Extending the Season of Generosity

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Many people feel good about donating to environmental organizations that protect sensitive habitat close to their homes. This is the wetland of the Cumberland Community Forest.

Christmas is still special.

Christmas is the season of giving. For a brief time we are encouraged to take a step back and be more thoughtful. During the Christmas season we are expected to be more generous, and kinder towards everybody. A remnant, we are told, of the true meaning of the holiday. We give gifts, donate to charities, and are inspired to help others. This is the heart-opening sentiment that makes Christmastime a truly beautiful occasion. The magic endures if we are able to withstand the cold grasp of uncontrolled consumerism, or the hot flashes of seasonal rage associated with long line-ups, and lack of parking.

Once the holidays are over we toss the tree, pack-up the lights and ornaments, and resume our routines. We can forget the power that generosity has played on our sense of well-being. As it turns out giving, and by this I mean thoughtful generous giving, is more rewarding than receiving. The science of generosity has proven it does have a positive impact on people, both psychologically and physically.  We now know that being generous, with either your time or your resources lowers blood pressure, reduces risk for cardiovascular problems and dementia, lessens anxiety and depression, and elevates mood. If there was a pill that offered all that we would probably sit up and take notice, yet the the importance of generosity is often overlooked. When we give, either by volunteering, or by donating money or other personal resources, it fires up a part of our brain called the mesolimbic pathway. This area of the brain is responsible for feelings of gratification. Helping others floods our brain with happy chemicals like dopamine, it activates endorphin production which blocks out pain signals, and produces oxytocin, also known as the tranquility hormone. Helping others can distract our minds away from stressors and problems associated with our selves, it can boost self-esteem, and even help ease social isolation. Being generous, it would seem, is good for us.

All the major spiritual traditions agree. For both Christians and Muslims alike offering time, assets, or talents to aid someone in need is considered a virtue. According to Buddhist philosophy, generosity is one of the Ten Perfections. At Christmas, we tap into our giving natures. However, it can be hard to stay focused on being generous. We get sucked into the drama of our own hardships, or become overwhelmed with attending to the mundane details of everyday life. We are learning that year-round givers achieve more than those cautious, self-serving takers who subscribe to a worldview of scarcity and competition. We probably all know at least one stereotypical, self-protective taker, who constantly puts themselves first, fearful of not coming out on top. However, advances in neuroscience do not back up this mentality that winning at the game of life is tied to having more. In fact the opposite has been demonstrated. Generosity all by itself provides us with a huge hit of the right kind of happiness chemicals. Having more is an endless cycle defined by needing more to maintain the boost, it is a game we can unfortunately never win.

In a world where the accumulation of wealth has become a cultural obsession, the Sacred Hoop offers a balanced approach to the trait of generosity. The Sacred Hoop, or Medicine Wheel, is a metaphor for a variety of spiritual concepts. Used by many North American First Nations, the Medicine Wheel can refer to a number of key interpretations, one being the 4 aspects of life (Belonging, Independence, Mastery, Generosity). There is great diversity within the various nations, but a common theme is the central aspect of generosity or altruism. Many First Nations celebrate generosity as a fundamental way of life, and in a different time, it was a necessity for survival. What First Nations leaders and healers understood was that ritual generosity ensured wealth was not accumulated by a few, but spread among the people for the survival of the whole. Most collective cultures have this aspect as part of the central practice. Individualistic cultures that dominate North America and Europe, have a harder time encouraging its citizens to flex their empathy muscles and act generously. Therefore It comes down to families to work this into their daily narrative. It is important what we say, but equally important how we act.

