Monthly Archives: May 2012

Heart’s Ease

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From distress to destress

Where do we find our heart’s ease?  How do we cope with emotional distress?  What do we do to help ourselves when life gets challenging?  I find that when I can keep my heart open to joy, I have the emotional resiliency to carry me through life’s difficult transitions.

I interviewed for a job earlier this week, and it went well.  Nerves don’t bother me in such situations.  I’m friendly and open by default. I have spent much of my adult life trying to cultivate an attitude of emotional equilibrium which helps me keep my cool in stressful situations.  However, I’ve had to work hard to maintain that equilibrium in the post-interview waiting stage.  With so much riding on the outcome of an interview, the waiting can be excruciating.  These are the day to day opportunities for growth that I try to be grateful for.

I’ve always found waiting for important news difficult.  As a teenager in high school, I used to audition for solos in choir and for parts in the plays and musicals.  I was still developing emotional self-control at that age, so I was a bit more nervous during auditions, but it was nothing compared to the all-consuming distraction of waiting for the call back list to go up.  I had a hard time putting my mind on other things, and would be anxious and distracted for days until the outcome was known.  Once I got the news, good or bad, I was fine again.  It was the waiting that killed me.

So it is still for me today, even after decades of meditation and self-development under my belt.  I have gotten much better at being naturally confident in auditions or interviews, but I still am driven to distraction while waiting for the outcome.  But while my idle mind still returns again and again to the thought “Will I get it?”, I have at least learned of a few effective strategies to engage my mind in worthier directions.

Here’s what doesn’t work: sitting by a phone waiting for it to ring.  Now, I don’t have a cell phone that I use for business purposes, so if I get a professional call, it’s at home.  This makes it far easier for me to walk away  from the phone, both as an object and what that object symbolizes.  As long as I’m at home, every innocent ring makes my heart leap into my throat, and my mind buzz like a kicked hornet’s nest.  I can’t find peace in a state of hypervigilance.  But by getting away from the reminder of my discomfort, I’m better able to place my attention and my emotional energy on other things.

A very effective strategy is to find ways to be helpful or useful to the world.  I actively look for opportunities to do good deeds.  If you’ve ever volunteered your time, you likely have experienced the special kind of joy that comes from helping a worthy cause.  Selfless giving opens the heart and aligns it with a greater good. There are a million little pieces of unhappiness and suffering in the world.  Relieve a piece of that for another, big or small, and your own heart is rewarded with the very act of doing it.  It’s impossible to stay stuck in emotional distress while simultaneously experiencing the joy of selfless giving.  An open heart finds sympathetic ease when easing the distress of another.

So yesterday, to ease my distraction by a phone that didn’t ring, I looked for ways to be of use to the world.  I saw a friend in emotional distress over the grave illness of a loved one, so I offered to visit with her and help her create a custom essential oil blend that could support her emotionally in this difficult time.  I blend oils for myself to give me support in similar situations, so I was hoping to offer this friend a gesture of solace that might also provide her with a real tool to help her through this time of sadness and transition.

We chose six oils whose properties are associated with decreasing anxiety, fear, and stress: Patchouli, Cedarwood, Lavender, Melissa, Bergamot, and Cypress.  Patchouli is good for steadying the mind when overthinking and worry develop.  Cedarwood can give us strength in times of crisis, and support emotional resiliency. Lavender is rightly renowned for its ability to calm and sooth frayed nerves. Melissa can provide relief from anxious depression, while Bergamot clarifies and uplifts the mind.  Cypress helps convey a feeling of emotional cohesion, and supports our ability to cope with change, particularly with the transition of death.  When I was done with the blend, my friend was left with a custom perfume that can give her something to focus on when stress becomes overwhelming, and I was left with the heart’s ease that comes from supporting a friend in need.  And of course, I was also exposed to a therapeutic qualities of these oils as I was blending them, so it helped us both  find a bit of strength together.  That’s what friends are for.

It doesn’t do us any good to stay trapped in difficult emotional states.  Whether unhappy with some piece of our lives, or distressed about events outside of our control, staying stuck in those emotions isn’t healthy.  I think it’s important to find ways out of negative emotional states into more peaceful, joyful states of being.  This is an important part of my search for samadhi.  I seek liberation from the chains of emotional distress.   In those times when I am able to achieve emotional equilibrium, I find an infinite pool of joy waiting to offer its endless abundance.  I haven’t been able to achieve a perpetual state of bliss, and maybe I never will, but that is where I become a buddha.  No matter where I am, that is my destination, my heart’s ease.

“Better do a good deed near at home than go far away to burn incense.” – Chinese Proverb

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Drum Therapy

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LATE BREAKING NEWS: Drum Circles Cure Common Cold!

