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Category Archives: health

let’s face it

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One of the key insights articulated by the Buddha (known as the First Noble Truth) is that to live involves suffering. This is neither morose nor pessimistic, but a fact. A fact we pleasure-seeking creatures would rather avoid. We’d rather believe that “all is good,” tell each other to “be happy,” and hope that “tomorrow is another day” and “this too shall pass.” Yes, to all of those — and yes, suffering is inevitable — and yes, the sun will shine again.

Reflecting on my everyday experience helps explain this seeming contradiction. Hardly a day goes by that I’m not in some physical discomfort, from mild aches to severe pain. Several fingers joints hurt, as do my knees, lower back, and neck. Tests point to rheumatoid arthritis and herniated discs. Not much I can do but to learn to live with them and reduce their impact with yoga, meditation, and keeping active.

But ever so often my mind goes to “poor me” and “this is not fair.” I don’t like what’s going on. It shouldn’t be this way. In short, life should be free of pain and hassle. Of course it isn’t and never will be. Fact: we have to endure sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and death. Fact: we have to cope with heartbreak, loss, grief, and separation from those we love. Fact: from time to time, we’ll be lonely, frustrated, hurt, disappointed, and enraged. Fact: No amount of “being good” or “living right” can guard us against the human condition.



victoria day parade

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Two of us (plus a dog named Jakob) walked a few blocks to watch bits of the parade: many American marching bands (they sure know how to do it well), interspersed with grown men on tiny scooters and big trucks blowing their horns. Standing in the sun amidst the happy crowd, many with lawn chairs and drink coolers, I inhaled the carefree atmosphere. Even cops driving their shiny motorcycles up and down the parade route, each earning double overtime and having fun waving at people, added to the festive mood. For split seconds, I felt none of the associations that crowds, busy streets, and police sirens usually convey.

“Good things keep happening all around us,” neuropsychologist Rick Hanson reminds me, “but much of the time we don’t notice them; even when we do, we often hardly feel them.” To counterbalance the built-in negativity bias, the brain’s tendency to scan for, register, and recall negative experiences, he suggests that we bring mindful awareness to positive facts, thus turning them into positive experiences. “Let the experience fill your body and be as intense as possible. …

“The rebuilding process gives you the opportunity, right down in the micro-circuitry of your brain, to gradually shift the emotional shading of your interior landscape. … Every time you do this … you build a little bit of neural structure. Over time, the accumulating impact of this positive material will literally, synapse by synapse, change your brain.” 

All this requires effort: I have to remember to pay attention, to spot and internalize moments of happiness, and to bring awareness to the bodily experience of being free of stress. Old habits (and ancient wiring) resist all change, even if it’s for the better.

See also my previous post on re-wiring the brain. source: Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom.  New Harbinger, p. 68-71. image:

face it: you are alone

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In her latest blog post, our friend Tess reports on changes in her life: she’s got a full-time job and is able to pay her bills. For that she has to get up before 5 in the morning to catch several bus connections, only to return 12 hours later, exhausted. “And trust me,’ she writes, “I’m eternally grateful … really I am. It’s just been a shock to my system and I’m finding a real test to staying present. My ego is having a heyday in convincing me that … I deserve better, that I should be … living over a bakery in Paris.”

O how I know that voice! There’s always something lacking, be it food, love, health, money, things, or enough rain for the garden. What is this dissatisfaction, I wonder, this longing for what is not, all the while dismissing or overlooking that which is? There’s a line in a long Buddhist sutra:

The Way is perfect like vast space, where there’s no lack and no excess.
Our choice to choose and to reject prevents our seeing this simple truth.

In her book on Mindful Eating, Zen teacher Chozen Bays offers clues as to the cause of my pervasive dissatisfaction. “Heart hunger,” she suggests, “is satisfied by intimacy. 

Each of us is fundamentally alone in the world. No one can know us to the bottom of our being. No one can know all our thoughts. No one can know completely the deepest longings of our hearts. No one, not even the person we are closest to, can experience life as we do. The realization that we are fundamentally alone can be a source of sadness, or grief.”

So, once more, instead of looking for magic explanations I’m called to take refuge in simple awareness. Not to make loneliness to go away, but to welcome it unreservedly. This alone feeling is neither a personality flaw nor a curse inherited from my family of origin (as I’ve always thought). It comes with being an authentic human being.

source: Bays, J. C. (2009). Mindful eating: a guide to rediscovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Boston: Shambhala, p. 58. image: when I googled for an “alone” image, I found mostly people in tears: sad and miserable. Photo above taken during week-long walk along the Mosel River: alone and happy.  


mindful yoga in victoria

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I recently completed Misha Gitberg’s course and recommend it highly. It was my first yoga course ever (me being the self-conscious sceptic) and I’ve already signed up for this next one.

Misha writes: Mindful Yoga is ideal for those who want to experience yoga as a spiritual practice, not merely as a physical workout. In this style of yoga, the work with the mind is as important as working with the body. The result is a deeper experience of mind-body connection, inner peace and health.

