Stress Relief for the Rest of Us

Recently I have had two separate conversations about finding free to low cost resources for folks seeking meditation/stress management instruction and/or practice.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just take a week or two off and go to some peaceful and quiet place and do the practices that help us manage our stress an anxiety.  Throw in having delicious healthy meals that someone else cooks and it really sounds blissful to me!  Of course, we can’t all do that and frequently these things cost more money than we have.

While there are tons of things we can do for free: walking, exercising, yoga tapes from the library, etc.; sometimes, you just need a class or a group to motivate you, keep you on track or just teach you a new technique to add to your stress relief toolbox.

I want to share some of the free to low cost resources I have found to support my continuing journey to control stress and cultivate compassion.

spohp

 Susan Piver generously offers the Basic Open Heart Project for free.

tricycle

Tricyle sustaining membership is $35 a year and includes the print magazine, $30 a year with no print magazine.  Tricycle is a Buddhist educational foundation.  While they are specifically Buddhist, I think there are plenty of useful articles, classes and books that would be of interest to folks who don’t particularly want to immerse themselves in Buddhist philosophy.  For an astonishingly low 30 bucks a year, you have access to their series of e-books which you can download in standard e-book formats.  These e-books are excellent primers on a variety of subjects such as teachings on love & relationships, food, addiction, anger, forgiveness and more.  I think their meditation book is one of the best introductions out there and it’s free with your membership.  They also have “retreats” that you can join live while they are running or go back and take them after the fact as recorded teachings.  Many of the retreats are about some aspect of Buddhism; but, there are several that are accessible to non-Buddhists including Sharon Salzberg’s 28 Day Meditation Program, Sylvia Boorstein’s Whole Life as Practice and retreats on finding happiness at work, dealing with everyday disappointments, the power of forgiveness and more.  The amazing thing about this membership is that the resources are there for folks taking their very first step into meditation and continue on to more advanced discussions about practice and Buddhism.  I can’t say enough about Tricyle and their offerings.

 

resilience

I just started this edX MOOC.  I’m not sure if this is the first time they are running it or if it will be available after, but it’s worth checking out.

Audio Meditation Resources

UCLA Mindfulness Exercises  Great set of standard mindfulness exercises including a body scan exercise, loving-kindness meditation (my favorite kind of meditation and a very important one to put in your toolbox), and basic breathing meditation.

U of Missouri’s Mindfulness Center  Another nice collection of meditations that also includes some food related meditations and links to a meditation timer and a phone app.

Dharma.org  The guided meditations and the Teacher Picks (talks) are by some of the leading meditation teachers including Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg.

Insight Meditation Center  This is a link to the meditation center’s audio files of guided meditations.  There are plenty here to try.

 My Favorite Dharma Talks

Dharma talks are teachings that usually happen after meditation at meditation and Buddhist centers.  Many centers have begun recording and posting the audio files of their talks and these are great resources to get you thinking further about ways to reduce your suffering and stress.  I have posted links to my favorite places for dharma talks.

Dharma Punx of NYC/Brooklyn and Noah Levine’s (founder of Dharma Punx) talks tend to be my go to places when I’m in the mood to listen to some dharma talks.

Sylvia Boorstein is one of my favorite teachers and her books were my introduction to mindfulness.

Dharma Seed is a great place to locate the talks of your favorite teacher.  It’s a library of recordings from various teachers and traditions.

Common Ground Meditation Center (MN)  I have an affection for this center and the teachings.  I particularly found “Crash Dharma” helpful after my accident.

Tools

Buddhify makes me want to get an iphone.

Smiling Mind online and now an app.  It is free; but, if you love it, I encourage you to donate.

Calm.com Online and an app.  Not totally free; but, worth checking out.

There are a variety of other phone/tablet apps that have guided meditations and meditation timers.

 

Surviving the Rat Race

In the Library with the Lead Pipe recently posted an article that compared running a marathon with working in the library because both are endeavors where we need to pace ourselves to avoid fatigue and burnout.  Go read this article. It provides a brief overview of current brain science that might surprise you.

Fatigue and burnout are poison in the well.  They affect our abilities to be productive at work and home.  They affect our ability to communicate and negotiate with coworkers and friends and family. They affect our ability to make decisions and think things through effectively.

Here’s an exercise:

Write down 5 things you know you need to do in order to think more clearly, be more patient and find joy in your work.  Here’s what mine might look like.

