Tag Archives: mindfulness

Seeking Adventure in Small Ways

On Sunday, I went to three cafes and spent time in three towns.  In the morning, after singing at church, I picked up breakfast at a cafe before driving to Weequahic Park where I walked around a lake.  Later, on my way to play the organ (at another local church), I sipped a decaf latte on the bench of a cafe facing Independence Park, around the corner from my house.

That evening, my husband and I were ready for another outing, so we drove to Belleville, adjacent to Newark, and ate dinner at Topaz Thai.  I was happy to discover there was a Thai restaurant within a 20-minute drive from where we live.  I’ve missed eating Thai, Indian and Ethiopian food regularly since moving here from Brooklyn close to three years ago.  In my neighborhood in the Ironbound, Portuguese, Brazilian and Italian food predominate.  I’m still exploring all of the nearby towns and discovering what cuisines they have to offer.

After dinner, we drove a few minutes down the road into Lyndhurst and enjoyed a bavarian cream lobster tail and pignoli cookies from an Italian bakery.  Then my husband realized we were practically in Rutherford, which was home to William Carlos Williams, so we looked up his house and checked it out.

I started a notebook the other day to keep track of some of these outings.  It actually has three sections, “Music” (where I record the pieces I’ve practiced on the organ), “Outings” (for hikes, new towns, new places), and “Special Projects” (various priorities).  I process and remember things better by writing them down, so this helps me remember that we hiked in the Palisades two weeks ago, or practiced a Bach prelude and fugue that I want to revisit soon.  I don’t write everything down–but I like writing down what’s important to me.  The act of writing it affirms that it’s important.

I’m grateful that I live in a city that has such easy access to many different types of places.  I also feel grateful for having honored my desire for a little excitement.  Maybe it wasn’t a trip to Europe–but even a little outing, devouring Thai food, bavarian cream pastry, and seeing W.C. Williams’ house, in three new-to-me towns, temporarily satiates my yearning for excitement and adventure.

I suppose it’s adventure on a modest scale, with a lowercase “a,” quite different from ones I’ve taken in the past such as circling around Sicily for a week, or living in Paris for a year.  Yet when those capital-A Adventures on a grand scale aren’t possible, modest adventures go a long way.

Yesterday was quieter.  I cooked breakfast, did some cleaning, worked out at the gym, went to the hardware store, played the organ for a bit, gardened, had two client calls, and talked with family.  A quiet, productive day–and for today, it felt just right.

It always feels wonderful coming home after being out, and conversely, going out after staying at home for awhile.  Something about the varied pace feels important.  I need stability, and I need excitement.  When my schedule doesn’t allow for more, simply walking around a lake or trying out a new restaurant really does provide that sense of newness and discovery.  My need for fun and adventure can be honored by seeking out simple pleasures.

Which needs and values are you honoring?  Which ones are getting stepped on or overlooked?  Small tweaks to our routines can make a big difference.  A small step can often have a huge imapct.

Finding a Peaceful Oasis (or Two)

Last Saturday, my husband and I found an oasis that was new to us.  We drove to the NJ Audubon Society for a hike through the woods along the Passaic River, listening to birdsong.  We spotted a few birds (swallows being the only ones I could confidently identify).  Their music was as resonant as the sighting of them was elusive.  Sometimes I did spot one fluttering, diving or weaving through the treetops, but only a glimpse.

A couple of years ago, we spent a long weekend in Cape May during peak fall migratory season.  Two Audubon guides pointed out egrets, kestrels, and merlins.  They trained us to call out the birds’ location by the hour of the clock, to first look with just our eyes, then to lift our binoculars.

Our leaders may not have been impressed with our bird identification (or lack thereof) if they’d joined our hike on Saturday, but they would have been pleased at how happy we were simply being there, appreciating nature.  It was such a pretty spot: bushes with little white flowers, a plant that looked almost like honeysuckle, so many chipmunks, an occasional bumblebee, and tall, majestic trees that seemed to emanate wisdom.

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On Sunday, we created an oasis in our backyard.  We have had grapevines growing over a pergola, but they rested on low beams.  By raising them onto higher stilts, we created a space under which you can walk or sit, as I’m doing now, while sparrows eagerly hop around exploring the grass.