These are some of the drums I bring to my monthly drum circle.

But like any miraculous headline, there’s a catch.  In my case, the effect lasted only so long as I was actually drumming.  Once the drum circle ended and I was packing up the drums to go home, all of the symptoms of my heavy head cold returned.  But while we were playing last night, it was a surprising miracle.  It was such a noticeable difference that the other members of the group remarked on the change in me. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised.  Research supports the idea that drumming truly is a healing art.

Mostly I drum for the sheer joy it brings me.  Rhythm touches something deep inside of me, and affects me in ways not usually so dramatically noticeable.  Drumming relieves tension, stress, anxiety, fear, anger – the entire range of emotional states that leaves people tied in knots.  For me, at least, it’s impossible to hold onto these states while drumming.  I may start drumming from that place, but the rhythm lifts me out of that emotional state and transports me to a stronger, calmer, more genuine state of relaxation.  Relaxation doesn’t always mean calm – I’m usually energized by the practice, but it relaxes and unwinds all of the emotions that have me wound up.  And when you clear that away, what is left is a natural feeling of well-being and joy.

Necessary Context: I’m something of a science geek.  I enjoy reading the latest research findings from a diverse range of fields of study.  I like looking for connections between these domains, in search of my own unified theory of the universe. A lofty ambition perhaps, but really, aren’t we all in search of greater understanding and unity of meaning?  So I subscribe to science newsletters, and try to give attention to the front lines of research.  I’m no expert, but I try to stay informed.

Scientists have been studying the healing effects of drumming from a number of different angles.  One of the most interesting to me are the effects that drumming has on the brain.  As you may be aware, the activity of our brains can be measured in brain waves with devices such as an EEG (Electroencephalography).  Electrodes are attached to the scalp which measure the electrical activity of the neurons firing in the brain.

(Aside:  isn’t that COOL?)

Through EEG studies, we learn that there are different brain wave patterns associated with different states of consciousness, both awake and sleeping, and the stages in between.  When we are awake and focusing our attention, our brains produce beta waves.  By immersing ourselves in highly structured rhythmic environments such as drum circles, our brain waves begin to align with the rhythms in a process known as entrainment, which alters brain waves in measurable ways.

(Again, COOL!)

Alpha waves bring us to a state of deep relaxation, where creativity is unleashed.  This state can be achieved in the brains of drummers fairly easily and quickly.  It produces feelings of euphoria and well-being.  As the drumming persists, the brain can shift gears again, and produce theta waves.  Theta waves are associated with a deep meditative trance state where a doorway to the dreaming mind is opened. Insight and inspiration are often found in this state of mind.  Drumming is a key that opens the door to these states of consciousness.

But wait!  There’s more! (I apologize for the excessive use of exclamation marks, but I really find it quite difficult to curb my enthusiasm when it comes to this subject.)

The effects of drumming extend beyond their influence on brain waves.  In addition to producing a measurable relaxation effect, drumming also releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that act as natural opiates which relieve pain and produce natural feelings of euphoria.  Recent promising research also shows that drumming boosts the immune system, helping the body produce more killer cells that work to combat everything from viruses to serious illnesses such as cancer.  Cortisol, the stress hormone suspected as the root cause of many diseases, also decreases measurably while drumming.  Our entire biological response seems to get a tune-up when we immerse ourselves in highly rhythmic environments.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that I should feel so fantastic while I was drumming last night.  I went to the drum circle feeling generally miserable, chained to my box of tissues, and desiring little more than to crawl into bed.  But drumming lifted me out of that entirely, creating a state of energy, joy, and euphoria that lasted even after the drumming stopped and my nose resumed it’s dripping.  It’s no wonder why I’m such an enthusiastic ambassador for the drum.  Next time, come join me.

For a well-cited overview of Drum Therapy, see http://healing.about.com/od/drums/a/drumtherapy.htm
Another nice summary can be found at http://www.shamanswell.org/shaman/powerful-healing-benefits-drumming-circle
To find a drum circle near you, visit http://www.drumcircles.net/circlelist.html 

What I Love

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What an interesting challenge, introducing myself to the world. It’s a bit like trying to bring a stranger up to speed on a movie that is halfway over without interrupting the show. I don’t want to tell you every single thing about myself – you probably don’t care, and I have no interest in full disclosure, valuing the privacy of my life as the sacred space where my most genuine living happens. But I’m not just writing for myself here. A blog is a public space. This is for you.

I’m writing here because I have something to share with the world, and, as a writing teacher, I know that context matters. We understand things more deeply when we have an appropriate context. Since this is a public blog from a personal perspective, you’ll get more out of it if you have some sense of who I am.