1. 8-9 hours of sleep

2. Caffeine

3. Moderate exercise

4. Meditation

5. Healthy eating.

These should be things you have control of; so, not things like: get my kid to pick up his laundry.  You already know what you need to be calmer and happier at work.  You probably won’t be able to do all 5 all the time; but, make sure you are trying for 2-3 of them all the time.  Now commit yourself to doing them.

This might seem simplistic and it is really.  But, then why is it so hard to do the things we know we should be doing?  For me, sleep is my number one factor in having a good quality of life.  I have a friend who needs more than moderate exercise, pretty much everyday, in order to burn off the stress of working in a hospital.  She knows that she feels better and is happier when she gets home to her family.  She also told me that she noticed around 3pm everyday she was feeling sad and a bit down and wondered if it had to do with something in her eating habits.  She started eating a small handful of almonds at about 2:30 and she avoided the down turn in mood.  Eating almonds in the afternoon should be on her list.

I also need caffeine.  I’m weening myself down to one cup in the morning; but, in the big picture, caffeine (in moderation) is a basically harmless method of boosting focus, although temporary.  I have found it speeds up my brain’s transition from sleep to having the executive function perform at a level I need it to.  I suspect there are natural ways to help with this; but, at this point the caffeine works.

I also know that although meditation is the thing that helps me the most behind sleep, I do it the least which is something I would like to change.  I hit 3-4 things on my list everyday and would like to get that even higher.

Make the list.  Really think about it.  Put it somewhere where you can see it everyday.  You already know what you should be doing.  You don’t need a class or a book or a guru, although sometimes those things help with motivation.
One last piece of advice:  This is not another opportunity to assess your failure to reach a goal.  At the end of the day, if you only hit one congratulate yourself on hitting one.  That’s it.  This is something to shoot for and the reward is you feel better or you have more patience in frustrating situations or more energy to listen to your family’s stories when you get home.  If saying NO is on your list, the reward might be that you get to give your work projects the attention they deserve without feeling like you have spread yourself too thin.  This is your list; only you know what needs to go on it.

Sit. Ann, Sit.

My dog Henry lunged at the dog food as it left the scoop and fell towards his bowl.  I hate when he does this and immediately corrected him.  “Sit, Henry, Sit.”  He sat and I continued putting the food in his bowl.  He  waited for me to release him with an okay and then started eating.

Later I was thinking about this in context of my own meditation practice.  I really just wanted to tell myself:  Sit, Ann, Sit!  I have not maintained any sort of continuity in my practice and even though I know it will benefit me, I still have not done anything when really all I need to do is just sit.  Of course if it was that simple, we’d all be doing it.

A few weeks ago, I ran across Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project, which she started last year to help people learn meditation.  Starting in June, in addition to the free, ongoing instruction she offers through the project, there will be a more in depth training for what I think is a very reasonable annual fee.

I have been following along since I signed up for the newsletter and have found her style both appealing and accessible.  I’ve already turned a few friends on to it.

Why am I telling you all of this?  Well, since starting Civil Civil Servant I have had people ask me about meditation and while I have taught a couple of people some very basic techniques, I mostly encourage them to try a meditation class.  You don’t have to go to a Buddhist organization to learn meditation.  Some folks learn at a yoga class, or take a course through community education or learn in a stress reduction class.  I think it’s nice to have an ongoing instructor because sometimes things come up in your practice and you have questions.

The instruction offered through the Open Heart Project is quite good and because it is something you learn online, you don’t even have to feel uncomfortable in front of other people.  I have felt uncomfortable going to a  new place to meditate; so, I know that feeling.  This let’s you try it out in a safe, easy way.

So.  Check it out.  It might be the introduction to meditation you’ve been hoping to find.

And if you need a good reason.  Maintaining a meditation practice in study after study has been found to reduce stress and anxiety, relieve symptoms of depression, help control chronic pain, improve immune system function, lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health.  Studies have connected meditation with improved ability to concentrate, improved sleep and reduction of memory loss as one ages.  It can help you with substance abuse problems, depression and hyperactivity.  And really, the research in this area is young.  We are just starting to learn all the startling and significant benefits.

Good luck!

Technology, My Friend

Faithful readers of this blog know most of my stories begin with the phrase before the accident or the phrase after the accident.  I’ve tried to be mindful of avoiding this pattern; but, it really was such an incredible turning point.  So I apologize in advance for starting another sentence in such a way.