Why do we need nature to fill us up and restore our wholeness?  Perhaps some of us feel its need more acutely than others, but I would argue that it’s a basic human need.  Even if urbanites fill it by a walk through the park on their way home from work, or by having houseplants or an aquarium, none of us can live happily without nature’s balm.

People and nature are deeply interconnected.  We rely on it for physical, as well as spiritual, sustenance.  Physically, people feel healthier when they eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods.  We live in a natural world, no matter how many steel towers are built to live and work inside.

Spiritually and emotionally, there is something soothing about listening to birds singing, hearing the flapping of wings and watching their trajectory in flight.  It is energizing to walk through the woods, curious about where the path will lead, deciding which twists and turns to explore.  It is meditative to sit by a river, studying the water as it rushes over rocks.

Nature has both stillness and movement.  It exists in the present, yet is always growing and changing.  No tree or river is the same today as it was yesterday, yet they retain their essence.

What an inspiring model for me, as I consider who I am becoming.  I am a writer, coach, musician, wife, nature lover, and play many other important roles, too.  How can I move ever closer to who I am?

Who are you becoming?  What will help take you there?  I would love to hear from you.

Warmly,

Mary

Deliberate Choices, Not Deprivation

As Web MD points out here, two mistakes that people often make are snacking mindlessly, or not snacking at all.  Eating small portions of nutrient-dense food in-between meals stokes the metabolism and helps prevent binges.  Try to eat snacks with a mixture of protein, high-quality carbs, and good fat, like hummus made with olive oil on whole-wheat crackers. This will give you an energy boost and help avoid binges when sweets appear.

I remember well the temptation of ice cream or other treats in the office kitchen at 3:30 in the afternoon.  At the magazine publisher where I worked, the test kitchen would share their creations–everything from ice-cream cake to homemade doughnuts with chocolate drizzle.  I knew I’d feel sick after eating a whole doughnut, but I did it anyway!

That’s when I recommitted to stocking up on healthy snacks.  If I eat light fare every couple of hours, my energy stays high, my metabolism gets a kick, and I’m happy just having a bite of dark chocolate or a bite of a doughnut instead of a whole one–or even passing on the doughnut.

Pay attention to what your tastebuds are telling you.  Do you crave something sweet?  Try having a small glass of cranberry juice with dinner.  Do you want a crunchy texture?  See if you can satisfy it by adding wheat germ to your cereal or yogurt.  Do you miss chocolate? Let yourself have two bites, or try a high-protein chocolate drink made with whey.

Above all, be creative with whole foods and fresh ingredients.  Try slicing ripe tomatoes into whole-wheat pasta with olive oil, garlic, basil, oregano, and a dash of sea salt or crushed red pepper; serve hot or cold.  Be playful with color, texture, and taste, so you won’t get bored and eat mindlessly.

Food is meant to be experienced, enjoyed, and savored.  Let food prep be as much fun as the meal itself.  Enjoy selecting ingredients, herbs and spices in whatever combination suits you.  Cooking is creative–get your senses involved.  If you’re famished, have a light snack while you’re cooking, so you won’t overeat.  For example, nibble on some olives.

Deprivation and crash dieting are self-sabotaging, but all too common. behaviors.  We can’t cut out entire food groups, nor should we.  I remember the fat-free craze of the ’80’s and ’90’s, with products such as Snack Wells cookies.  While low-fat, they were still high in sugar and simple carbs.

It’s important to get enough fat, protein, and carbs, but the right kinds.  Aim for nutrient-dense foods like fish, lentils, olives, nuts, avocado and quinoa, to name a few smart choices.  Treat yourself to a colorful Greek yogurt and berry parfait for dessert.

If you’re going to cut out a ‘food group’ entirely, let it be trans fats, which raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL).  Other than that, let yourself enjoy the occasional pat of butter, maybe as a special treat, opting for olive oil the rest of the time.  If you want to have a candy bar a week, really enjoy that candy bar.