I remember being surprised when I first learned that psychologists discovered they can predict which relationships will endure and which will not, based on the presence of only two qualities. Naturally I thought love might have something to do with it, but I was wrong. Researchers determined that two other qualities figured prominently, and were highly predictive of relational success or failure. In the ‘love lab’ of the Gottman Institute, seeing evidence of generosity and kindness in relational interactions was the strongest predictor of relationship longevity. In the couples deemed ‘the masters’ nearly every interaction demonstrated mutual generosity and kindness. By contrast, the couples deemed ‘the disasters’ lacked generosity altogether, and showed more hostility and contempt in nearly every interaction. I find this study fascinating because it reminds me of the importance of behaving generously. Even small and seemingly insignificant acts of generosity can have life-transforming benefits to others and oneself.

During this time of personal resolutions, I much prefer to set intentions. I make my way in this world with as much intentionality as I can muster, and I am still learning what that looks like. So for 2017, I’m setting the intention to be more generous. In both small and large deeds. I will fail at times, that is certain. However, getting it perfect is not the point. Being in touch with the direction I want my life to turn is the humble goal.

There are many ways to include more generosity in your day-to-day life, and make it have a greater impact on your own well-being. Here are some suggestions from the generosity experts:

  • Find a way to connect with the impact your generosity can make.
  • Volunteer- the magic number of hours per year for personal benefit is about 100, studies have shown volunteering at least 100hrs/year significantly reduces mortality rates.
  • If you are going to give your time, money or assets, contribute to something that has personal meaning for yourself.
  • Give with groups of other people to heighten the impact.

Happy 2017, I hope the intentions you set for yourself bring you a greater sense of well-being in the coming year.

Thanks for reading,

Sharon

Giving Thanks

_MGL8896“Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all others.” -Cicero

Near the Autumnal Equinox which marks the equidistant point between the height of summer and the dead of winter, we enter into the traditional season of giving thanks. This ritualistic and comforting season of thanksgiving coincides with the fall harvest. Over the next several weeks gardens are dug up and put to bed. A vast array of fresh produce is pulled in for canning, drying, and preserving before the big Northern freeze. The harvest moon has risen up through the tree tops, and hung like an incandescent egg over the  horizon, then continued its journey through the waning phases. On Thanksgiving Day we sit down with family and friends to celebrate our unique Canadian variation of the harvest festival.

Thanksgiving is thought to be an old world ceremony, stemming from a forgotten time when families farmed their own land, and livelihoods were deeply entrenched in cycles of abundance and scarcity. During a traditional harvest feast there are plenty of seasonal vegetables, the slaughtering of a plump bird, and drink, ales and wine being very popular. It is also a time to count your blessings, and give thanks for favorable circumstances. In this age of increasing consumerism and disposable materialism that always keeps us searching for more, Thanksgiving is a beautiful oasis, a holiday to commemorate the art of gratitude.

Gratitude has historically been closely tied with organized religion. However, as countries like Canada have separated state from church, and increasingly become more secular, the grace of living spiritually has been shrugged off and lost, along with much of the religious dogma. I am relieved to notice that there has been a recent resurgence in the practice of gratitude. The positive psychology movement that has gained momentum in the last 15 years has set its gaze on the subject. Positive psychology is changing the way we view the area of mental health, which used to be dominated by a model that centered around  pathology. There has been a shift from the obsession with what is abnormal, and greater emphasis is now placed on what is defined as healthy. Researchers are interested in how we can encourage more of what we need to live emotionally stable, happy and productive lives. In the realm of positive psychology, gratitude figures prominently.

What we now know, is that feelings of gratitude are increasingly associated with feelings of positive well-being. There is a strong link between feeling grateful and having effective coping skills. Being grateful increases a person’s sense of self-empowerment and locus of control. Not only does gratitude colour our interpretation of neutral experiences for the better, it is also shown to enhance pro-social behaviours. Writing ‘Thank-you’ on the back of a receipt in a restaurant has been proven to elicit a greater tip for a server. Most notable, is that those suffering from depression and anxiety disorders are more frequently lacking in feelings of gratitude than their happier and less anxious counterparts. Therapists sometimes use gratitude journals as a tool to help lift the fog of habitual depressive thinking. People have also discovered that teaching gratitude to young children fosters optimism, and a glass-half full mentality, which in turn increases resilience to stress and negative emotions later in life.