Before the accident, I can honestly admit I was a disorganized, slightly cluttered, paper piling kind of gal.  There were stacks of magazines and papers with little notes I had written to myself.  I struggled with keeping clutter to a minimum.  After the accident, the clutter really bothered me.  It created an unpleasant noise in my head similar to speaker feedback.  Plus, my method of keeping reminders on various slips of paper didn’t work anymore because I was unable to untangle the chaos created by that method.  What worked before, didn’t work anymore.  Plus I had a million appointments with doctors and rehab therapists and phone conversations with insurance people.  I got mail from insurance companies or health providers almost every day for a year.  My partner helped me create a system using a calendar in the kitchen and a milk crate on the dining room table.  I carried a small spiral notebook and pen in my pocket everyday (though I frequently misplaced these notebooks).  It was still too much to track.

I started researching ways to organize that were simple and would help me cope with the some of the memory and other brain issues I struggled with at that time.   I want to share some of my process, my discoveries and resources.

Android smart phone:  as much as I hate putting all my eggs in one basket, I find it simplest to just continue to Googlefy my life.  It started with Gmail and Google calendar.  When I realized I could carry my calendar in my pocket I succumbed to the idea of paying more for a smartphone.  My phone has been a lifesaver in more ways than I originally thought it would help.  Even now that I struggle far less with brain issues I’ve kept the smart phone for the two features that have helped me the most:  alerts (calendar) and GPS.  The simplicity of going with Google has saved me from having to figure out how to get the various pieces to talk with one another.  I know that is one reason why people love Apple so much.  It’s seamless and now that Apple has the iCloud it is even simpler to manage everything.  I use the following apps regularly:

  • Evernote:  I love Evernote.  I have an ongoing grocery list on there.  I can add things online from work or home or on the fly on my phone.  That list is always with me.  I also clip things while websurfing, organize recipes and various other files and images.  I have a scanner set up to automatically go to Evernote and I keep documents, manuals and receipts on there.  I can snap a picture of a list or business card and send it to Evernote where it is searchable by text.  It’s an amazing product that is free; but, totally worth the pro upgrade.  And it keeps getting better.  It takes awhile to get in the habit of sticking stuff in Evernote; but, once you do it becomes a reliable and easy method of storing and retrieving just about anything.
  • GoodReads:  I joined Good Reads solely to get this app so I could easily keep track of my “to read” list and have it available when I was in a library or bookstore.
  • Google Maps:  This has proven to be invaluable.  I prefer a regular print map.  My visual memory is much better than my ability to remember things I’ve read (like an address) or heard (directions given verbally). But, I have found I rely heavily on GMaps.  Before I head out I Google map my trip and email it to myself.  That way I have it quickly accessible on my phone. Of course, I don’t have to email it beforehand.  I could do it directly on my phone.  I just find it nice to call it up quickly.  I’ve also started using the “My Maps” feature which is also a great way to store maps you use.

Putting all your eggs in one basket is a little scary.  I used to back up my Gmail offline; but, I don’t do that anymore.  I suppose I should and I know there are some easy-ish ways to accomplish this task.  My music which is in Google Music and my pictures which are in Picasa are also backed up on my laptop and an external hard drive.  I should automate this process and there are some cool tools to help with that; but, I haven’t set anything up yet.  I had used a backup service that would automatically backup different folders to the cloud; but, I found them clunky.  That was a couple of years ago and I should try that again.

The other tool I owe a great deal of my sanity to is Last Pass:  Last Pass is a password vault.  It is probably the single thing that has most helped me, especially since returning to the library field.  I feel like a few times a month I’m signing up for things that require passwords.  There are other password vaults out there that are also good.  I just happen to use Last Pass and have been pleased with it.  It is a tool that I find essential.  It works with most browsers and will remember all of your passwords for you.  I have it set up to automatically fill most of my logins, excepting financial or other sensitive sites.  I still have some memory issues and I really don’t want to waste brain energy, which I have to conserve, on keeping track of passwords or where I wrote them down.  Last Pass is easy to use and has vastly improved my Internet safety because I don’t repeat passwords and I let Last Pass generate passwords for me so they are complex and safer.  If I was forced to choose between giving up my smart phone or giving up Last Pass, I’d give up my smart phone without a hesitation.

For me the key to success has been automation and do it once and forget about it.  I set reminders and tasks in calendar.  All my bills are paid automatically and I have reminders set to review my accounts and transfer money into a joint household account.  I’m on top of things with minimal effort.  It has been life changing. There are times I have duplication or when I also use written lists or reminders even though I also have them in Google calendar and/or tasks.  I use a white board that is not attached to a wall.  I prop it up wherever I need it.  I’m still old school enough to sometimes want to write things out when planning a trip or project.

