Swimming Meditation

My husband swims regularly for exercise. I like to run, but since it was going to be a very hot day, I joined him to swim laps at the pool.

For Christmas I gifted my husband pool time. Meaning I committed two days a week to getting home early after work in order to take care of the dog and free up my husband’s time so he could swim. Today was my first pool visit since last summer. I forgot how relaxing swimming is and am reminded of its benefits.

More so than running, when I swim I feel more focused on the moment: my breathing, my legs kicking, my hands entering the water.

Yoga instructor, Rachel Long writes on Manlyyoga.com (Manly is a beach-side suburb of northern Sydney) that there are three parts to cultivating mindfulness in our meditations: Pranayama, Pratyahara, and Dharana.

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Emerge; clear waters. Oil on canvas. Samantha French.

These yoga terms are breath control, the withdrawal of energy from the senses, and concentration. Swimming easily comprises these three steps.

I breathe in. Inhalation. Hold the breath. Count four strokes. Ehalation. This is a practice in pranayama.

“When you dive in all the noises and sights surrounding you dissappear and all that is left is the water.”–Anonymous

Pratyahara is concerned with taking our mind, emotions and intellect that are focused on the outside inward. This stage is so crucial, getting our mind to shut-up so we can concentrate. When running, I find myself thinking about work, friends, and to do lists. In the pool, I rarely am thinking about anything except the motions of my muscles and my breathing. Being under water reduces external stimuli, especially sound I feel, and facilitates concentration. There are very few visual stimuli. I focus on the shape of my cupped hands entering the water and the black line running below me and terminating into a tee. Occasionally I marvel at the dappled sunlight on the pool floor.

Dharana stage is fixing the mind on one place or object. You can test your concentration on how well you keep up with counting laps. Sometimes I lose track and end up starting back with the previous lap. I like to mix up strokes, and I will grab a kickboard to break up the laps. I concentrate on kicking and not making any splash.

Many say the joy of swimming is the ability to merge mind and body in mindfulness. Moving meditation which merges brain and body can have a powerful, lasting effect on the brain. A study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital and published in a January 2011 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found noticeable changes in the brain. Participants spent eight weeks in a mindfulness based stress reduction program which included practicing a mindfulness activity 27 minutes each day.  MRI scans were taken before and after the eight weeks and found increased density in the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for learning, attention, and emotional intelligence. None of the changes were seen in the control group.

Suggestions found for swimming mindfully:

Notice the sensation of water touching your body when you enter the pool.

Focus on each movement and stroke.

Observe how water feels when your arms are moving in and out of the water.

Terry Laughlin, founder of Total Immersion Swimming, recommends focusing on a specific thought or intention every time you push off the wall.

Swimming is a full body workout. A vatiety of strokes all engage the core abdominal and lower back muscles. A beneficial side effect is improved posture. Swimming greatly reduces the risk of heart disease (leading cause of death in women), stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Swimming also improves running performance. A study published in the February 2015 Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that swimmers who followed a controlled breathing technique improved their running economy by six percent after just twelve swim sessions.Utilized as a mindfulness activity, swimming is very restorative. So keep calm and swim on.

1. Lavin, K. M., Guenette, J. A., Smoliga, J. M. and Zavorsky, G. S. (2015), Controlled-frequency breath swimming improves swimming performance and running economy. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 25: 16–24. doi:10.1111/sms.12140

Basketball Meditation

I asked my father what motivates him in life. He did not have a direct answer over the phone, but I did find one answer tonight in basketball, game 5 of the NBA finals.

“A thousand years from now, no one will care who the greatest basketball player of all time was. Who was the greatest chariot racer in Roman history? The best Mayan to ever play pitz? All any of us can do is find some meaning in our striving, some goal to get us out of bed every morning and go to work. LeBron James has the Warriors. One must imagine him happy,” Jonathan Tjarks stated profoundly on theringer.com.