In my own family we started a gratitude journal on February 15, 2009. Most evenings we each pick three things we are grateful for and record them. The journal gets put away and forgotten from time to time. Then it re-surfaces and our passion for recording our gratitude resumes. What I love to do is look back at the entries that span years. It is always good for a few laughs. Yet it is much more than that. It marks the passage of time in a unique way, recording our lives through the lens of cherished moments and events. It is also a poignant record of what touched our hearts on a given day in our collective history. Many of these moments are ordinary and mundane, long forgotten, except we have them written in this book, as a curious reminder. I love how it also follows the maturation of our daughter. In 2009, for example she was grateful for simple childhood things like hugs, stuffies, and picking out new stories at the library. By 2015 there is a general theme of gratitude for video games. I plan to give her this book as a gift when she grows up. I hope she finds it as fascinating as I do.

So during this Thanksgiving season I send a prayer of thanks to my personal temple, the vast and mysterious universe manifested in the great outdoors. I am deeply grateful for all of my good fortune. To be surrounded by wonderful people who love and cherish me, who I in turn love and hold dear, is at the top of my list of things to be grateful for. Although I have lost a few important people along the way, I am eternally grateful for the ones who I have loved and lost, as well as the ones who remain in my life today, for I am nothing without their support and nurturing. It may be a cliche to be superbly grateful for good health, but those friends and family members who do not enjoy this struggle daily to find optimism. We should never take our health for granted, as it can change for the worse so rapidly. Finally, of the things I will list here, I am thankful for my freedom, in body and mind. As a woman, I may not have gained equality in every aspect of life, but I walk the earth generally safe from harassment, oppression and violence. I can go just about anywhere in the world I am compelled to travel. I can enter in the back door or the front. I wish this for all people, but we still have a lot of work to do in order to realize that dream. I am free to learn what I want, when I want, and Malala Yousafzai has shown me how important this right is for all people. With freedom of speech, I can speak out about injustices as I see them, human or environmental. I do not fear censorship, or the threat of incarceration, disfigurement or death. We will all be better off when everyone enjoys such freedoms.

I encourage everyone to take a moment and check-in with three things that you are grateful for today, and for every day. You might feel much better for making a habit of this simple exercise. I know I do. Happy Thanksgiving.

The above photo is me, with my family after a photo shoot for a fundraising fairy calendar to buy a forest. Thanks to my friend photographer Ron Poque for snapping this unconventional family portrait.

Time for a change

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ISL_0072It is a gorgeous fall day and I am lucky enough to live in Canada, one of the greatest countries on our beautiful jewel of a planet. Outside, shades of orange leaves, set against some of the bluest skies of the year, are nothing short of stunning. Trails in the nearby woods are carpeted in colorful crunchy reminders of the seasonal shift. Dusk descends earlier each evening, leaving glowing remnants of the day smeared across the two-toned sky. Even the political forecast is calling for change. Soon Canadian voters will award one successful candidate the most influential job in the country. Grand statements about making (or not making) changes get tossed about ad nauseum during the lead up to election. Towards the end of one of the longest election campaigns in Canadian history, I grow weary of the relentless electioneering rhetoric. Yet the idea of change, and how we know when the time is right to make it, is something that I find intriguing. We are awash in the momentum of ever present change. Yet personal change is still somewhat elusive.

Long after the politicians have finished their election theater, and returned to the business of running a country, I will still be considering the theme of this election legacy. Probably I think about change more than the average person, due to the nature of my work as a therapist. Counselors are considered to be agents of change. We are appealed to for guidance, so that an individual may make positive and lasting personal changes. But how do we do it? In the movies its so simple. A person begins to make necessary changes in their life, as the result of the psychological impact of a therapist’s carefully timed remarks during a counseling session. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. I have noticed that change is not something we find easy at all. It is surprising how much emotional pain some people are willing to endure because they have difficulty embracing the idea of change. Many times there are restraining forces within us that prevent embarking on a different path, even though we know it is a better option. One thing I notice with some frequency, is that when people talk of change, what is often envisioned is that kind of change which comes from outside ourselves. We can’t be blamed. It is human nature to look to other people, our environment, or our circumstances, to be the catalyst for much needed change. There is a natural resistance to doing things differently for ourselves. Mainly because it takes tremendous amounts of energy.