I recently discovered iftt.  This is an awesome web application that helps you automate even further.  I set up a “recipe” so that whenever I star something in Google reader it automatically gets added to my Read it Later account.  You could set it to have all your Instagram photos sent to Dropbox or Evernote or even your blog on WordPress.  There are seemingly a million ways to use this and I’ve just started exploring; but, I suspect I’m going to love it.

There are a ton more applications and tricks.  I have learned the most from reading Lifehacker on a daily basis.  I also read their book which is an excellent overview.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the non-technology based solutions I have devised.

Sleep Your Way to Good Performance

Are you wondering how you can improve your performance at work or at some other practice or task in you life?

Harvard Business Review has an article, Sleep is More Important than Food (which I found via Lifehacker), that is an excellent summary of research and scientific opinion on the impact sleep has on performance.

Whether it’s professional violinists or CEOs, study after study find that sleep deprivation, even the shaving of an hour here and an hour there, results in reduced reaction time, harder time concentrating, poor memory and processing speed.

I go through periods where I am very diligent about sleep and other periods where I shave an hour here and there which I really don’t have the luxury of doing without impacting my ability to function with ease.

I know I need more sleep when I feel myself having less patience with customers.  There is a direct correlation between my sleep habits and my usually unending patience developing limits.  I am currently in a phase where I’m trying to get 9 hours of sleep every night except Thursdays which are impossible because I work the late shift at the library and then turn around and work the day shift on Fridays.  I feel better:  more patient, more energetic, more cheerful, happier.

In the HBR article, the author asks why we think it’s okay to shave sleep, to essentially deprive our bodies of an essential need, when we wouldn’t deny it food and water.  I think this is an interesting question.  Why are we willing to sacrifice health and happiness?  For sure, there is a perceived notion that the time spent not sleeping is “getting things done;” but, I bet that is not true.  It is especially not true if it’s the third night of not getting enough sleep…because then you are spending your awake hours not performing your best anyway.  And it’s probably weighing in on your relationships too.

Depriving yourself of good sleep is affecting your ability to function in all parts of your life.  It affects your personal relationships.  It effects your business relationships.  It effects your ability to remember important things and work efficiently.  It effects your mood and your ability to appreciate your life.

If you do one thing differently today, go to bed early.  It will benefit you, your family and your workplace.  If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, seek out help from your doctor.

In fact, I challenge you to get at least 8.5 hours of sleep for the next 7 nights.  Keep track.  I’ve been writing down the number of hours I sleep on a calendar.  It keeps me motivated and honest.  Plus, I can look back and feel that I’m accomplishing something and doing the things I need to do to remain healthy.  Last night I went to bed at 9:15 and got up at 8am.  I was in Brooklyn Saturday night and the noise disrupted my sleep and I suspect my body was catching up.

Do it.  For the next 7 days, sleep 8.5 hours a night, document it.  See how you feel on the 8th day.  I predict you’ll feel rejuvenated.

National Day of Unplugging

Sundown March 4th, 2011 begins the start of the National Day of Unplugging, sponsored by Reboot.  It’s odd that a group supporting the idea of unplugging is promoting their app and connecting to them via social networking; but, once you get past that oddity, you will come to see the idea that they are promoting.  Reboot is a Jewish organization though their ideas are universal.  They see the National Day of Unplugging as an opportunity for people to reclaim time, slow down their lives and reconnect with friends, family, the community and themselves.

Ultimately they hope that we’ll do this once a week, which is where the app comes in…a way to remind us to turn off.  They are not anti-technology; they are just pro disconnecting from technology on a regular basis and reconnecting with loved ones, our community and ourselves.

I am going to take their challenge and refrain from e-mail, internet surfing and watching videos/tv (which I do on my laptop).

Currently my routine, and I actually find this sort of …not embarrassing…but disappointing maybe…is:

  • Wake up and check email and overnight txts on my Android Phone.
  • Drink too much coffee while reading email, The New York Times and sometimes Facebook.  All on my laptop.
  • Work.
  • Back home.  Cook while sometimes listening to the radio or watching tv on my laptop.
  • Watch streaming movies or TV on my laptop.

In 2004, I stopped watching TV.  In 2005, while recovering from my accident, I started watching TV shows on DVD.  In 2006, I again stopped watching TV.  In 2008, I moved to NJ for my current job and probably by mid 2009, I started watching TV on my laptop.  By last summer, I was watching TV on my laptop at least 4 times a week.  I’m disappointed that I’ve let TV inch back into my daily life.