James Lebron averaged a triple double in the finals. The four time MVP has three championship rings, and he is arguably the best player in the league’s history.

I have written about James before, so how many times makes it a cliché to find inspiration from this sports god? The Dubs celebrate their second NBA championship in three years and Tjarks says the rising Warrior’s dynasty may be the best thing to happen to Lebron. The comment could not have summed up my introspection any better.

The mid thirties are approaching and I still equate myself to being a child. I am self sufficient, have a decent job, and have not over drafted my bank account in several years! But I feel stagnation. Cracking this thing called life and finding the gold nugget inside continues to elude me. That is why I admire Lebron. He has this complete drive to excel in basketball in addition to helping his friends and serving his family.

I was touched by Lebron’s sportsmanship and post game hug to Kevin Durant. KD’s mom, Wanda, astutely commented that who you are in the valley of life is reflective of your true self. She was referring to Durant’s adversity in his decade played in the NBA, so relevant here when the tables are turned.

It is not productive to list all of Lebron’s accomplishments. I recognize his work ethic as my inspiration. Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, writes that passion is the result of doing. So when it is easy to feel depressed about not knowing what to do with life, scroll pinterest, and nap for several hours or binge on Breaking Bad, I remind myself to get up, grab the ball, and start shooting for that goal.

Garden of Your Mind

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Top of Greenwich Steps in San Francisco.

San Francisco gridlock. While some choose to sit idling behind the wheel in the 3rd worst traffic congestion in the nation, I read. My two hour commute allows me to read a lot of books. Riding the BART on the way to welcome in the new year at 111 Minna Gallery, my eyes were racing to finish the last pages of book 57, T.C Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done. 

Last year I failed at the act of practicing gratitude. From my 1,000 mile objective the prior year, I know that I am successful when there are increments to track forward progress. I didn’t journal or write gratitude poems, so the habit or mindfulness acts did not work themselves into muscle memory. Hindsight being 20/20, there are some things I wish I would have implemented to be more successful, but let’s catch up with where I am currently with my emotions and well-being.

Opening Dance. L.A. Freeway.               La La Land

Today I emerged from a fog. Maybe influenced by La La Land’s musicality, I basically skipped from the kiss and ride to board the train. The janitor and I exchanged morning pleasantries, and the uplifting power of a sincere “Good Morning” greeting from the stranger was like a five hour energy drink.

It was the first time in several months I have felt happy. Bouncy happy as if I were the Wal-Mart smiley face logo. There was no rolling of the eyes nor muttering commentary on my pedestrian encounters thickened with my self righteousness: “Cough, geez do you have to light up your joint at 8:00 in the morning; run, run, ha, run to the train, I’m not going to be on somebody else’s schedule; hey distracted, stop walking down the stairs while looking at your phone; could your Bollywood techno music be any louder; I know you’re a man and don’t like to stand or wait behind a woman, so go ahead get in front of me.” And personally, I wasn’t beating myself up about my position in life: not owning a home, no children yet at halfway to 40, and not making a six figure salary.

Where did these sour thoughts originate? How to curb the negativity?

Buddha said, “What you think, you become.” I would rather be what I ate than thought, like some baked granola and yogurt with blueberries right now or yesterday a burrito. How much do our thoughts inform our behavior, our relationships, or our success? Reminds me of this podcast “Dark Thoughts” produced by Invisibilia about a guy who could not stop thinking about stabbing his wife. The man (call him S) saw a therapist who was so freaked out by S’s thoughts, his next appointment was cancelled. The next therapist S saw challenged him to hold a knife to his throat. This form of therapy sometimes called third wave therapy teaches us better mindfulness to let go of our thoughts. The focus is on thought process and not content. In other words thoughts are just random synapses firing so we shouldn’t over think them. Maybe some thoughts need to be analyzed in a Freudian manner but not all. Not every thought is connected to something in our subconscious or past. Agree?