If you’re craving full-fat dairy, just work it into a rounded diet.  As long as you aren’t eating several foods high in saturated fat on a daily basis, it’s fine, our bodies actually benefit from a certain amount of saturated fat.  Just don’t overdo it!  If you choose to eat animal-based products–eggs, dairy, fish or meat–still aim to eat a mostly plant-based diet with plenty of vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, and whole grains.

Balance is key, and making active, mindful choices is an important part of gaining balance.  So enjoy putting your meals together.  Let it be creative and fun.  Then savor the flavors, really take the time to experience your food.  This will let you eat more consciously, to be mindful of both quality and quantity, and above all, to enjoy it.

Wishing you happy, healthy dining!

Bocci and Dancing Egrets: an Invitation to Play

I am loving that the long-awaited spring has finally returned.  NYC and Newark, like much of the country, had a particularly harsh winter.  We had our highest bill ever for the gas heating.  It was a chilly and long, if beautiful and snowy, winter.

A few clear signs that spring has arrived:  I see an occasional egret, its snowy-white body with a long neck and beak, in the Meadowlands of NJ from the train.  The cherry blossoms are (finally) beginning to bloom.  Independence Park across the street is teeming with people playing catch, shooting hoops, and–most notably–there are usually three or four soccer games going on simultaneously.

A new sign of spring this year–bocci games in the park.  Several of us use a site called Nextdoor to share local happenings, and I was delighted to see an open invitation on the site to come play bocci on the weekend.

You may ask, what do egrets and bocci have in common?  Playfulness and joyful presence.

During winter, many of us huddled indoors, conserving energy.  The warmth of spring is an invitation to play.  Whether the egret doing its little dance, flapping its wings, or whether the bocci and soccer players in the park, play allows us to be present, to enjoy our surroundings and the activity we’re engaged in.  Play lets us abandon our worries and immerse ourselves in the pure joy of living.

If I were writing a word-chain, it would be something like:  play-nature-joy-peace-movement.  Physical movement helps us not to stay stuck in tired mental or emotional energy.  When walking in the woods or splashing in water, we let it go.  We move into a new energy.

Play also lets us be creative, spontaneous, open to new ideas.  How could that not spill over into the rest of our lives?  When we’re open to being playful, we see creative possibilities that before, we were unable to see.  We can be more flexible at work.  We see new ways to be healthy–solutions, rather than problems.

So enjoy the unveiling of spring, and let yourself be carried away by the sheer beauty of it–fragrant cherry blossoms, yellow wildflowers, dancing egrets and all.

Life Vision: Balance & Priorities

This weekend I was sick with a cold.  My cubicle neighbors at work have been hacking up a lung and the germs must have circulated.  Whenever I feel a cold coming on, I take zinc lozenges, which usually make the cold half as bad as it would have been otherwise.  I can’t stand the idea of being knocked out for 5-7 days, given all that I do in the course of a week, and I also just don’t like feeling rotten.  Taking zinc, along with drinking water and getting extra sleep, allows me to feel semi-decent and not cancel too many activities.

I remember the last time I felt a cold coming on, I had run out of zinc lozenges.  I considered stopping by a drugstore for more, but decided not to.  Maybe it was laziness or lethargy, or maybe it was the fact that I’d been going at full speed for weeks (months?) and simply wanted a break.  I wanted to crawl into bed at 8 PM and sleep till 8 AM.  I wanted my job to be blowing my nose and drinking tea.

Why can’t I give myself permission to take a break when I’m not sick?  It seems there’s always something to do.  I need to print tax forms, dust and sweep the house, get groceries and do food prep, choose music to play for Easter.  The list can feel practically endless at times.

I can take steps to reduce my stress and the length of my to-do list.  For example, I’ve been meaning to hire a cleaning service to help me once a month or so.  I can ask for help, I can leave some things undone, and do other things in a cursory fashion.

When our out-of-town family stopped over for tea and dessert, I was a little embarrassed that the house wasn’t without a speck of dust (I regret to say the bed may have been unmade).  But the dishes were done, there were comfortable places to sit, free of clutter– and besides, they came to visit, not to inspect every corner.  Do I want to enjoy a full life, or do I want to become a crazy person who stays up till 2 in the morning, cleaning?

