I really trust (for me, this means that I can see something on the menu that looks unlikely and know that it will taste good to me because of the skill of the chef) and those are the places where I allow myself to experiment with my dining.

2. View food as fuel.

I said that above but it's worth repeating. Sometimes I can eat something I'm not wild about when I can tell myself that I am providing good care for my body. I don't like doing dishes or going to the doctor either, but I do them because I need to. Sometimes I can eat for the same reason.

3. Stock your house with good food that you'll eat.

I know all the health gurus say this, but I think the key is that last part. It doesn't do any good to stock your house with good food that you won't eat. I buy the same stuff over and over again because it has a proven track record. If I have spinach in the house, I will eat spinach. Not so with squash!

4. Don't stock your house with cheap filler food.

Enough said.

5. Make a list at the beginning of the week of the meal and snack options you have available to you.

I put this last, but lately this has been my favorite and most helpful tip. I'm so busy with work that I don't have time to think about food. At the beginning of the week, I take a sticky note and write down the different meal and snack options for the week.

Notice I didn't say ingredients! I actually write out the combinations or finished products. That's important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I can see if there are meals that need preparation or cooking time and plan out when to do that, and then schedule it into my calendar. Secondly, I don't have to look in the fridge and see ingredients staring at me, then default to peanut butter and graham crackers because it's easier. And I don't have to rely on remembering what I planned to eat.  Thirdly, a planned combination looks much tastier and more interesting than a bare list of ingredients.

If I've already written something down, the thinking has been done already. I find when something is written down, I am far more likely to eat that particular thing, even if it takes a little more time and work.

Using a sticky note makes the list manageable. It can never be bigger than a sticky note size.

Then as I go, I cross off the things I've eaten up, which tells me I'm out of something and it also gives me that successful crossing things off the list feeling, as if I've accomplished something.

Enjoy the holidays! Me? I'm going back to that recipe file to find a few more memories.

copyright 2012 J. Autumn Needles

Monday, December 10, 2012

Meditation: Those Pesky Thoughts

Yeah, I took a little hiatus from writing. Sometimes life just gets too busy. But this is a quicky, and it's fun and easy! No really!

I think one of the hardest things about meditating is the feeling that you're supposed to be getting rid of all those thoughts, but what always seems to happen is that those thoughts multiply like fruit flies and before you know it, they're all over the place. And then you feel like a failure because of course, no one else ever has that problem. You are unique in the realm of meditation!

Except you're not.

Meditation isn't really about getting rid of the thoughts; it's about seeing what else you are besides your thoughts. So it's more about turning down the volume on them than getting rid of them altogether.

But how do you do that?

I've been given many tips from teachers and books, and I've come up with some of my own along the way, so here, in no particular order, are some thoughts about dealing with thoughts:

  • Imagine you're sitting on a hill overlooking a river and your thoughts are like boats gliding by.
  • Or like clouds floating through a clear blue sky.
  • Or like brightly-colored balloons drifting away.
  • Or imagine you're in a forest and the thoughts are contained in the little drops of water dripping off the leaves.
  • Or that the thoughts are just the background noise of the leaves rustling in the wind.
  • Speaking of noise, maybe you have a radio dial and you can turn down the volume so they're just a murmur.
  • Or maybe they're movies happening on that drive-in movie screen three blocks over where you can barely see them.
  • Maybe they're birds chattering...or insects flashing...either way something to notice but not the main event.
Or maybe you let yourself get distracted by the visualizations. Maybe you need something a little more grounded. So perhaps when you think something you can echo it, repeating it to yourself until it loses its sense.

Or maybe you'd do better to name it. Every time you have a thought, name it: "Thought." Every time you have a feeling, name it: "Feeling."

Is one of your feelings "absurdity" at this point?

Well, that's kind of the point.

What else do you start to see there when your thoughts and feelings become background, rather than the main event? That's meditation.

copyright 2012 J. Autumn Needles

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

So, once you sit down, what do you do? More meditation thoughts!

I think this is really one of the hardest things to write about when it comes to meditation. The simplest answer, "Just sit and observe your breath, your thoughts or your physical reality in the moment," is tricky for a number of reasons.

One reason is, it sounds too simple. And then once you sit down and try it, it's impossibly hard and many people just give up.

Another reason is, despite the instructions to observe, many people believe that what they ought to be doing is NOT thinking or NOT having physical reality intrude on them.

And lastly, the instructions, while certainly simple, are also kind of vague. What does that mean exactly, to sit and observe?