It is normal for humans to have negative thoughts. We are constantly scanning our environment for threats and problems. This adaptation allows us to react and respond quickly to a crises. Mindfulness practitioners say the trick is to let these distracting thoughts float away and not ruminate on them. By being mindful of the bad thought, we can start to change the pattern and cycle of negativity.

In contrast, cognitive behavioral psychologists and therapists advise patients to accept bad thoughts and question them with a Socratic approach. A study of 55 patients at the Ohio State Depression and Research Clinic found patients reporting improvements in depression using Socratic questioning. Feeling unloved, than write a list of people who love you. Feeling like a loser with no accomplishments, ask yourself “What did I accomplish this week?”

Socratic Questioning for Negative Thoughts:

  1. What could be assumed instead?
  2. What alternatives are there?
  3. What evidence is there otherwise?

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”– Donald Hebb

There is another class of thought on neurons that believes thoughts release chemicals. These chemicals are positive or negative messages feeding the body. So you really are what you eat.

I am going to keep a journal for five days of my thoughts every hour and try practicing both behaviors above.

If you’re wondering, S was eventually able to hold the knife to both his therapist and wife’s throats and let the bad thought melt away. Ever since the killing thoughts have ebbed.

The Age of Self Fulfillment

June 19, 2016 was an important moment in history. Most sport fans will know that NBA’s King James led the Cavaliers to a National Championship in game seven after being down 3-1 to the Oakland Warriors. These two teams are close to me because one is my hometown team and the other is back east where many of my family are from.

Going into game 7, this is what a local sports radio host had to say about the meaning of a win for Cleveland, “What the title would mean to Cleveland you have to understand Cleveland and you have to understand Ohio this is the Rust Belt we’re talking about. When the steel industry collapsed in this region in the midwest and northeast extension that comprises the Rust Belt you had economic decline and poverty. You had loss of population. You had urban decay. These are people who have fallen on hard times; they have very little. It’s not as if they live in a beautiful area where they are staring out at a beautiful day. Beautiful ocean to beautiful bridges, beautiful weather all year, and beautiful people. Harsh winters, hard life. Tough times, tough to find jobs, this is a region in the country that has been on really hard times.”

This is my family he’s talking about! So it was hard to root for the Warriors. Cleveland fans needed this win. If God were on a side it would have to be Cleveland’s.

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So I was ecstatic about the win. Then I read an article in the New York Times that put into words perfectly what I admired in Cleveland’s hometown hero, Lebron James. The article describes the arc of Lebron’s career to the bildungsroman novels of the 20th century. The bildungsroman is a coming of age novel where the protagonist experiences immense growth. Novels in this genre typically feature fatherless figures like Pip in Great Expectations or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The full arc brings these characters home and into their place in society. Like these characters, James has completed his narrative, and that is what is bittersweet. It’s the climax, and there will be no future moment, at least an athletic victory of his to succeed this.

He made it happen. He chased his dream down and delivered a Championship title for the fans of Cleveland. He knew exactly what he wanted and accomplished it. That is what I find so admirable.

I have a cousin who just recently finished Physician’s Assistant School. She knew many years ago that this is exactly what she wanted to do. I admire her too for having set a clear goal and achieving it.

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Sailboats are heavily dependent on the direction of the wind for both which direction they can sail and how fast they will go. Jimmy Dean says, “I can’t change direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”

I am a wanderer, with no set destination. I think a lot of my own unhappiness and internal struggles come from searching for personal fulfillment. What is my purpose? The gifts and talents God has given to me, have I used them fully? Repeatedly I feel I am molding myself after others, thinking their path is success. Two weeks ago I signed up for anatomy course as a prerequisite for nursing. I’ve already dropped it. I am realizing I am getting further away from what I felt really connected to at the end of highschool, art and the process of making. I need to accept my flight path and not be afraid to follow my own internal compass.