There are ways to let life be more manageable.  There is room for more ease, more routines that will help me with my goals.  In the meantime, I can give myself a break.  I work in publishing in the city, am a professional coach, landlord, musician, and wife.  I volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, which I love, but it too takes time.  I also try to make it to my yoga mat or the treadmill a few times a week.

I enjoy stretching myself and doing things that make me feel truly alive–more connected to others, and to who I am at my core.  Sometimes I do enjoy plopping down on the couch to watch a movie, and I need that to recharge–but I’m glad that a sitcom binge is a relatively rare occurrence.  I can practice being mindful about how I inhabit my own life–how I structure, stretch, and play with it.

When I’m sick and want to absolve myself of any responsibilities beyond sleep, it’s a sign that I’m craving more balance.  Perhaps I’m craving time to prop up my feet and look out the window–just look, and let my thoughts come and go like clouds.  I might need time to write in my journal, to reflect or meditate.

Life is lived both internally and externally.  Both are important and they complement one another.  The time I spend reflecting or journaling powers me up to engage more willingly and productively in the world.  Once I’ve been active, I have much more enjoyment in a quiet night (or weekend) at home.

I’ve made a list of my top priorities the next couple of months, so that I’ll know if I’m on track or veering off:

#1 Wellness: this means sleeping 8 hours, doing yoga, and running.  Trying to eat real food for lunch, and enough food that I don’t raid the candy drawer at 3:00.

#2 Fun, love, and friends:  for me, this means spending time with those I love–especially my husband, friends and family–and doing things simply because I enjoy them.

#3 Mastering the organ pedals:  if not now, when?  I have an excellent teacher, and my year will only get busier as it goes on.  So I’ve committed to practicing 4 or more times a week.

#4 Expanding my coaching business:  I’m taking more workshops at CTI and going to events through Meetup.org to connect with people who may be curious about coaching.

If I’m craving down-time, the non-essentials have to go.  As a result, there are other activities I’ve turned down because they don’t fit with my vision of my future self.  At this point in my life, while I might derive certain benefits from them, they ultimately get in the way of my top priorities.  If they divert from where I want to put my focus, they don’t serve me–even if I would enjoy them.

So right now, I can forgive myself when the house is a little messy.  I can feel good about leaving things undone and getting a good night’s sleep.  I can be proud when I devote time and energy to my coaching and music businesses.

Having a vision reminds me of who I want to become, and what trade-offs I’ve decided I’m willing to make in order to get there.  Let the rest fall by the wayside… there will be another phase of life when I could pick some of it back up.

Are you ready to explore your life vision?  Who do you want to become?  What’s something that if you never did, you wouldn’t feel fulfilled?  Visit my coaching page for ways to connect with me.  You may find that setting up a free sample call with me could be an important step towards creating an even richer and more fulfilling life.

Practice Balance by Saying Yes and No

Like many, I’m in the habit of using Google Calendar to schedule a lot of my comings and goings.  I used to only use it for appointments.  Recently, though, I’ve started jotting down reminders like going to the gym, practicing the organ, or doing grocery shopping for the week ahead.  It’s especially helpful for mundane tasks that I’m tempted to avoid, like scheduling a doctor’s check-up.  While most of what I do in life is not on the calendar (nor do I wish it to be), it helps keep me on track and reminds me of where I have chosen to put my focus.

Do I always stick to my decisions? If not, am I still on track?  This evening’s calendar reads: “7:00 practice organ, 8:00 zumba, 9:00 blog,” yet it’s 7:00 and I’m writing my blog.  So how do I know when I can, in good conscience, blow off the gym or whatever projects I have going on?  How do I know when improvising my evening is practicing self-care, or even when it is more productive than what I had planned, rather than a form of laziness?

At the Coaches’ Training Institute (CTI), where I’m training to become a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, I’ve been exploring such concepts  as balance and fulfillment.  While most of us long for balance and fulfillment in our lives, the many options which confront us often become obstacles if we try to say yes to all of them.

When we say yes to anything in our lives, we necessarily say no to something else.   One simple tool that can help clarify our choices is making a list of things in our lives to which we say yes and no.  This morning, I woke up at 5:45, an hour earlier than usual.  I took advantage of the time to write such a list over a cup of coffee:

Q.: By hiring an accountant, what would I be saying yes and no to?