But how do I appropriately contextualize my life for you without this becoming an autobiography?

Perhaps that is one of the questions I will gradually explore in this space. But in the meanwhile, you, my gentle blog readers, will each be starting from different places and spaces. Perhaps you know me in real life. Perhaps these are the first of my thoughts to ever touch yours. Regardless of whether or not someone feels they know me, and for how long, each person sees me in his or her own individual context. Each of you necessarily sees me through your own filters, and constructs an understanding of who I am based more on your own experiences of life than on what I might really be like on the inside.

I accept all these premises. I am not who you think I am, and never will be. Your picture of me will always be a sketch, an interpretation. My goal is not to share my whole life with you, although some details of living my life will undoubtedly spill through. But here you will get snapshots of my journey as I move through the world with an attitude of exploration, in perpetual search for meaning.

So here’s a piece of necessary context: I write poetry. Now, as an English teacher, I’m very well aware that most people who just read that sentence had some degree of negative response. I understand, really I do, how few people appreciate poetry. It’s okay. I’m not offended, and I won’t try to convince you to love poetry – at least not today.

But here’s the thing: although my poetry is written in English, it’s useful to think of poetry as almost a different language entirely. At least, if you’re not a fan of poetry, it might help to think of it like a foreign language. I’m a native speaker. You all will have differing degrees of fluency. But I think in poetry, and always have, and when I speak, I have spent a lifetime learning to translate my thoughts from my native poetry into prose. But here, I won’t always do that. Sometimes the original thought – expressed in poetic form – is going to be what lands on this page. If you’re not a fan of poetry, I beg your indulgence. Most of them aren’t long. Bear with me.

This one tracks the direction of my thoughts as I was reading some poetry over my morning cup of coffee this morning. It’s what inspired today’s blog post. I offer it as is without further comment, but absolutely welcome your comments and discussion here and everywhere on this blog.

What I Love

I know enough of poetry to know
What I love, what moves
The sluggish blood of my heart
Coagulating in the cold of life

A silver cable of words connected
To a sudden jolt that revives
That vivid appreciation …
I’m alive, I’m capable

Of love and more love and I have another day
To love again.

Gong Bath

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The sound of the gongs are tuned to the frequencies of the planets, creating the “Music of the Spheres”

As a drummer, I’m keenly aware of the effect that sound vibrations can have on a person physically and psychologically.  I can physically feel the vibrations of drums resonating in my body when I play, and I have observed the psychological uplift typically experienced by people immersed in the rhythmic environments of drum circles.  So when I had the opportunity to experience a special “Gong Bath,” I couldn’t resist.

Conducted by Universal Sounds of Saratoga Springs, NY using a wide range of singing bowls and planetary gongs, participants are immersed in a rich vibrational soundscape. Based on the premise that all matter has a vibrational frequency, they believe this resonant gong bath will help people retune themselves to find harmony.  They are called Planetary Gongs because each one is tuned to the vibrational frequency of each planet, as calculated by Swiss mathematician and musicologist Hans Cousto.  When played together, the air throbs with the music of the spheres.

It was a beautiful spring morning.  I arrived at the Hindu Temple with my yoga gear and an attitude of hopefulness.   I have been managing heavy stress loads lately, and I hoped this experience would help me hit the mental and emotional “reset” button.  Although I normally have a regular yoga practice to rely on in difficult times, my practice had evaporated over the past month, leaving me stiff and shaky on many levels.  My meditation practice has had to double down to compensate, but my internal resources were stretched too thinly. This special event was a yoga class followed by a gong bath, and I was equally looking forward to both.

The event was held in a large carpeted room with a stage running the length of the far wall.  Approximately 50 people had pre-registered, but I saw many walk-ins register at the door.  The room easily accommodated all of our mats without feeling too crowded.  I unrolled my mat, wrapped my blanket around me, anointed my chakras with essential oils that support meditation, and settled myself in to wait for the class to begin.

We began with a yoga class led by Jim Whiting, a Kripalu Yoga instructor from Body Mind Spirit Yoga in Delmar, NY.  Suitable for all levels, the practice consisted of gentle stretches that left us grounded and open for what was to come.  After a brief break to allow people to get settled and comfortable, the gong bath began.

I was laying down with an eye bag over my eyes when the sound began, and I had an immediate experience of synesthesia where  I perceived sound as color. I was quite surprised by the psychedelic light show that appeared against the inside of my eyelids as the gongs began to resonate.  It was a bit like Fantasia; each time a gong was struck, a different splash of color would appear in my mind’s eye, rippling out wider as the sound of the gong spread.  I was surprised by this experience simply because it seemed so unexpectedly cliché, and it happened so immediately.  This synesthesia only lasted a few minutes, but I found it fascinating.  But as the gongs began to overlap and the sounds became more layered, I became untethered in ways that are difficult to describe.