For the Day of Unplugging, I plan on getting home and cooking, maybe read or make art until bedtime.  Saturday, I’ll wake up, drink too much coffee and eat breakfast.  It is a rare weekend when my girlfriend and I don’t see each other; but, this weekend is one of those.  I had already planned on working around the house and I’m sticking to that plan.  I’m guessing it will be hard to go all day Saturday without checking email or reading the news.

What about you?  Can you disconnect from your gadgets?  How many times, on the weekend, do you check email?  Do you text, use Facebook, surf the net?  How many times do you watch TV, txt, surf the net instead of engaging with a human being?

I’m going to confess something that is hard to confess.  I don’t have any friends in Asbury Park.  I moved here over a year ago and I have a couple of acquaintances; but, no real friends.  I have plenty of excuses: too tired after work to volunteer, spend many weekends in Brooklyn with Anya, haven’t found my people.  I understand that when you move alone to a new place, it is hard to make new friends.  But,  sitting at home watching Law and Order reruns on my laptop is not helping matters.

Take the challenge with me.  I’ll be back in a few days to let you know how it went.

For further reading on this subject, check out one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Sharon Salzberg.

I broke my wrist again.  The doctor looked at the x-ray and said, “Wow.  It’s really a mess in there.”  This, of course made me laugh because…really it’s inevitable that my right wrist is just going to completely fall apart at some point and his surprise just seemed funny to me.  He casted my wrist and forearm and sent me on my way.

It was later, sitting on my couch watching Law and Order reruns on my laptop that I started feeling sorry for myself.  I try not to think too much about what the future brings for my dominant hand.  I don’t like to think of myself as handicapped even though the accident in some ways, has left me with a nifty bag of tricks (coping skills) I have to use to succeed in my life.

So, sitting there on my couch, feeling sorry for myself, I began to turn my attention to the positive spin.  I like to find the one or two positive things that come out of seemingly negative experiences.  I started shifting from doom and gloom thoughts about the steady decline of ability and tried to think of ways I could use this time, not being able to use my right hand, in a positive way.  Here’s what I came up with:

  • Since I’m off the hook (with myself) for crafty projects that were on my To Do list, like knitting myself and my girlfriend winter caps, perhaps I could practice my left handed drawings.
  • To avoid more feeling sorry for myself, I could set up some plans in the evening with neighbors and friends.
  • I could start working on improving my balance, which is something I’ve been meaning to do.
  • I could use this 6 weeks as a giant immersion class in problem solving by keeping track of the obstacles and how I overcome them.
  • I could use this experience to practice asking for help when I need it, which is not something I’m good at in my home life.  But now I do need help.  I need help getting a 30 pound bag of dog food out of my trunk!
  • Practice writing left handed which is another thing I had been planning to do in a weird sort of planning for the day when writing normally will become problematic.
  • Figure out ways to maintain healthy eating patterns and yet reduce all the chopping and dish cleaning I normally do.

I think I like best the idea of using this experience as an intense immersion class in problem solving.  There’s nothing better for exercising the part of the brain used for figuring stuff out than to take away the regular path of practice (using my right hand for writing, brushing my teeth, scrubbing a dish while I held it with my left).  The neuropsychologist I saw after the accident told me everyone should be occasionally brushing their teeth with the opposite hand.  It is a simple, yet, effective way of exercising your brain.

Looking at my list, I realize that most of the items are just using the broken wrist for motivation, especially for things like improving balance.  Improving balance has been on my To Do list for about 6 months.  Falling on a hike in the Berkshires and breaking my wrist is a great motivator for undertaking that challenge.

This injury is temporary; but, my wrist is problematic.  It is falling apart and eventually I’ll go from limited range of motion to NO range of motion.  Anything I learn now, about navigating life left handed and/or one handed is probably going to come in useful later.

That’s how I try to turn a negative into a positive.  How do you do it?

In the workplace, as in your personal life, focusing on the negative is only going to leave you  in a negative place.  When something negative happens at work, how do you react?  How can you change a negative into a positive?  Learning something is usually a good way to go and sometimes leads to even greater success.

I have a friend who, several years ago, was fired from her job.  She was definitely freaked out and worried.  But, do you know what she did?  She started her own business and has found great success.  She has won awards for her design work and has ridden out the recession without too much worry.  Getting fired, seemingly a negative occurrence, turned out to have the single largest positive impact on her career outside of her schooling.

When negative stuff happens, turn it upside down and all around and I can almost guarantee you’ll find a few shiny spots.