Imagine for a moment the process. First we have to be willing to try something new, even when we are afraid or uncertain. No wonder people are cautious. I mean what if we fail or look foolish? Being open to change can be a scary proposition and something we are generally not accustomed to doing. To be willing to make changes means we understand that we must think and behave differently. Thinking and behaving are two of our most deeply ingrained automatic responses, emanating partly from arcane brain structures associated with fear and other survival responses. But the good news is that thought and behaviour changes are well within the grasp of modern homo-sapien brains. All it takes is a substantial helping of courage. For that we need good supports systems, self-compassion, and a plan.

Then we have to drum up the motivation to actually get out and start making those ideas for change become a reality. Even when we are tired, over-scheduled, and maybe already a little overwhelmed. Where do we find our motivation for making changes? Well, a good therapist knows we are all motivated by something, and motivation is different for everyone. We find motivation in what we hold dear. Whether it be our ideals, our children, our health, or our very lives. We can usually resonate with a reason why we want to make a change. If we can determine what that reason might be, then we can use it to our advantage. Often we begin by noticing a discrepancy between where we are now, and where we hope to be. Imagination can be a key ingredient. Along with the practical skill of goal-setting. Good to start off by setting realistic and attainable goals. You are much more likely to succeed that way.

Next we need to feed our commitment to change daily. They say that nothing of value is done through a quick fix. Perhaps there are areas where this is untrue, but in my experience, personal transformation is not one of them. Shifting habits takes time. Sustaining changes over a period of time, long enough to have lasting results, is repeatedly a challenge for most people. Personally, I am trying to change the bad habit of grinding my teeth. I do it mostly under stressful circumstances when I am distracted and forget to be mindful. Hopeful for several more decades until I get to experience the pleasures of polygrip, I began this process many years ago at the suggestion of my dentist. Like many others making changes, at times I do quite well. Then I drive through downtown Vancouver at rush hour… and well, you get the idea.

Finally, we need to believe in ourselves. We need to have enough confidence that we have the strength, and courage, to make our necessary changes, and that we are capable of succeeding. When we trust ourselves and our process we can be very powerful. Seeking encouragement is important, as our faith in ourselves may at times waiver. This is natural,  and finding supportive people to keep us on track can be helpful. Change is challenging. The greater the change required, often the greater the difficulty. Maintaining optimism is one of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself, or someone else who is struggling to make lasting positive changes. Cultivate optimism and you will reap your rewards.

Change out there is a given. Seasons change, Politicians do too, and probably should from time to time. However personal change is tough. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have some decent role models. So, to the next Prime Minister of Canada, whoever you are, dare to inspire the fair-minded people of our beloved country to be the change they want to see in the world. I say, be willing to do something differently, even if you are afraid. We will be inspired by your courage. Be motivated to uphold the values Canadians hold sacred – democracy, honesty, and a commitment to building peace at home and abroad. We will follow your lead, and become better stewards of our own small, but meaningful domains. Be committed to show up every day and do your best, not just for what you might gain today, but for future Canadians who also deserve to matter. We will love you for your gift of vision. And finally, keep the faith. Believe that what you do makes a difference in the lives of all Canadians, for surely it does. And we will cherish you as one of our own.

Now get out and vote!

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” -Mahatma Gandi

The Ripple Effect

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A few weeks ago my husband asked me what I think about when I run. He is an avid mountain biker and prefers solo riding. He was amusing me by explaining how he solves his worldly problems while deftly manoeuvring over rocky mountain trails as mud splashes him in the face. He was wondering if running- my solo wilderness recreation activity, served a common purpose. Initially I started running for the physical health benefits, but there is definitely a mental health advantage as well.

