Letter to 40 Day-ers

November 14th, 2011

Hi all you shiny, flexible, strong people!

Many of you found me at our “Triumph” party to express your gratitude.  I’m writing in a “look-what-they-did,” very public manner, to thank each of you right back in a big, heartfelt, expansive, smiling, joyful way. Thank-you — with all of those qualities infused!

It’s been about week since you completed “40 days to Personal Revolution” and from what I’ve witnessed, you’re quaking with new found insights, connections, and deep truths.

I  have a hunch, too, (gleaned from the number of sparkling-sheeny eyes), that you’ve kneaded your hearts — through consistent daily practice — into ever softer, wiser, more receptive ones.

Epiphany-rejoicing of the best kind!

Your softness and sparkliness have inspired me to spend more time in stillness – on the yoga mat, sitting in meditation, reading good-heart-expanding-stuff, writing, and opening up to the present. I am equally roused to love more fully, hence my gratitude letter to you.

I’ve heard the third time is a charm, yet this was the second time  I co-guided this program with Scott, and it was revelatory!

Let me explain.

During my maiden voyage co-steering 40-days, I had this crazy confused idea that it was, at least, in part up to me, to ask a life-altering question, or say something, one thing, that would be, you know, the epic thing, to send you sailing toward your right life. (No pressure or anything.)

So, before each meeting, I dutifully scribbled sage teachings and brilliant guidance into the margins of my class outline, just in case the opportunity arose to blow open a soul or two, catalyzing a transformation toward a deeply fulfilling life.

Ok, everyone together now: Big guffaw! Still guffawing? Yeah, I am too.

Looking back, I can see that this came from a place of fear, rather than a place of faith. My attempt to over-control was a kind of forgetting. I had forgotten to trust the process, and have confidence in the practices.

This time around, I let go. I trusted the practices to do their thing.

My revelation: Have faith in the methods!

Over the past few years, a deep sense of confidence has arisen in me, from the recognition that if we slow down, look within, become more familiar with our minds, and care lovingly for our bodies, we are more able to face all of what life delivers with an inner well of strength and freedom. It can be a freaking crazy-storm of crappy circumstances in our outer life, yet with a healthy interior state, we always have a reservoir of peace.

Now, I am certain, as in no doubt about it, that no matter what might be swirling around in our outer life, there is always, at our core, a potential for flourishing.

I know, too, as in no doubt about it, that we’ll never find a fast-food outlet dishing up inner freedom. We have to practice our way toward a life full of meaning.

And oh, how all of you dedicated 40 day-ers practiced!

  • You chose to arrive on your yoga mats, six days out of seven, inhabiting your bodies, attending to your breath, and tuning inward.

On the mat, in flow, you were invited to be still in motion. And yoga did its thing, as it tends to do: sensations rise and dissolve, emotions rise and dissolve, and thoughts are dropped, as the postures and the breath call for your focus. Again and again, you are invited to unhook from rambling thoughts, and allow and make space for visiting sensations and emotions.

  • You chose to sit in meditation — twice a day for 40 days. This is a commitment in the world we live in, twittering with easy distractions and ways to escape.

I could write a Whitman-esque “Song of Meditation,” but you know the song already, because you practiced. You nod knowingly when reading the research about how meditating 20 minutes a day for 6 – 8 weeks strengthens the power of attention, reduces anxiety, and increases one’s general state of well-being. If you’ve meditated longer, perhaps you’ve found you can get disentangled from the mental static that perpetuates suffering, and find clarity and peace. This makes you happy and you can share that lovey-happy-goodness with others.

  • You chose to give up food insta-stimulants and food insta-chill-axers, plus every possible food attachment you might have had!

Breaking your food routines helped you establish more mindfulness around eating. You were invited to notice areas in your diet where the force of habit had become strong. And you practiced eating and living in ways that were conscious and creative rather than habitual.

  • You chose to engage in weekly meetings, at the end of a work-day, and brought your authenticity to your fellow 40 day-ers.

In showing up fully each week, you created a community where there is kindheartedness, support, openness, creativity, vulnerability (and shelter), play, strength, levity, and love.