Reason #1 is why I think people who are beginning to meditate ought to do it for a short and finite period of time, but regularly, regardless of whether you feel like doing it and regardless of whether you think you're accomplishing anything.

Reason #1 is also an excellent reason to go get some instruction when you're beginning so that you have some guidance. Find somewhere where you can get a little elaboration on the basic concept.

Reason #2 has to do with our beliefs about meditation. Every single person who has ever sat down to meditate has had exactly the same experience: Having thoughts intrude and overwhelm them, which leads to a feeling of failure and of doing it wrong.

I'll deal a little more with reason #2 in my next post, but for now just know: You're not failing and you're not doing it wrong. The experience of having thoughts and feelings overtake and overwhelm you is one of the big points of meditation, because it's an experience we are literally having at every waking moment, only we're not aware of it. Meditation is about building awareness.

And we are physical beings so the idea that we could separate ourselves from physical experience somehow is, well, silly.

And reason #3 is why there are other ways to meditate. Sometimes it is helpful to have a little clearer box around the concept, something a little more concrete to focus on. Something like chanting a mantra or gazing at a candle or meditating on sending yourself lovingkindness or walking or visualizing drawing in light while inhaling and sending it through the top of your head while exhaling.

Still, meditation is basically being with yourself, exactly as you are in that moment and giving yourself the gift of complete observation and presence.

copyright 2012 J. Autumn Needles

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Nuts and Bolts of Meditation: The Physical Part

In my last entry, I talked a little bit about why I meditate and the basics for getting started. Last night I had a good reminder of how my meditation practice supports me and keeps me sane: I went to a party for a good friend, feeling physically and mentally exhausted from a difficult week but wanting to go acknowledge and support someone I care about very much. I struggled to find parking, getting frazzled as I drove up and down the hilly side streets. When I finally found something, I had to hoof it, normally not a problem except my foot is injured at the moment. Ow. Social situations can stress me out at the best of times, so as I approached the door and saw a couple getting out of their car, I thought, hey is this a friendly face I know? When I got close enough to see, I realized it was someone I struggle with and just felt myself shutting down altogether.

It's not something I'm proud of, and it's not something I want to continue, but this is a situation pretty much guaranteed to bring out my most unskillful behavior and coping skills. I got through the evening, really enjoyed seeing my friend so happy and so loved, saw many people I haven't seen for a while and had fun catching up with them, but felt exhausted by the end of it from my own lack of ability to right my equilibrium and restore equanimity. I just hate being knocked over like this, and, while it would be easy to blame the situation and the person, I know my own inability to balance is at fault.

I couldn't wait to get to my meditation after this. Not because it magically solves everything; it doesn't. But because it offers a safe place to just observe this swirl of yuckiness (or whatever else is going on), being aware that the swirl is not me, but that it has something to offer me if I can sit with it.

I say "sit" for a reason. When you first decide to meditate, I'd suggest you find a good place to sit. I recently had a yoga teacher tell me that she usually lies down to meditate. I've got to say, she's a better woman than I if she can manage that. When I lie down to meditate, I fall asleep. There is a reason people sit in meditation, and it is exactly that.

Few westerners can sit comfortably on the floor. Don't worry about it, just sit in a chair, preferably something rather solid, not soft, with a good supportive back. If you can sit easily on the floor, then do by all means. The action of keeping the spine upright can be really useful to maintaining concentration, but only if you're not in agony. Find a place where you know you can sit quietly for your 5-10 minutes, which you've selected as your starting time.

Eyes open or closed? Sometimes it can really help to keep the eyes open and softly focused, but make sure you don't have anything with writing on it in your visual range. If keeping your eyes open just makes you ponder all the housework you need to do, close them.

I know some people look for a space with no outside distractions. It certainly can help when you are first starting, but I'm not so much a proponent of that. One of the points of meditation is the ability to sit with what is, and sometimes what is is a bunch of distractions. It's good to learn how to work with them in meditation.

If you spend all of your time looking for the perfect place or the perfect time, then you're losing your opportunity to just start. Just start now. Wherever you are. Set your timer and go.

Next time: Nuts and Bolts: But what are you actually doing?

copyright 2012 J. Autumn Needles

Friday, September 14, 2012

The M Word: Meditation

That's right: meditation. That thing everyone knows you're supposed to do and no one ever wants to do.

I am in one of the busiest times of my life. So many people I care about and want to spend time with, relationships in transition, a career that is unfolding and which I am consciously building step by step, continued education, a house that needs work, bills that must be paid, major health decisions looming, discussions about plans for the future. Meanwhile down in the underground there's a current that rolls through it all: my step-father has dementia and my mother is struggling in pain and sorrow, overwhelmed with it.

