Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Going Against the Stress Grain

Stress is a fact of life. We can't avoid it but we need to learn to manage it because not to handle it properly means that it can affect our mental state, health, and long term happiness.  Our natural reactions to stress and/or depression are exactly the ones we need to avoid. The energy you DO have during these times needs to be directed consciously into the areas where it will do you the most good.

"In times of great stress or adversity, it's always best to keep busy, to plow your anger and your energy into something positive."  ~Lee Iacocca

Breathe: Western culture ignores intentional breathing entirely. Yet when under stress one of the body's first reactions is to have us hold our breath. We may breathe shallowly which means the body is taking in less oxygen.  A decrease in oxygen means more muscle tension which can bring on a headache or just increase the feeling of being uptight.

Breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth as you count to ten. Taking a yoga class will help you become more conscious of your breath and how it affects your body.

Exercise: One of the things we often want to do when stressed is hunker down and be still, almost as if life's stressors can't find us if we don't move. Depression may actually have you spending large amounts of time on the sofa watching TV or in bed, sleeping.  Any kind of physical activity can seem impossible or physically draining.

Fight through your natural desire not to move. Do something small to start, just a walk around the block may help. Put on your favorite music and dance. Music is a very effective mood enhancer, just don't take Elton's advice and "Turn on those sad songs." Keep it upbeat and get moving.

Nourish your body: Face down in a tub of rocky road, when the road is already rocky is not going to help you. Sugar is particularly harmful and several studies have been done linking it to stress. You aren't going to feel better about any weight you put on, you don't want to give yourself one more problem to deal with. Your self esteem doesn't need anymore hits when you are struggling. The increase in cortisol when you are under stress makes it easy to put on extra pounds.

Use food as a way to love yourself. Choose foods that have a calming effect like avocados, blueberries, cashews, dark chocolate, green tea, and oatmeal. Focus on foods that have healing properties.

Pray and meditate: Our natural reaction to stress is worry. Worry is often so consuming we sit down and focus all of our attention on it. We imagine worst case scenarios and let fear drive our thinking. At times this can become all consuming, leaving little room in our minds for rational thinking and coherent planning.

Sit quietly someplace, breathe, and pray. Accept that the God of the Universe loves you, cares about what happens to you, and has a plan for your life even if you cannot see it. The God of hope will not leave you on your own in the midst of trouble. Take comfort in knowing that you are loved. When you don't know what to pray for, pray for wisdom.

Socialize: Another negative thing we naturally do when we are overcome by stress, grief, or depression is to opt for isolation. We don't want to see anyone, and depending on what's going on, we may not want others to see us. It is very common to want to stay in, watch TV, sleep or comfort ourselves with unhealthy food.

Resist the urge to isolate yourself. You don't have to be the life of the party, but if you get invited to one you should go. Meet a friend for coffee, or plan lunch with a small group. Even social networking can be put to great use to stay connected and encouraged when you are overwhelmed by a relentless schedule. And Facebook and Twitter are great tools to facilitate organizing face time with friends.

Create: I know. You want to lie on the sofa and watch trashy reality TV or your favorite movie. You don't feel creative and depending on the amount of stress from family obligations, work, or school you may feel you have expended every ounce of mental energy you have.

Make something. Write something. Grow something. Use journaling, blogging, painting, gardening,  or decorating to express yourself. You don't need to be talented to do this. If nothing else appeals to you, create a bulletin board expressing the life you want in images from magazines. Or create one using photos of all your favorite places or people. Creativity is a great stress reliever, and keeps you from feeling that stressed time is wasted time. Plus, you'll have something to show for it.

Move forward: When the stress piles on one of the things we naturally want to do is dwell on the past, either because we regret some decisions that brought us to where we are, or we long for a time when our lives seemed less complicated.

Focus on the future. The past is gone and you can't do anything about that. If you can take some time to take an honest look at mistakes you made and how you might avoid them in the future, that's fine. So is thinking happy thoughts about good times and things that made you happy. But it is an easy place to get bogged down in negativity and regret. Think about what you are going to do from here on. Concentrate on where you are going and how you are going to get there.

Life is stressful. Modern life adds to this in a lot of ways. Most of us have fewer support systems than our ancestors, we are on information overload, and our schedules throw us one curve after another. None of that is going to magically fix itself. You are going to have to take action, eliminate some things, and add others. You are going to have to make a deliberate effort to take care of yourself. 

Just go ahead and put that at the top of your to-do-list starting today. 
There are times in everyone’s life when something constructive is born out of adversity… when things seem so bad that you’ve got to grab your fate by the shoulders and shake it. ~Anon

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Study in White

 One of the things my art class at the museum is teaching me is to observe carefully. Observation takes time. Casually looking at something, be it a piece of art, or a flower in the garden isn't the same as allowing several moments for quiet contemplation. We often look without really seeing. This moonflower was captivatingly different from 3 different angles...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fall Break on the Gulf Coast

Why I don't get sleeping in.

I know. I'm really late on getting to this...

My favorite view from my beach chair
My daughter's hands

October sunrise

The newlyweds take a break from work and school

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Danger of a Bucket List

When the movie came out the term "Bucket List" immediately made it's way into the American lexicon. Suddenly everyone has a list of things they want to accomplish and mark off before they kick the bucket. I actually had such a list written out about 15 years before the movie was released, but I think most everyone has a list of this sort, at least floating around in the back of their mind.