Over the course of ten weeks we work in a small group to explore a number of yoga asanas. Each is approached with care and compassion, with full awareness of breath and body sensations. We will hold each pose for a period of time, so that we can fully appreciate their subtle effect on the flow of energy and allow our body enough time to begin a process of opening. We will also explore a number of breath techniques (pranayamas) to deepen our experience, energize and calm the mind and body, and move toward a state of bliss and balance.

Starts May 26 for 10 weeks, 5:00 to 6:30 pm, James Bay area. Visit website for details.


i’m rewiring my brain

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For much of life my mind has tilted toward darkness. Pharmaceutical cocktails, endless psychotherapy, and years of meditation practice have helped reset my mood thermometer. But the cliff’s edge is narrow and the tiniest moment of inattention can cause my mind to slide.

Drawing on research in social psychology, medicine, and neuroscience, Hanson and Mendius report that the brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information and that when an event is flagged as negative, the brain (in the hippocampus) makes sure it’s stored carefully for future reference. In short, the brain has a built-in negativity bias that primes us for avoidance.

It generates an unpleasant background of anxiety, which for some people can be quite intense; anxiety also makes it harder to bring attention inward for self-awareness or contemplative practice, since the brain keeps scanning to make sure there is no problem. The negativity bias fosters or intensifies other unpleasant emotions, such as anger, sorrow, depression, guilt, and shame. It highlights past losses and failures, it downplays present abilities, and exaggerates future obstacles (p.42).

Good to hear that being attracted to negativity and tending towards depression is “not my fault,” a view long held by my biased mind (and, I suspect, by people unfamiliar with depression). The remedy, put forward by meditation teachers and supported by findings in brain research, centers on–

  • not suppressing negative experiences but to
  • welcome them as part of being human and to
  • make an active effort to internalize positive experiences to heal negative ones.

I’ve recently begun an experiment on neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to learn and change itself. “Emotions have global effects since they organize the brain as a whole,” Hanson and Mendius claim. “Consequently, positive feelings have far-reaching benefits, including a stronger immune system … [and] a cardiovascular system that is less reactive to stress” (p. 75).

In this experiment I’m spending extra time with positive emotions. On Monday, for instance, after an hour’s workout, I sat a log in the sun, bathing in that marvellous sense of wellbeing brought on by endorphins, sinking my awareness deep inside my body, registering sensations of happiness, presence, and joy. The theory I’m testing is that positive experiences help reprogram the brain — not by wiping out negative memories, but by superimposing or counter-balancing them with positive ones.

source: Hanson, R. with Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. New Harbinger.


*** highly recommended

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Until recently I’d refused going anywhere near this thing called yoga. Long before Lululemon® and Bikram® fed my negative attitude, a deep-seated sense of physical ungainliness (“an actual or perceived state of lacking grace or ease of movement or form”) kept me away. 

A series of injuries — replete with soft-tissue damage, broken bones, and neuropathic pain — eventually led me to what’s known as restorative and mindful yoga. Here the focus is on restful, mostly passive and long-held postures meant to assist the body’s renewal and healing by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, thus lowering heart rate and blood pressure and stimulating immune and endocrine systems.  

In last night’s class, my fifth, I came to a satisfying place. Lying on the (borrowed) mat, listening to the instructor’s guidance on holding poses gently and letting long breaths flow through my body as if “through a flute — entering at one end and exiting along various points,” took me to a deep sensation of rest. I may have drifted in and out of consciousness, mistaken the left foot for the right, but none of that concerned me. All of me was at ease.

As May Sarton writes, “the most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatsoever.”

source: Salwak, D. (1995). (ed.). The wonders of solitude. New American Library, p. 41. image: source unknown — could be me in another life.


be here now

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There were eight of us in last night’s mindfulness class, including five nurses: active, retired, students. We practiced following our in-breaths, then our out-breaths, noting the gap in between. We walked in the garden, bringing attention to the bottom of our feet. We did standing stretches, extending arms and hands to feel our full reach. We lay flat on the floor, sensing our weight and scanning our bodies from bottom to top, bringing oxygen and awareness to parts taken for granted.

Saki Santorelli, director of the stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School calls mindfulness “an act of hospitality.

A way of learning to treat ourselves with kindness and care that slowly begins to percolate into the deepest recess of our being while gradually offering us the possibility of relating to others in the same manner.”

No wonder that professional caregivers gather to learn in this way. They give and give to others everyday. Many get burned out, experience ‘compassion fatigue,’ become discouraged, even bitter. So they (we) return to the beginning: noting one in-breath at a time, all the way till it reaches the still point, then noting the exhale, just as attentively. 

“With every breath I take, I am at home,” Master Dogen (1200-1253) tells us. A healthy person breathes between 15 and 20 times per minute, 900 to 1200 per hour. How many of those have I spent away from “home,” distracted and unaware?

sources: Santorelli, S. (2011). Letting ourselves heal. Mindfulness (magazine). Boston: Shambhala, p. 19. The “be here now” in the heading comes from the bestselling book by Ram Dass (1971, Random House).