When I allow myself to access that deeper layer, I find a wadded up ball of rage, sadness and fear in myself, which sharpens into fangs and claws when my equilibrium is threatened.

Here's a secret: my equilibrium is always threatened.

In order to keep myself from shredding my world around me lately, I have relied utterly on my meditation practice. I thought it might be worth sharing some of my thoughts from my practice to help others on the path. My next few blog entries will cover different aspects of meditation practice, from the nuts and bolts (So, what the heck am I supposed to do exactly when I meditate?) to dealing with those pesky thoughts that come up.

Right now, I have a suggestion for you if you want to begin. Pick a small, set amount of time–my vote would be no fewer than 5 minutes and no more than 10– to do every day.

Why so small when everyone knows how good it is for you to do more than that?

Because you need to begin. And if you think you have to begin with an hour, or even 20 minutes, you won't.

Five minutes is doable. There's no room for excuses.

Set a timer. I like using one that has a nice sound to it. You can find apps for your cell phone, or buy an actual timer. Sometimes I use the kitchen timer but I don't like the beeping that brings me out. I really recommend using something that has a sound that pleases you.

Don't allow yourself to do more than the time you've set yourself. This is sort of a sneak attack on your brain chemistry. It's how you turn a stick into a carrot. At first, your self talk might be something along the lines of, "Oh okay, I guess I can do 5 minutes. I don't really want to but I promised and it's a short time, and in 5 minutes I can get back to the laundry (or the tv or my sweetie or my Scrabble game.)"

After a while you'll start feeling good after you meditate, so when the timer goes off, you'll be sad. "Wait!" You'll say, "I'm just getting into the groove! I don't want to stop now!"

Stop anyway. You want to build up that feeling of loss when you have to stop so that you look forward to the next time you get to meditate.

If you can, do it at the same time every day. If you can't, don't worry about it, but schedule it on your calendar or to do list so that you have something to trigger you until you build the habit.

If you miss a day, don't berate yourself. Here's my conversation with myself when I miss a scheduled time: "Autumn, I'm so sorry that I didn't plan my day carefully enough and you missed your meditation. I promise I will make the time tomorrow." Keep your promise.

If you miss a day, don't double up your time the next day to make up for it. Yesterday's plan is gone. There is only today's plan which is only for that set amount of time. There is always another opportunity to do right by yourself.

Next time: Nuts and Bolts! (Meanwhile, I have a friend who offers an idea for meditation with each blog post at Good thoughts! Check her out.)

copyright 2012 J. Autumn Needles

Monday, June 11, 2012

Replacing the Rock Star

Recently I had to fill in as a sub for a Rock Star teacher. What a stressful experience that always is!

But let me define my terms! You might imagine that a Rock Star teacher is an excellent instructor with a lot of knowledge and experience and a great way of relating to students and making learning fun. And partly you’d be right.

Make that teacher/student bond a little more incestuous and impenetrable and you’ve got a problem. The teacher becomes elevated to guru status, feeding on the adoration of his fans, er…students, while the students begin to believe that nobody but the Rock Star can lead them on the proper path. They’ve all drunk the kool-aid that says that his way is the only way. When the Rock Star leaves for illness or a vacation or for good, pity the poor instructor who has to step in.

Most of the time Rock Stars happen when a skilled teacher, with a desire to both establish his or her credentials with the class and to retain students over time, slips in the message that not only is he or she the most experienced, but that the students might not even be safe studying elsewhere. At best, they’ll get bad knowledge that won’t do them any good; at worst, they’ll be harmed.

The students don’t get off easy on this charge either. When they find a teacher they like, they succumb to the temptation to hand over all the responsibility for their well being to this person with a sigh of relief. They don’t have to think any more! They just have to show up, and the teacher will do the rest. Anyone else in the teacher’s role makes them not just suspect, but downright cranky because now they have to bring back those rusty critical thinking faculties. And no one likes change so that just makes the situation worse.

So how do we avoid this situation, both as students and as teachers?