Here's the problem: Life isn't about scratching something off a list. In fact, the danger in seeing it that way is that the place, event, or activity may not be experienced to the fullest. Several years ago I took a trip and when I returned a friend asked it I had seen a couple of particular things. I hadn't, but I'd had a wonderful time and seen interesting different things that were enjoyable to me. Life is full of side streets and unexpected joys. It's best to stay open to those while you are on your quest. It's also full of detours and places you have arrived while the doors are locked. That's okay. Life may have unexpected treasures for you, you know nothing of.

Make sure your bucket has a hole in it. We want life to be full of exciting things. We want to sail around the world or write the great American novel. We see movies and read books about what other people are doing and we get a skewed view of our own lives. The better bucket list may include things like making little kids laugh, or volunteering at a local charity, or tutoring a struggling student. Sharing your experience and knowledge is a practical and rewarding thing to put on your list. Standing water stagnates. Keep what is in the bucket flowing in and out.

Today may have some things worth putting in the bucket. Life isn't actually made up of big moments. It mainly consists of millions of small ordinary moments, thousands of days, strung together to make a life. You don't want to spend so much time making, or dreaming about your list that you miss the simple joy of today.  When was the last time you visited a museum and sat in front of a work of art for half an hour contemplating it? You may want to add something like "See as many sunrises as possible." to your list. Too many people miss today searching for life's few big moments.

Keep filling the bucket. The thing about lists is, that we are eager to get to the end of them and feel a sense of accomplishment. As you learn and grow, the list will both shrink and expand. You may mark things off the list, not because you do them, but because you no longer need to do them. You may need to replace them with other more important or interesting things. Some of them may be released. Some of them may die. It's okay. Keep adding the new things you'd like to accomplish. Life, above everything else is a process.

Put "Keep moving forward." at the top of the list.  Here are some things that are on friends' lists: Travel to Italy, get a Ph.D., run a marathon, repair a broken relationship, write a book that will challenge status quo thinking. All of those goals have something in common. They cannot be accomplished standing still. Being a life long learner, getting and staying fit, and working on improving relationships are worthy of a spot on your list. The more you focus on forward momentum, the more you can tweak that list into something more meaningful than just a list of places to see and things to do.

A lot of things show up on these lists because of what everyone else thinks we should want to do. Your list will be unique and personal to you. It doesn't have to include skydiving or visiting the Taj Mahal. Think about what you really want to accomplish in life and let your list reflect that. Work toward making those things happen, but leave yourself lots of freedom to explore, wander, and dump out the bucket and start over. Just don't let it get rusty. You are only going this way once.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Spritual Spaces in the Public Realm

 There are a lot of places that, due to silence and inspiration, and the fact that you have to turn off your cell phone, are good for thinking. We need meditation, prayer, and the time it takes for centering one's self. That can happen not only in places of worship, but other places as well. The park, the yoga studio, and for me lately, the art museum.

I'm in training to be a docent at the Brooks Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the state of Tennessee. A two year program, the first 6 months are devoted to classes in art history, teaching styles, and public speaking. There is something soul soothing about being able to spend long periods of time observing...discussing a work of art. Taking time to quiet one's mind means that the more you look, the more you see...

 Light of the Incarnation  Carl Gutherz  1888. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

 One of my favorite pieces in the museum.  Gutherz captures majesty and an infinite number of angelic beings in this work. A heavenly celebration. This is large a piece and you feel the grandeur he was imagining in heaven contrasted with the simplicity of the place of Christ's birth.
 I love these two angels with the light on their faces and their brilliant wings.

The Slaying of Medusa, ca. 1680
Luca Giordano.

Perseus finishing off the Gorgon. I love a good hero, don't you?

Ecce Homo,ca. 1612
Bartolomeo Mandfredi, Italian.

Speaking of heroes...

                       My favorite space in the museum. Serene. Inspiring. Reverent. 


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

When To Stay Home

Well, yeah I can see where that saying about youth being wasted on the young comes from. But I wonder about the complaining travelers. Travel seems wasted on some of them.  When I returned home from my recent tour of the Baltic capitals I was standing at baggage claim next to a woman wearing an Italy t-shirt.

"I take it you are returning home from Italy."

Please notice my clever powers of observation.

"Did you LOVE it? I've been twice and cannot wait to go again! What was your favorite thing? Where did you go?  (I can get excited about travel no matter how exhausted I am.) Isn't it the most beautiful place! Did you cry when it was time to come home?"

Bags went round and round in front of us as she tried to grasp my enthusiasm.

She stared blankly at me.

"Well...you know...I just didn't really like it that much. I mean the bathroom situation...everything is so different. They are speaking a different language."

She made this last statement with a childish look of surprise.

"But surely you must have liked something..."

"You know...the food was pretty good..."

As she talked I began to be more and more interested in where my bag might be...

"...I mean, I just wouldn't go back..."

OMG OMG --I see my bag! I've never been so excited to see my bag come around on the belt before. Are these the people who are clogging up the airports and museums? People who could be just as happy with a Big Mac watching American Idol?

Where does this idea of the Ugly American come from? From the woman at baggage claim and other travelers like her.

Only Americans travel the world and expect everything to be just like home only maybe with a pyramid or the Eiffel Tower...

People. We call it Vegas.