Research has shown that exercise does have a positive ripple effect on other, seemingly unrelated aspects of our lives. It buffers us from stress and floods our brains with ‘happy chemicals’ thereby enhancing our moods. It can increase relaxation, decrease anxiety, improve the quality of our sleep, and make us feel more energetic and creative. It can even reduce cravings for all our nastiest vices. I find it even bolsters my ability to shrug off relationship tension when it arises. Yet it strikes me that the mental clarity I achieve by running has nothing to do with any direct problem-solving thought processes. It just sort of happens, almost as a by-product. In fact I would say I do very little thinking while running. Mostly I just do a whole lot of being.

As other runners may relate, I sometimes spend the first 15 minutes thinking about how my lungs are heaving and my legs hurt. However, gradually there is a settling into pace and rhythm. The breathe evens out and synchronizes with the left and right movements of my limbs. Awareness of my environment grows, and as I adjust to a groove, I find I don’t think about much of anything. I prefer to stay in the moment of the experience, conscious of my body, and its rhythm, movement, and breathe. I like to feel my legs pumping and my heart pounding, enjoying the gentle rise and fall of my lungs. My mind registers oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. On a good run the endorphins kick in and I feel like I’m floating.

Because I run through a variety of gorgeous forest trails I also tend to notice the scenery. I take it all in, the sights, the sounds and smells. In the deep forest there is the loamy smell of earth. In spring, I often hear the rushing sound of water from swollen creeks and rivers.  If I near the wetland in the early hours there is the delightful froggy chorus, the picturesque reflection of morning splashed trees in the duck pond, or the sudden eruption of a tree full of scolding crows from somewhere above. One memorable day I saw glimpses of a glowing neon rainbow peaking at me through the tops of the water drenched trees. Running allows for such a complete sensory experience that it is hard to be in my head even if I wanted to.

Along the way there are also hazards to mitigate. Keeping alert and carefully watching my footing is important. A fall could be catastrophic. Aware that my preferred running trails are frequented by predators, my senses are heightened in response to the possible presence of danger. My large-eared, sharp-nosed dog companion runs close by. I carefully observe his well-developed canine instincts. He always lets me know when something or someone is up ahead on the trail. On random days my body is less responsive. I might feel tired, heavy, or stiff. There is fun to be had trying to cajole my legs down the trail by conjuring images of myself, light as a Tolkien elf, nimbly dancing across the heavily rooted ground.

With all that going on there is little mental space left over for a concerted effort to think about worries or unsolved problems. A run is more like a mediation than anything. There are no constructive thoughts, no problem-solving, no plotting or searching. There is just me and my dog, trotting down the trail together. Each of us discovering euphoria.

Thanks for reading

Sharon

Letting go

ISL_0002In India they have a particularly clever way to capture a monkey. They put a small hole in a coconut with a banana inside. The hole is big enough for the monkey to put its hand inside, but once it grasps the banana the monkey can’t pull its closed fist back out through the hole. Escape is simple if the monkey would only let go of the banana. However, the monkeys never do.

In spite of our intelligence our minds often get caught in much the same way. Sometimes we are unable to let go of a particular thought even though it leaves us trapped and ineffective. Like chasing rainbows, when we experience thoughts we find pleasant and affirming we often want to hold on to them. To make them last. To prolong the enjoyment we receive from them. When we experience thoughts, feelings or situations that we find unpleasant, we often try to avoid them. More often than not, we attempt to protect ourselves from painful experiences.