Teachers: You have to establish your credibility as an expert, and no employer, whether it’s yourself or a gym or studio, is going to thank you for falling down on the job of student retention. But what you can do is:

·       Be very careful what you say about colleagues or about other forms of study. You can be honest about why you personally don’t care for other forms of study, but be sure and also say that your opinion doesn’t make the other method invalid and that other people have different opinions about it. Make it your opinion, not one of the 10 Commandments.
·       Encourage your students to try other forms of study and other instructors. Talk about the benefits of mixing things up.
·       Be an expert but make sure that you put the responsibility back on the students to be experts on their own bodies and their own experience.
·       Encourage students to do their homework, offering information about what sorts of training programs exist for instructors and how they differ, books or articles or websites students may find helpful, national organizations that may provide general information. Encourage students to ask instructors about their backgrounds and to speak up about their own special needs.
·       If there’s something you believe to be an unsafe practice, back it up with documented research, and don’t gripe to your students about it! Talk to your colleagues, talk to your employer, and help make the profession better and safer!
·       Remember that your life is likely to change and it does not serve you or your students to make them reliant on you for their health.
For students:
·       Do your homework! Invest your time and attention into your health and the knowledge of your own body and its needs.
·       Remember that change is a part of life, and more than that, it’s healthy for body and mind to experience change.
·       Take responsibility for your own health. In tales of fantasy it’s often the case that by giving up a name or a hair a character puts herself in the hands of someone else and it always goes badly. Don’t ever put yourself entirely into someone else’s hands no matter how much you like and trust them. Don’t let go of your common sense and don’t abdicate.
·       Remember there are things to learn from every experience, even from a teacher you dislike.
·       Pay attention to what your body needs and be its advocate. Don’t confuse your body’s needs with your emotional response to change.

For substitutes or replacement instructors:

·       Remember that change unsettles people, especially if they weren’t expecting it.
·       Don’t bad mouth the instructor before you.
·       Don’t take student frustration personally and don’t get defensive. Instead, acknowledge the fact that change is hard and listen when the students tell you how they feel. Let them know you hear them and understand. Sometimes people just need to vent.
·       Don’t try to be the Rock Star, but DO, if you know him and his style, mirror some of that back to the students.
·       Establish your own credentials and be clear about taking charge of the room. If a student gives you feedback about what so-and-so used to always do, try not to be reactive, either by automatically copying it, or by automatically denying it. Instead, think it through and determine whether it has value and whether it fits in with your teaching style. No matter what you decide, thank the student for the feedback.
·       Have a sense of humor.
·       If you are subbing for a short time, remember this too shall pass. If you’re taking over a class, be patient and allow time to help the transition.

It’s important that we all realize what our ultimate goal is: creating health and wellness for all of us. If instructors get caught up in some sort of idea of competition, trying to be right or to win somehow, everyone loses. On the other hand, we all win if we can recognize other instructors as our colleagues, strive to improve our own teaching through continuing education, learn from other instructors and mentor other instructors, creating a strong, vibrant and cohesive industry that serves all of our students well.

copyright 2012 J. Autumn Needles

Sunday, April 8, 2012

What are you rehearsing for?

I wrote earlier about paying attention to your life’s soundtrack, both external and internal. Right now I want to focus on the internal soundtrack. You know the one: it’s that voice in your head that keeps up a commentary on everything like the director’s commentary on a movie.

A movie is an apt metaphor for where I’m going with this, too, because I’ve been thinking a lot about that old saying, “Your life is not a dress rehearsal.” The point of that saying is to get you up and moving, realizing that your time is now and that you don’t get another go around to get it better next time. I’m going to take issue with that saying though. I’m not saying it’s not a great saying! It is, and it’s probably been a helpful reminder for lots of people over the years.

Here’s my beef with it: In many ways your life is *exactly* a dress rehearsal. Think about what rehearsing means in the theater. You typically don’t rehearse something in a half-assed way. You rehearse something the way you want to do it for the real thing. That goes double for the dress rehearsal which is immediately prior to the performance. It’s your last chance at it to get it right so you want to be on your game.

In many ways the thoughts we have over and over again, and the responses we make in a predictable and patterned way to different events and people in our lives create exactly this dress rehearsal type of experience, because they set us up to repeat those thoughts and responses in the same patterns all over again.

And then we wonder why we have trouble making changes. Remember some of those internal scripts I mentioned in the earlier post? If your response to trouble is always, “I never have any luck. Nothing ever goes my way”, then when trouble comes again, you’re likely to have that same response with all the feelings it brings up.

The problem with this is that every life has trouble in it. We all face difficulties of many sorts through our lives. We will never do away with trouble. The only thing we can really do is practice a different response to it.

So now imagine your life IS a dress rehearsal and pay attention to it very carefully over the next several days. And then ask yourself, what is the life you are rehearsing for? It may not be the life you want. And it may come as a surprise to you that you've been rehearsing for the wrong show.

The good news is that you are not only the director and main actor of your play, you’re the author as well. Write yourself a better character and then practice it as though this is your final dress rehearsal before the curtain goes up on the real show.

copyright 2012 J. Autumn Needles