As the gong bath began, our only instruction was to get comfortable, stay present and immerse ourselves in sound.  As a seasoned meditator, “stay present” means something very specific.  Our minds all have the tendency to jump around from thought to thought.  We spend much of our thinking lives either dwelling on past events or thinking/planning/scheming/worrying over future events.  To be focused entirely on the here and now is a meditation practice precisely because we do it so rarely we NEED to practice.  For after all, life only really happens here and now.  We miss the richness of many experiences because we are mentally checked out.  Staying present is at the heart of Mindfulness Meditation techniques.  Just about any activity can be done mindfully, with focused awareness.  I’m not perfect at this, and my success varies according to my internal landscape, but I’m generally able to put aside distracting thoughts and focus on one thing attentively, especially if it’s something as lush and interesting as the rich soundscape of gongs that was making the whole room vibrate.

And yet, I could not.  As much as I returned my attention again and again to the sound of the gongs, as each wave of sound washed over me, I was swept away again and again.  Images arose, disconnected and unfathomable.  I saw a strange bearded man eating peanuts.  I saw a friend in a wedding dress. I saw fragments of images that never held still long enough to identify.  It was very much like a dream, yet I was very aware of and observant of this experience.  Interesting visual phenomenon replaced the color splashes of the synesthesia; the images in my mind wavered and spun, brightened and dimmed, shattered and reformed.  I was completely unable to bring any kind of mental discipline to the idea of staying present.  I was swept away.

I eventually sat up so I could hear and feel the sound of the gongs completely surround me.  There was a very physical sensation associated with the vibrations.  There were at least eight large gongs, and the sound was palpable.  An hour flew by in what seemed like only a few minutes.  Gradually the sounds tapered off, and there was silence.

I have had experiences that left me feeling charged and energized, but surprisingly, this wasn’t one of them.  What I mostly felt was emptied. I could clearly feel a residual sensation of vibration throughout my body, but it didn’t leave me bursting with new energy like I had expected.  Instead, I tapped a pool of exhaustion I didn’t know I had in me.  I went home and slept like the dead for two hours, an extremely rare event for me unless I’m ill.  As I explored this after-effect, I believe this result is because the gong bath actually did what I was hoping for.  I’ve been too tightly wound up for too long, and this gong bath managed to unravel that tight knot of tension.  The nap was my body’s response to my spirit unknotting.

It was a beautiful experience; one that I will seek out again.

Becoming Buddha

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On the one hand, as a meditation teacher, I have a certain amount of professional interest in staying grounded, focused, and peaceful.  Live your practice, right?  On the other hand, as a human very much involved with living in the world, I often struggle with staying present in the face of challenges.  That’s why we call meditation a “practice”. 

I was extraordinarily fortunate to have been taught meditation techniques as a toddler, so the practice has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember.  I sometimes wonder what I would be like without this experience.  I believe I have a great deal of emotional control, and I credit my meditation practice.  I don’t usually get easily flustered or overwhelmed in crisis situations.  When swept up in an emotional storm, I can find my way to the eye of it fairly quickly and re-establish equilibrium.  I can examine myself and my life situation from a place of compassion.  I forgive easily.  I love widely.

I meditate because I feel better when I do it.  I feel calmer, more grounded, more open to the world and my place in it.  I often get a clearer understanding of my own inner workings, and return from meditation inspired and refreshed.  Seeking that experience had been my only goal for decades, until I learned something that inspired me to greater heights.  As the ultimate meditator, I had always admired and revered Buddha, and so it was a great revelation to learn that Buddha wasn’t his name, but a title.  He wasn’t Mr. Buddha, he was A buddha: THE Buddha.  It was a description, a job title…and that meant I could be a buddha too.  Maybe I don’t need to meditate under a Bodhi Tree for 49 days to achieve this state of enlightenment, but what excited me was the idea that this state of ultimate enlightenment was available to me.  I could be an enlightened buddha.  Me.  Really.  Keep practicing.  So I do.

So I meditate for short-term and long-term results.  In my day-to-day life, it helps to keep the monsters in my closet.  In the long-term, I strive for Samadhi, a state of enlightenment.  I’ve always believed that we were born to this earth to learn and grow.  Meditation allows me to grow toward greater peace and fulfillment.