In mindfulness practice we can observe this habitual pull towards positive experience, and push away from other less desirable experiences. Letting go is the opposite of holding, and is often referred to as non-attachment. To hold and grasp at some experiences while pushing away at others generally creates stress and tension for people. We can easily become fixated on getting more ‘good’ and getting less ‘bad’ in our lives. Letting go means setting aside our tendency to crave certain aspects of life while rejecting others. Letting go can help us release feelings of disappointment and loss. When we let go of our attachments to experiencing one way of being over another, we ultimately become less susceptible to further negative emotions.

Next time you see an ephemeral rainbow you can practice letting go.

 

 

 

Acceptance

P1010363Acceptance means coming to terms with what is, regardless if you like the current state of things or not. We sometimes assume that acceptance is passive and means resignation, or forcing yourself to like a situation that you do not. However the essence of acceptance is much more dynamic. Acceptance reflects our willingness to be present with any situation that we find ourselves in. This attitude sets the stage for acting appropriately in life with intention. If we are in denial or angry with our current situation then we are at greater risk of feeling unhappy and consequently acting reactively. When we learn to accept things as they truly are, we refuse to give ourselves over to the unhappiness that is often caused when life is not the way we want it to be.

Many people feel that their current bodies are not in alignment with an ideal they hold in their head, and this can cause tremendous suffering. Others feel that their careers or their family situation does not reach their expected ideal. Whatever the source, wishing your reality reflected an ideal that it currently does not can be a painful experience. Acceptance frees us from negative emotions that stop us from changing our reality to better reflect our ideals.

Acceptance is life affirming. It can bring energy to act in accordance with our goals. It helps us to not become overwhelmed by situations that we would like to change. In mindfulness practice we cultivate acceptance by taking each moment as it comes and being with it fully. We try not impose our thoughts and feelings on what we think the moment should hold. We remind ourselves to be open and receptive to what we are currently experiencing.

When my daughter was diagnosed with ASD it was a personal experience of acceptance. We want the best for our children and when they are faced with life transforming challenges it is heartbreaking and we are fearful for their well-being. However, I have found that by accepting her for who she is, I actually have more mental energy to spend on  helping her thrive instead of being constrained by her limitations.

Can you think of something in your own life that you may be having trouble accepting? What would happen if you could?

Non-striving

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Non-striving is a concept that many Western adults will have to struggle with to fully understand. Everything we undertake, we do for a particular purpose. Generally we are always trying to get something or somewhere. In mindfulness training, striving towards a goal can be a real obstacle. Mindfulness is unique from all other human activities in that it is a form of non-doing rather than doing. If we sit down to a mindfulness or meditation practice with a specific goal – to reach enlightenment, or to be more relaxed, then we have introduced an idea into the mind about where we should be. Mindfulness practice is about observing and accepting where we are right now.

When taking photos we can use the concept of non-striving to deepen our experience of seeing the world as it is, rather than imposing on it what they want to see. How often can we miss the beauty or significance of what we are actually experiencing in any given moment, because we are so focused on looking for something else? I especially love when I am able to be calm and present in the moment. When I’m in this state of mind it is much easier for me to notice the relevance of what I am actually seeing, instead of searching for what is not presently available.

The above photo was taken early one morning on the southern coast of Oregon. I was on a road trip, and had just crawled out of the back of my vehicle where I had slept the night. I remember walking down the beach, just drinking in the colors and the light. I had almost forgotten that I was carrying my camera. Then after I passed the sign, I remembered my camera and turned around, just as the surf was pounding up the beach. I instantly loved the mysteriousness created by not knowing what the sign said. I also loved the way the colors, and the light, and the lines converged to create an overall effect that was greater than the sum of its parts.

I snapped this photo and carried on. It was the only picture I took on the beach that morning. I think the reason why centers around my state of mind that morning. I felt more committed to being fully present and alive, and less interested in looking for something specific. For me that morning embodies non-striving in photography. There have been other times since then that I have felt the same. I cherish those moments as they seem poignant somehow. These moments are not always in stunning scenic locations. Sometimes they are in more mundane places, which makes them all the more special and powerful.

No matter where you are, be there and no where else, and see what happens?