YES: Having more time for myself and with my husband.

NO:  Spending three weekends doing our taxes.

Q.: By seeing a doctor for a check-up, what would I be saying yes and no to?

YES: Self-care.

NO:  Deprivation, procrastination.

Becoming clear on the values attached to various options enables us to choose consciously how to move forward.    Normally, I would automatically rule out hiring an accountant on grounds of expense.  However, applying this tool makes it clear to me that important values are involved.  The time I will spend with my husband and by myself is of much greater value than the fee charged by the accountant.

So tonight, I ‘m saying yes to reflection, writing, relaxation, watching the sunset over the park, enjoying being in our peaceful home with the cat curled up next to me.  I don’t really need that zumba class (after all, I walked to and from work), but I do need to keep up the momentum with my writing.  Therefore, I’m saying no to zumba and practicing the organ.

It’s a good feeling to honor what we need on a given day, even if it’s different from what’s on the calendar.  Even better, when we do it in order to honor a value, we can do it free of guilt.

How do you honor your values when life gets busy?  Where are you saying yes?  Where are you saying no?

If you’re interested in working with me one on one, visit my coaching page for how we can connect.  I’d be happy to offer a complimentary sample coaching session.

“House of Cards”: Netflix and the Flu

My husband and I recently started a free trial month of Netflix.  We have never been big TV watchers; in fact, we don’t even have cable.  Our usual form of entertainment is checking out ’40’s movies from the library.  Once we saw how quickly late fees added up, though, it made sense to look into Netflix.

A week and a half into the experiment, I’m discovering that I have less self-discipline than I’d like to admit.  I’m already an avid watcher of “House of Cards.”  I’d like to be content watching one episode and moving on with my life, but with each show ending with a cliff-hanger and the next show just the click of a button away, it’s all too easy to watch two or three in a row.

Not a problem on the occasional Friday or Saturday night, but even on weeknights, I’ve discovered there seems to be a “casino effect” whereby we absolutely lose track of time.  We would break for a time check and be stunned to see it was 12:30.  At least we didn’t watch an entire season in one weekend like 668,000 other Netflix subscribers did, but still not the healthiest choice.

I found myself getting less than 7 hours of sleep on a couple of nights, and sure enough, before long I picked up the February bug that’s been going around.  Maybe some people can survive on 6 1/2 hours of sleep, but I’m not one of them.  I pick up whatever germs are floating around when I’m sleep-deprived.

We make resolutions during the day that we don’t keep at night.  After floating wisdom to my loved ones like “the trick is to just watch one show then call it a night,” I promptly proceeded to waste away an evening utterly absorbed by the fantasy world in front of me.  When our TV died last night (it was 9 years old), that didn’t stop us–we downloaded the Netflix app on my iPhone.

Do I love it or hate it?  Do I want to keep Netflix or go back to my spartan ways?  I’m not sure.  I do know that intellectually I believe in moderation, but when it comes down to it, I will binge on “House of Cards” as much as anyone.  This is why I don’t keep ice cream in the house.  I would rather have two bites of dark chocolate and a cup of peppermint tea, but if there’s ice cream in the freezer, it will be eaten.

It’s good to know our limits and our temptations.  We will probably keep Netflix, because it sure beats picking up DVD’s from the library, but I am giving serious thought to how I can incorporate it into a balanced life.

In such cases, it can be helpful to think through the consequences of an action fully.  For example, that could mean imagining sleeping 6 hours, waking up feeling groggy, being cranky all day, possibly coming down with a cold or flu, getting behind on work, feeling stressed, and being short with those around me.  If everyone truly went through that process, far fewer of us would stay up till 12:30 watching “House of Cards.”

I honestly haven’t applied that technique to this situation yet, but I’m going public to help me do so.  I’ll give it a shot next time I’m tempted to click the remote to start another late-night episode and report back on the results.

My new goal is to continue to watch, but to do so more mindfully.  My hunch is that I’ll be healthier, better rested, in a better mood…  and perhaps less obsessed with Zoe, Lucas, and the rest of what is, when you come down to it, a fantasy world.