I keep practicing because I’m not there yet. Life still throws curve balls.  I still get caught up in the barbed nets of fear, anxiety, anger, and frustrations.  But meditation gives me the tools to escape from these nets, however briefly.  Hopefully one day I’ll manage to escape those nets entirely.  That’s the freedom I seek through meditation.

Blue Lotus Love

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yoga lake

The very first oil blend I ever created for myself had Lotus essential oil in it. That was seven years ago, and my love for this haunting ethereal aroma endures. I was first drawn to blending essential oils because I was fascinated by the emotional and spiritual potential of these potent substances. As a dedicated yoga practitioner, I actively seek the union of body, mind, and spirit, so essential oils are one of the means I employ. Because the Lotus is a symbol of enlightenment, it was one of the first oils I wanted to try.

I’ve experimented with White, Pink, and Blue Lotus, both full strength and in 10% dilution. Each one of these oils is subtly different in aroma, but all have a similar effect on the mind and spirit. Much as I expected to find from this sacred flower, Lotus brings serenity and tranquility, and supports a state of relaxed awareness, making it the ideal addition to a meditation blend. In fact, this first blend I made for myself was specifically designed to support my meditation practice, and I named the blend “Samadhi”, the yogic word that describes the final meditative state of bliss. For a blend with this high aspiration, I knew it had to contain Lotus.

Recently, my favorite supplier of essential oils, Marge Clark of Nature’s Gift, sourced a very special treat: Blue Lotus Infusion. When I first heard about how this oil was made, I knew I had to have a sample of an oil that was made with such painstaking dedication. As explained by Marge, “The producer [uses] equal amounts of pure Jojoba oil and fresh Blue Lotus blossoms. Seal, cover, allow to stand overnight. Drain off the jojoba, discarding the spent blossom, and add freshly picked blossoms to the Jojoba. Continue this process for 25 days. At the end of this period one is left with the most marvelously sweetly scented Blue Lotus infusion.” I knew I had to try it.

It was love at first sniff. Regular Lotus essential oil can be difficult to love undiluted. It has a deep, sharp undertone that frequently masks the more delicate floral notes it contains. Lotus is a water-borne plant. It roots in the mud, but floats upon the water. It really likes to be diluted to lift the more subtle notes out of the oil. On the other hand, the floral notes are so subtle that other oils can easily subdue it, making it a difficult note to elevate in a blend. But this Blue Lotus Infusion was different. It was bliss straight out of the bottle.

Knowing it was diffused in a skin-safe jojoba, I dabbed a drop on my wrist as soon as I could pull my nose out of the bottle. I was eager to see how it reacted to my skin chemistry, since some florals seem to fall flat on my skin. Blue Lotus Infusion held up beautifully, so I immediately filled my essendulum (a wearable sample bottle) so I could have this on hand throughout the day. Rarely have I ever fallen so in love with an oil, but this one was definitely just what I needed.

I lead a weekly meditation class, so of course I began using this oil in conjunction with meditation sessions. It is such a beautiful oil that it inspired a new meditation blend. I have been using it as an antidote to anxiety, grounding me in a time of great difficulty. It focuses my awareness on the present and brings peace when I let worry overtake me. It centers my mind and steadies my spirit. I call this blend Blue Dawn because it evokes the same sense of peace and optimism.

Blue Dawn:
4 parts Blue Lotus Infusion
2 parts Jasmine grandiflora 10%
1 part Patchouli
Equal parts frac. Coconut oil

As a devoted Jasmine lover, I usually prefer the Sambac variety, which has a richer, heavier floral than the grandiflora. I chose the lighter grandiflora here so that it wouldn’t overcome the sweetly delicate Lotus. The Patchouli is needed to ground this heady mixture, acting both as a perfume base as well as an emotional base. But be careful: a little Patchouli goes a long way; even diluted against the Lotus and Jasmine, people were able to detect the Patchouli immediately in this blend. But what a winning combination! I have been using this blend nearly every day as emotional support during a difficult and anxious time. Just pulling the stopper and taking a deep breath is enough to ground me and reconnect to the present.

This blend has been a true gift to me. I believe we are drawn towards oils that help us heal on whatever level needs healing. If we allow our intuition to inform our noses, we will be attracted to the oils we need most. Blue Lotus Infusion has become a powerful tool in my quest for serenity and peace.

Namaste.

(A copy of this article first appeared on the blog of Nature’s Gift on 26 April 2012. http://naturesgiftaromatherapy.blogspot.com/2012/04/blue-lotus-love.html I wholeheartedly endorse this company without any hesitation or reservation.  It’s ethically run by real people who care a lot about what they do.  If you are interested in essential oils, this is where you should get them.  And no, this is not a paid endorsement)