20160714_112236Monarch Butterflies have an internal clock in their antennae and in conjuction with their complex eyes they can monitor the sun’s position in the sky to migrate each year generation after generation. “If a monarch gets off course due to a gust of wind or object in its path, it will turn whichever direction won’t require it to cross the separation point.”1

Identity and Fulfillment

“If I seem happy, it is because I know I am loved for who I am.”―Hector and the Search for Happiness.

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?”―Mad Max Fury Road

“Well, I always know what I want. And when you know what you want–you go toward it. Sometimes you go very fast, and sometimes only an inch a year. Perhaps you feel happier when you go fast. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten the difference long ago, because it really doesn’t matter, so long as you move.”― Ayn Rand

“There can be no richer man or woman than the individual who has found his or her labor of love.”―Dennis Kimbro

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”―Martin Luther King Jr.

Parting Thoughts

Sports psychologists state there are three main sets of goals set for athletes: process, performance, outcome goals. The most important being process, in other words taking those incremental steps.

The NYT article said that the coming of age period for protagonists in the bildungsroman is usually between age 30 and 33 (probably younger for women in the novels of the genre). I turn 33 this year, so no pressure!

In a Forbes article, writer Gianpiero Petriglieri tells us that the search for the true self should be less like digging for a diamond and polishing it and more like nurturing a seed.

1. Eli Shlizerman, James Phillips-Portillo, Daniel B. Forger, and Steven M. Reppert. Neural Integration Underlying a Time-Compensated Sun Compass in the Migratory Monarch Butterfly. April 14, 2016. http://www.cell.com.

Opening the Blinds

I wasn’t sure how to get out from this dark gray cloud. In late March it started looming. The vet told us six months, “and that’s being very optimistic.” Our dog’s liver was failing. His ALT values were so high the technicians had to dilute the sample in order for the machine to run. My husband and I left shattered. I cancelled my plans for the rest of the day.

Moses would be 14 this November. In April, one year had passed since his ACL surgery. There would be no heroics, not another surgery we decided. Instead we switched his diet to raw meaty bones and gave him some pain meds and supplements.

moses in car happy

He loved eating the new food. Chicken quarters and raw salmon. His eyes were ravenous with delight in eating like a wild dog tearing through sinewy breasts and thighs of meat and chomping bones. We hand fed him to monitor his eating, and this interaction I think strengthened our bond.

Everthing seemed to be going well. I planned a first hiking trip to Yosemite for the weekend of Mother’s day. We asked the dog sitter if she could care for Moses in June while we would be away in Kentucky for a wedding. The weekend before the trip we went shopping for some hiking essentials. Then he started refusing the raw meat patties, so we gave him some salmon and he ate it happily.  The next day he refused the fish. He started rejecting everything to the point where he would not accept even peanut butter or his favorite treats.

Tuesday and Wednesday brought vomitting. My husband was away on business set to return Thursday. I left work early that day to be with my pet, and tried to accept he was dying. At dinner he ate some wet food I scavenged from the pantry trying to get something in his stomach. I rejoiced. This no eating bullshit was just a phase. Over now. He was back.

Hard decisions came abruptly, quicker than the six months I held on to in my mind.

Friday, I cancelled my spot on the hiking trip. My husband and I slept most of Saturday and escaped to Litchfield and the lives of women in orange jumpsuits. Nyquist won the Kentucky Derby. That evening we watched the sun set at the park we took Moses to regularly, and we shared our memories of him, reading aloud. Like how he exterminated at our command silver dollar fish bugs in the bathroom. Moses sat in my lap the whole time.

Sunday, Mother’s Day

A call was made to the vet to ask about the process. A time was set after waiting an agonizing two hours for a call back. Hours lost not wanting to make the call to delay the inevitable. It was dark; the blinds were still drawn shut. My husband finally said, “Let’s get some light in here for him.” We hung out on the porch and went to the pool. Moses had been trying to drag me there all week. The body of water must have been like a siren. We let him partake, though as his mom I still hovered over him and chirped, “Not too much.”

moses stoic

Our vet was performing a surgery at the designated time we were told to come in. So we were told to come back in forty-five minutes. To leave and have to gather the courage to come back seemed like torture. We bought a cone and french fries at McDonalds and drove to a park. Moses reluctantly ate one fry.