I am tremendously grateful to all of you for reminding me to continue cultivating a way of being that is not so subject to patterns of habitual thinking. A way of being that is about growing in love, inner freedom and lightheartedness.

I appreciate you, and I celebrate you, your dedication to practice, and your personal revolution!

xoxoxoxo Love, Lauren

Weeoooweeooo! Food Craving Rescue Squad (FCRS) Urgent Bulletin #1

January 19th, 2011

Drop your control-freaky-weapons, please!

Methods which aim to master, reduce, challenge, eliminate, ignore, deny, or get rid of food cravings are not likely to work, and may even backfire!

While, we at the FCRS recognize food cravings are single-minded and tenacious, they don’t tend to back down when quarreled with. In fact, the more desperately you try to make the cravings go away, the more they may begin to bother you.

Psychologists call this cognitive ironic processing, or the “White Bear Principle,” — try not to think of something and the thing you are trying to get rid of gets more insistent, or tightens it’s grip. It’s like when you try to get a song out of your head, and on and on it sings.

So what do you do if the food cravings won’t leave? Do you have to give into them?

In this situation our minds tend to spit out two choices: I have to get rid of this craving,” or “I have to eat this now.

This FCRS bulletin is intended to present another possibility – - one that might be more helpful and empowering in the long run. This new approach is based on simple, but very powerful magical skills, borrowed from a school of psychology called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. We’ll also be getting a little help from our colleague, Severus Snape.

But first, four helpful facts about food cravings:

Fact one: Food cravings are strong or intense urges to eat a particular food, often “highly palatable” foods. These foods also tend to be high in fat and calories. Food cravings are distinguished from other urges to eat, such as those occurring in a true state of hunger, by their intensity and specificity. Intensity refers to the tendency for people to go out of their way to get their hands on the desired food. Specificity implies that only a certain food, or type of food will satisfy the craving.

Fact two: Food cravings are on the rise due to dark forces that conspire to bring cheap, tasty, delectable food to the corner nearest you. You live in what social scientists call an “obesogenic environment,” which simply means food that hijacks your brain to want-want-want is available pretty much everywhere.

Fact three: We are biologically wired and physiologically choreographed to want to seek out and eat calorie-dense foods. Dopamine releasing neurons rev up when a desired food is near, and powerfully promote more wanting. Eating the craved food results in a surge of natural opioids in your brain. These “pleasure chemicals,” are soothing, reduce pain, and produce an elated high. Skip a meal, and you’ll find evolution has put a gnawing pain in your gut to keep you alive. So you can’t just NOT eat.

Fact four: Strong emotional states, particularly sadness, boredom and stress are related to increases in food cravings. Humans tend to do things to avoid experiencing unpleasant emotions. We may not like having certain feelings and thoughts and sometimes we struggle with trying to make them go away. And one way some of us do that is to emotionally eat. This appears to work in the short term, bringing on a relief of tension and a rush of biochemical pleasure. In the long term, it sets a pattern of more weight gain AND increased persistence of the emotion we are trying to get rid of!

So given that food cravings are normal, natural and expected, what should you do when food cravings arise and you’d rather not act on them?

While we may feel wholly at the mercy of the dopamine neurons firing in our brain, we have an inherent and uniquely human ability which can make our cravings a heck of a lot less compelling: self-awareness.

“If you can get some space and distance from the craving,” says Professor Snape, “you can see that there are choices about how to respond. Just allowing the craving to exist can take away its insistence. Regardless of whatever you are craving, feeling, thinking, or experiencing internally, you have a choice over what action you choose to engage in.”

FCRS psychologists call this process of watching a craving, “urge surfing.” Like waves, your cravings rise, and then pass away. Eventually the cravings recede — you don’t have to act upon them, or push them away. The more willing you are to get on your board and ride the craving out, the less your cravings will hook you, and the more space you’ll have to make a choice that you’ll be content with in the long run.

Fortunately, Professor Snape came up with a handy acronym to help you remember how to practice these skills, so you can make choices that will help you head in a direction that enhances your life.

Naturally, the acronym is S-N-A-P-E

S: Set an intention. What do you value about learning how to manage your food cravings and eat healthier? What personal qualities do you want to cultivate in the process? Set your intention to grow those qualities — whether they be persistence, focus, courage, flexibility, self-kindness, freedom, gratitude or some other personal quality. Keep your intention at the forefront of your mind. While it might not always be easy to turn down the glazed donut twist, it feels good to cultivate the best parts of yourself!