Freedom: Envisioning the Life You Want

In my first post on this blog, “Living Joyfully,” I shared that each year I choose a word to set an intention for my year ahead, and that in 2013 it was “joy.”  What I didn’t share was that in addition to the word I choose for myself, a dear friend and mentor also gives me a word; her word to me was “faith.”  I have been practicing these a day at a time, perfectly imperfectly.

In 2014, my word for myself is “compassion,” both for myself and for others.  I can only be as compassionate with other people as I’m being with myself.  If I’m hard on myself, telling myself that I’m not progressing fast enough on my goals, and using negative self-talk, guess what?  I’m usually hard on others, too.  Whether or not I say so, I can start thinking as if I know what they should be doing, which is always a dangerous place to go.

On the other hand, when I’m gentle with myself, I’m able to be more loving and accepting of others.  Sometimes that means using self-talk as if I were an 8-year-old girl.  If I forget to bring or do something, if my first thought is, “of course you forgot,” I’ll tell myself, “re-do,” as bravery coach Kate Courageous blogs about.  Then I literally tell myself, “it’s okay, sweetie, here we go…”  As ridiculous as it might feel at first to talk to yourself as if you were 8 years old, it’s even more ridiculous to address yourself in a way that’s shaming.  (Brené Brown has written powerfully and prolifically on the impact of shaming language.)

My mentor’s word for me in the coming year is “freedom.”  I probably wouldn’t have chosen this word for myself, which is why she’s my mentor.  We hear a lot about freedom in this country.  The Bill of Rights enumerates several freedoms we possess:  speech, religion, press, assembly, and others.  When I drive on the BQE (Brooklyn Queens Expressway) or take the Staten Island Ferry, I enjoy seeing the Statue of Liberty, that iconic gift of the French to Americans.  We take these political rights for granted today; of course I can write a letter to a newspaper; of course I can go to any church to worship.

Yet what else can freedom represent in my life?  How can I move toward greater freedom, to come more fully into the person I was made to be, so that I can have an amazing life, and be of greater service to others?  What limiting beliefs are stopping me from embracing an even more amazing, truly free life?

In the disciplines of psychology and coaching, much is said of the limiting belief of scarcity:  not having enough, and not being enough.  It seems part of the human condition that these fears rear their ugly heads subconsciously at least some of the time for most of us.  As Brené Brown  identifies, the simple act of articulating our fears or feelings we’re ashamed of having, and particularly sharing them with someone we trust, weakens them.

Once I identified “I won’t have enough” as an under-the-surface limiting belief, I was able to construct a positive belief to replace it:  “everything I need will be provided.”  This lets me choose to focus on a positive, rather than a negative, belief.

There is always presence and absence in our lives.  Our perspectives are simply the result of a decision of where to place our attention.  When we focus on absence, we experience more absence.  If we focus on what is present in our lives, we attract even more abundance and life keeps getting bigger.

What’s a limiting belief that’s holding you back?  How would it feel to counter it with a positive belief?  Please comment and share!

The Meadowlands: Finding Peace in Unlikely Places

I have a couple of commuting options from my home in Newark, NJ, to my magazine publishing job in midtown NYC.  I can take the PATH, a light rail train that is convenient but rarely has a free seat during rush hour; or I can take NJ Transit.  Both are prone to delays, particularly during rush hour, but NJ Transit has two advantages.  First, I always get a seat in the morning.  Secondly, part of the ride is through the Meadowlands, a surprisingly intact natural oasis just miles from factories and the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels.

During the migratory seasons, I love being on the lookout for birds.  I often see a pair or a family of ducks swimming in the stream alongside the train.  (In spite of the Audubon’s birdwatching weekend my husband and I took in Cape May, the epicenter of avian migration, my bird identification skills are less than stellar, but my avian appreciation is sky-high.)

My commute varies in length depending on congestion, but it’s typically an hour and 15 minutes door-to-door.  That includes a brisk walk through the Ironbound, a train ride, and a transfer to the subway.  I’m thankful that I don’t spend that time behind the wheel of a car.  Nevertheless, it behooves me to spend those 12 1/2 hours a week wisely.