I think he was telling us he was ready. I like to believe that when we left the park for the ride over finally to say goodbye, he was ready and did not want to walk around. We said goodbye and parted with Moses to be cremated with his blanket and favorite chew toy, Mr. Sheep.

Time does heal all wounds. When we made the raw food transition, my thumb got punctured by his canine while I was trying to have him slowly eat a chicken piece. Two months now and the nail is half grown out and the wound sealed. The period of devastation following the loss of Moses has ebbed with the busyness of summer: weekend trips, softball, and picnics. Enough time has passed for the grief, anger, and denial to move through our systems, but the tears are still plentiful as I think back on the events and the last images of him in my mind.

It took me awhile to feel like writing and to find some happiness among the grief. I know now that sorrow is not the opposite of happiness. Sorrow can be beautiful when the feeling comes from a mixture of great appreciation and extreme longing. That is exactly how I felt saying goodbye; there was something profoundly beautiful in that moment. In the following days my husband said, “We made the decision out of our love for him.” I have peace knowing that.

These are some helpful quotes I liked about finding light in the dark.

“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” Charles A. Beard

“Twilight fell: The sky turned to a light, dusky purple littered with tiny silver stars.” J.K. Rowling

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Rachel Carson

OM. I’m a Woman Tree Climber

Time really flies when you’re having fun. By the close of the weekend, Sunday, April 17th, I had learned how to tie a Michoacan knot, retreived foreign objects in trees, wore a BUFF, and made more than a dozen new girfriends. The itinerary for the Western Chapter Women’s Tree Climbing course was a packed schedule. Breakfast at 7 a.m., climbing instruction starting at eight, and the day’s events not ending until twelve hours later.

My interest in climbing trees budded during the summer of 2010 at the non profit, Casey Trees in Washington D.C.. While I was on vacation, the youth tree care crew got to experience tree climbing at the National Arboretum, and I remember feeling very envious of the students’ opportunity. My interest heightened into a fervor after reading about Steve Sillett, a botanist renowned for finding the tallest Redwood trees, in the enthralling book The Wild Trees by Richard Preston.

I free climbed trees as a tomboy growing up and have some recent experience rock climbing, but this animal was all together different. First, different equipment and knots. We used a termination knot, the anchor, to tie the standing line to the harness or if spliced just onto a carabiner, and we learned a few different tension knots or rather a tension hitch like the Michoacan and Knut. The system of climbing we used for ascending is what’s called Ddrt, doubled rope technique; the rope is secured over a branch or crotch of the tree and both ends hang parallel to ground and are isolated from other branches. The tension hitch, like the Knut, grips the running line so that when the climber pauses or rests, the main knot secures her safely in place. When ready to descend all you do is put pressure on top of the tension hitch. To let go mid air, take in the view, and put trust in the equipment and system is thrilling.

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Body Thrusting and Footlocking

One way to get up the tree is to place your feet on the trunk and lean back and thrust your hips up. This exerts a lot of the upper body strength as you pull on the running line three times to get vertical movement. You can also use your lanyard to walk up the tree, but my preferred technique was using the secured foot hold or footlocking to inchworm up into the canopy.

Climbing is a Team Sport

The most challenging part of climbing I found was the actual first step. Getting the rope into the tree requires some determination in throwing a line over your tie in point. This is like vertical bowling. Though it is the same motion and throwing technique as in cornhole, I could not for the life of me get the line to go to my target. I was always throwing ahead of or behind me. Fortunately I had a great climbing buddy that set the line for us or I wouldn’t have made it up the tree.