N: Notice the craving. When a craving arises, simply notice it. Step back and see it from a distance, “I see myself having a craving for a cookie right now.” You might find it helpful to say something like, “Stepping back,” or “Watching my mind.”

A: Acknowledge the craving. The craving is here and you may not like it, or want it but you can open up to the reality that this is what you are experiencing in this moment. You may notice feelings in your body, and you can acknowledge those too, “Here’s a feeling of boredom,” “Here’s a feeling of insecurity.” Or you may notice judgments, “Hmm, I see my mind is busy with the same old judgments.” Whatever cravings or feelings or thoughts your mind churns out, they are okay and don’t have to be changed or extinguished.

P: Practice making space. While noticing and acknowledging, it’s normal to get hooked by a thought or a feeling, or get caught up in the intensity of a craving. Experientially, this feels like a tightening in your body. It’s like being locked in a crowded broom closet with the craving pressing on you. Imagine opening the closet and letting your cravings, thoughts and feelings roam amidst a wide open space. In time, they’ll recede.

The easiest and most direct way to do this is to bring focus to your breath and your posture. Roll back your shoulders, open up your chest, extend the crown of your head toward the ceiling, and take deep breaths into and around the strong cravings or feelings in your body. Keep breathing into the craving and you may notice, little by little, you are making more space around it. It can be helpful to say “Making space,” or “I don’t want this, but I can make space for it.”

E: Engage in what’s happening around you. Notice what you can see, hear, or touch around you. Notice your head, neck, shoulders, arms, legs. Have a nice stretch or let out a big yawny-yawn. Continue to notice and ride the wave of your craving while simultaneously increasing your connection to the world around you. In this powerful state of awareness and engagement, you can make choices that are consistent with your health goals and values.

Presto, you’ve surfed your first wave! And if you’d like to become better at riding out cravings, watch your mind trying to dissuade you from practicing…

Look out for next month’s Food Craving Rescue Squad Bulletin in which we’ll give you some troubleshooting tips and another fun strategy discovered by some innovative neuroscientists!

How to Create a Healthy Ritual in Three Steps

January 1st, 2010

I used to be a big proponent of self-discipline. Grin and bear it. Suck it up. Just do it. Get it done. No pain, no gain. I could grit my way through early-morning runs, study medical textbooks for hours without budging, and eat virtuously healthy foods in between. Running, studying, and eating “clean” were all items on the to-do list. And yes, I got them done.

Even with this discipline, I refused to be “captive” to some kind of schedule. So I would run one day at 6:30 a.m., another at 8:30 p.m., and another mid-day crunched between classes. It was all very haphazard. And you know what? It wasn’t much fun. So much wasted energy went into figuring out each day I was already in.

I didn’t see this at the time. My inner free-wheeling hellion insisted that a schedule would be confining. (I know, this kind of goes against the discipline-thing, but that’s how it works — rein yourself in too tight, and some part of you is going to want to rebel against something.)

This attempt at spontaneity “worked” until three-quarters of the way through my primary care residency, I had my first son. Suddenly, all of the hours were taken. I was mothering or working. I wasn’t running much nor was I comfortably enveloped in the expansive silence of the library for hours on end.

I hadn’t lost my discipline. It was just too busy tending to other things. After a short while, without those regular doses of air and mind-space, I got a little raggedy around the edges. Scattered.

My husband, sensing I might start sawing through things, suggested something DUH, totally obvious. “Why don’t you schedule your runs and gym workouts, and get a sitter for the times I’m not around to take over?”

Garumphf. Scheduling workouts? So not-spontaneous. But, I listened to his advice, sort of. I started planning a tiny bit ahead. It was all very nonchalant. I might plan out a few days before me, but never more, because a regular schedule would cramp-my-style. And then all that nonchalant planning got really annoying. Days would go by with no sneaker-action. No quiet air. No open space.

Oh-why-do-we-have-to-learn-things-the-hard-way?

Somewhere along the way, I got smart. I set up four regular times to exercise. Four times that occurred on the same planned day at the same planned time, week after week, and month after month.