I use the time in a few ways.  I admit, I start out by checking email, weather, and taking a quick peek at Facebook.  Next, I typically share a moment I’m grateful for on Happier, an app dedicated to noticing and recording moments of happiness.  Then I turn off my iPhone and meditate, pray, or do some reading to tune in spiritually and center me in the present.

If I’m on NJ Transit, by this point the train has passed the winding Passaic River that empties into Newark Bay, affording an unexpectedly lovely view, and is approaching the Meadowlands, pictured above.  The stadium where the Seahawks trounced the Broncos on Sunday is in this ecosystem.

Nature centers me and offers me a happiness unlike any other  Whether I’m hiking at the Cumberland Gap on the border of TN/KY/VA, or looking across the sound at Martha’s Vineyard, there’s an ineffable vastness and serene beauty that engulfs me just by seeing it.

I have noticed it can be tempting to tune out the beauty of nature either because we’re used to it (it feels familiar), or we don’t expect it (it seems incongruous).  Who would expect such a beautiful area with ducks, reeds, rivers and streams in-between two major northeastern cities–with factories on the horizon, no less?

Yet there we find ourselves, myself and the other morning commuters, and we’re presented with a choice to tune into our surroundings or to tune out, lost in the distractions of our smartphones or our own whirling thoughts.

For today, I choose to tune in, to soak in beauty where I find it, no matter how little I expect it or how easy it would be to overlook.  Then, when the train takes 40 minutes instead of the scheduled 20, I will have filled myself up with all the goodness and beauty available to me in that moment.

And when I feel flustered again later in the day, I can recall it in my mind’s eye and again find a moment of peace.

Herald Square: Staying Sane in an Overstimulating City

I work in midtown NYC in the publishing field.  I often walk to the PATH train at Herald Square after work, instead of taking the subway.  It gives me time to call friends or family, lets me fit in some exercise, and I can save the $2.50 for a trip to a cafe in my Ironbound neighborhood of Newark.

One person I often call on these walks is my 94-year-old grandmother.  She always wants to know where I am and what I see as I’m walking.  She lives in rural Indiana and I imagine she would be taken aback by just how busy NYC is.  This is true year-round, but it particularly strikes me in December.  There’s no shortage of sights and sounds to take in–some positive, like the lights at Macy’s; others negative, like the sirens that make me plug my ears–but all of them stimulating.

How do we survive so much stimuli in a place like NYC without becoming overwhelmed, particularly for a highly sensitive person like I am?  For me, the answer lies in filtering the sensory stimuli, deciding what is most important to focus on.  Letting the rest go, and letting what’s interesting be heightened.  This way, I can appreciate the beautiful parts of my surroundings (the iceskating rink at Bryant Park), and pay little attention to what I dislike.

What’s even better is when I can apply this filter to my own thoughts.  Perspective is so powerful.  What is it like to focus on life events that displease or discourage me?  Conversely, what is it like to appreciate the good in all my experiences?

Two of my character defects are negative thinking and perfectionism.  My character strengths (whew!) include gratitude and curiosity.  I have practiced paying attention to which thoughts could allow me the most insight, and infusing that perspective with curiosity and gratitude.  For example, although I am tired after work, isn’t it good to have a choice of whether I go to the gym, and how hard I work out once I’m there?  What if I focused on what it would feel like to go for an easy jog?  How would I feel 10 minutes into the run, and again after I’ve finished running?  How would I sleep afterwards?  Isn’t it good that it’s a choice to be curious about, not a rule to beat myself over the head with?

My choices have consequences.  I’m grateful that I can experience the results of my choices and notice what does or doesn’t work, in a way that’s loving and observant, not judgmental.  I can change my perspective, like closing my eyes when the train is packed to capacity.  Or I can change my actions–like walking a half-hour and making a phone call instead of cramming myself onto the subway, on days when that’s the last thing I feel like doing.

And when I feel like I’ve made a lousy choice or am having a lousy day, I can see it instead as a chance to practice having a creative perspective.

How would it feel to tweak the thoughts and actions that we choose on a daily basis?  How many possibilities would open up?

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