There is an I in climbing, but the activity is really team centric. I got a high from the team comraderie and bonding we did as women collectively learning from each other. It was a very supportive environment, and high fives and yays were abundant.  I am grateful for the instructors’ patience and willingness to share so much expertise and guidance. 

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OM the Sound of the Universe

Before lunch beak each day we were treated to a restorative yoga session. This meditation balanced well with the physical endurance required for the day. I’m not one to remember all the poses, but we did practice Warrior I and II.  This stance strengthens the legs, opens the hips and chest, and stretches the arms and legs. Perfect for relaxing after body thrusting. It also develops concentration, balance and groundedness, and energizes the entire body. All important things required to remain alert and practice safety while climbing.

At the end as we all lay there in corpse pose, my thoughts just melted away. All the windows of the room were open and a breeze filtered in blowing away our worries and fears and the extranalaties creeping in from work and home. The smells of the great outdoors: woods, leaves, and the lake and the gentle sounds materialized in my mind the guest bedroom at my grandparents house. In summers past my brother and I would lay in each bunk bed, with our heads close to the screen windows, and listen to crickets and smell the night air.

Then we wiggled our fingers and toes back to reality. Emails were exchanged and goodbye hugs given. We were all physically tired but still reluctant to get in our cars and break the spell.

I’ll end with this quote from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I feel it captures the spirit of the weekend:

I laid there in the grass and the cool shade, thinking about things and feeling rested and ruther comfortable and satisfied. I could see the sun out at one or two holes, but mostly it was big trees all about, and gloomy in there amongst them. There was freckled places on the ground where the light sifted down through the leaves, and the freckled places swapped about a little, showing there was a little breeze up there. A couple of squirrels set on a limb and jabbered at me very friendly.

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The orange object was the first prize I climbed to. A rockin’ new hairband in DayGlo Orange.

The Goodrum Highlife

Having spent time with my colleague Goodrum last Thursday for the majority of the work day, I have been doing a little introspection about my approach to life. This week I have been feeling grumpy. Goodrum on the other hand is friendly, optimistic, and helpful. He is a great sport. Goodrum once told me an outlandish story about how he helped an old man cross a busy intersection in the Bayview and how he got cheers, applause, and a boost to his street cred. He always lends a hand. Goodrum is the embodiment of Gallant from the Highlights activity books you read while sitting in the waiting room of any Dentist’s office in the 90s.

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My thoughts than led me to this quandry, is a happy person a good person? And vice versa? Than that scene came to mind of Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka’s egg room where the Eggdictator sends her down the chute to the incinerator.

veruca-salt-bad-egg

Good people are described as kind, helpful, caring, understanding, patient, and loving. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky1 points to twelve commonalities of happy people; here are those that relate to being a good person:

  • Express Gratitude
  • Be Optimistic
  • Avoid Comparison
  • Practice Kindness
  • Cultivate Relationships
  • Learn to Forgive

Studies show that little acts of kindness actually release serotonin and boost wellbeing. I need to practice more kindness and be more forgiving. My temper flares most at the book ends of the work day, during the commute. Any suggestions for practicing mindfulness are welcomed. Reading on the train is a great distraction, but it’s the boarding and exiting that grates on my nerves. What is really ironic is that the most used phrase signed in my highschool yearbook was “nice.”

I am going to put forth my best effort to practice the Golden Rule and model Goodrum’s behavior over the next 21 days.

Instead of rolling my eyes, I will smile.

Instead of muttering under my breath, I will give people slack and not act so righteous.

Instead of bowing my head to avoid eye contact, I will say hello to strangers. 

Tomorrow I work with Goodrum again, so hopefully he continues to rub off on me. 

Pardon me please, for I must get to bed.

Sidebar– Dictionary.com’s word of the day for March 23rd, was joie de vivre. The french word describes a feeling, the delight in being alive.

  1. Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Press, 2008. Print.