And what I discovered surprised me. The ritual gave me a greater sense of clarity and focus. I felt freer and less under siege. I loved knowing when I was going to get my slice of spaciousness. And no willpower or discipline was necessary. At the scheduled time, my job was to show up.

And then something really cool happened. I started getting intentional about how I spent that time. Did I want to cultivate playfulness? Connection? Focus? Gratitude? Creativity? I brought that intention to my workouts. And you know what? It was fun! It lit me up! I wasn’t just checking something off my list. My runs took on meaning. I used the time to connect purposefully with the values I cared about — and then I brought that energy back home, to the people in my life.

My love of ritual was born.

Since then, I have introduced dozens more rituals into my life — all aimed at living out, in a specific way, what I value most. There is the bedtime ritual I have with my kids, the date-night ritual, friend-rituals, the 3x weekly yoga ritual, the morning breakfast ritual, the way-I-prepare-to-work-with-a-client ritual. I have daily rituals, and rituals I engage in weekly, monthly, or to mark celebrations.

Save yourself the white knuckles. The secret to lasting change isn’t willpower.

As you think about the changes you want to manifest in your life in 2010, instead of focusing on cultivating self-discipline as a means toward change, maybe you begin to introduce one or two rituals at at time. You know, try it out, and see how it feels for you.

Inititating a ritual requires focus and commitment, but maintaining it is relatively easy. In contrast to discipline, which requires willing and pushing, a ritual, after a short time, pulls at you.

You are probably used to performing small rituals already, whether you realize it or not. Most of us brush our teeth at least twice a day, and in a certain way, without thinking about it. (We value clean teeth.) Top athletes show up at the field, the pool, or the court without fretting about it too much. (They value performing their best.)

Rituals, once set up, don’t require a lot of mental oomph. And the cool part is, you can redirect that freed-up energy to use in creative, more fulfilling ways.

In their book, The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz explain, “Building rituals requires defining very precise behaviors and performing them at very specific times–motivated by deeply held values.”

If you eat in a healthy way, it is likely because you have built rituals around shopping and preparing food. If you are deeply connected with your kids, your friends, or your spouse, you have probably created rituals around spending connecting-time with them. Artists likely have rituals around noticing and appreciating beauty.

Liking this ritual idea? Here’s how you can create your own ritual in three steps:

Step One: Come up with a ritual you believe is consisent with a value you deem worthy. (You get to decide what you value!) It could be going on a 20 minute walk on Monday and Wednesday mornings, taking a guitar lesson every Tuesday evening, pleasure reading for an hour every other day, or playing a board or card game with your kids each Saturday afternoon.

Step Two: Enter your ritual into your planner and start doing it! It might be awkward at first to keep your new ritual. Your planned yoga class might coincide with a time you are on a major roll at work. It might be challenging to walk away. Try it out anyway. After about 4 – 6 weeks, your ritual will very likely start pulling at you.

Step Three: Monitor your progress. If you are trying to create more connection with your kids, it’s key to have rituals that support connection, but also to measure at the end of the day or week how well you’ve followed your plan. This isn’t a a time to judge or punish yourself. Go in with a light heart and some self-kindness. Your aim here is to live out your values in a specific way. If you are not following through, you may need to modify your ritual. It may be that the ritual isn’t grounded in a value or vision that is compelling to you. Or it may be because the goal you set is too daunting and needs to be broken down into smaller, more workable steps. Often times, we resist a new behavior because there is still something about the old way of doing things that is comforting or familiar, and we resist the awkwardness of the new. Whatever it is, take a tender look, and modify where necessary. And always celebrate your progress!

It’s best to introduce no more than one or two rituals at a time, and be sure they are feeling relatively easy on the mind before you introduce new ones. Over time, notice how the rituals you have built are bringing to life the values you hold most dear.

“There isn’t anything that isn’t made easier through constant familiarity and training. Through training, we can change; we can transform ourselves.” — the Dalai Lama

If you’d like, please leave a comment, especially if you’ve created a healthy ritual you would like to share,  if you’ve come up with a new one to introduce, or if you just want to say “rituals rock,” (or something like that).

Happy New Year!