Food for Thought: Which Ones Slow Down Aging?
I am asked everyday a version of the same question: “Do you have any great anti-aging advice?” The answer is a bold YES! However, I am not a fan of the word “anti-aging” when it implies stopping aging, because as an expert in the aging process, I know for true that nothing exists which can do this, short of calling it a day and hanging with the angels. However, in my quiver are many arrows available to drastically slooooow down the aging of our minds, bodies, and spirit.
Today, I pull the arrow marked telomeres and aging as it relates to what we decide to put into our mouths. Once again, my favorite girl gang (G.G.), Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elisa Epel and their team have looked at how proper diet can strengthen and lengthen our telomeres. A little refresher to define telomere: telomeres are the protective endcaps on the threads of our DNA, like those on the tips on our favorite lace-ups, and are found in the brain, where they affect all our cognitive function, as well as in every cell of our bodies. So, they are well worth preserving in any way we can.
My G.G. looks at the three key factors affecting telomeres:
- Oxidative Stress
- Insulin Resistance
Excess weight on our bodies, and thus on telomeres, results in shorter telomeres, which allow cells to become easily damaged when reproducing. Not only does reproduction slow down but also our brains and memory can malfunction, and we experience greater cellular aging which makes us look and feel older.
A direct correlation exists between insulin resistance and diabetes, and shorter telomeres. The greater our waist-to-hip ratio is—the classic “apple” shape, with extra belly fat and love handles– the higher our insulin resistance will be. A damaging cycle forms with this situation: people with belly fat develop shorter telomeres over the years, and these shorter telomeres may worsen the insulin resistance problem. Researchers tell us abdominal fat causes more inflammation in our bodies than thigh fat. As the GG says, “The pathway from belly fat to diabetes may also be traveled via chronic inflammation.” Inflammation and telomere damage go together, one causing the other in a continual feedback loop.
Even more important than losing weight, improving one’s metabolic health keeps telomeres longer and stronger. Good metabolic health includes having ideal levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference, without using medications. How do we perk up our metabolic health? Exercise. Weight cycling, something so many of us are too familiar with—the gaining and losing of those same bloody ten pounds– shortens our precious telomeres. Blackburn and Epel also think being physically active and eating nutritious, low Glycemic Index foods are better choices than “dieting” by restricting calories. In fact, they found that “calorie restriction has no positive effect on human telomeres.”
Well, that’s good news. Not good news: A study at the University of California at San Francisco found shorter telomeres in the cells of folks who had restricted their calories for long periods of time. Even worse, the telomeres in their immune cells and vital T-cells were also affected. The findings suggest a link between our immune systems and aging. I have more to say on this important topic, so stay tuned!
Until next time…Be vibrant!
Food for Thought: Which Ones Slow Down Aging?
Did you know, when we take our first breath, there exists no difference in the length of our telomeres between those newborns sporting blue booties and those stylin’ with pink ones? Quick science lesson recap: Telomeres are the protective end caps of our chromosomes—think the plastic protective tip of your shoelace. Telomeres are found in every cell throughout our bodies. The longer and stronger our telomeres are, the higher functioning our brains and minds will be, and the less our bodies will decline and age. However, once we are all grown up, telomeres are longer in women than in men. (Sorry, fellows.)
The medical world now knows the hormone estrogen creates this disparity between the sexes. Research also reveals estrogen may regulate the number of telomeres we have, as well. Before menopause, the estrogen we produce protects women’s telomeres from shortening and keeps our telomeres strong and growing.
Interestingly, we postmenopausal women with a history of long-term hormone therapy (HRT) use show longer telomere length than do those who didn’t use hormone replacements after menopause. It seems the extra years of estrogen in our systems kept our telomeres long and strong. That information led me to ask: “For the millions of women who did use HRT, and have finished the recommended protocol of time, what do we do now?”
Drilling into the science, the answer occupying the number one position is exercise. If you have followed my posts for a while, you will be slowly nodding your head, as I have written this word once or twice before about exercise and aging ;-0
What I haven’t really focused on before is how much exercise benefits postmenopausal women as a way to slow aging. Since we lose our armor of hormone protection at menopause, because our ovaries produce most of our estrogen, we are left with our fat cells and adrenals as the only sources for this precious substance. Stress causes the adrenals to switch from making estrogen (even a smidge) to adrenalin and the enemy of all people, cortisol. This makes our chances of getting even a drop of this elixir needed for keeping our brain memory functioning at peak level, well, pretty much zero.
However, there’s good news! For the millions of women who did, and the millions who didn’t opt in for HRT, there is great hope! You may also remember when I wrote about the breakthroughs scientists had made a couple of decades ago in understanding the brain. We now know the brain grows and changes throughout our lives until we take that last breath. We call that development neuroplasticity. That means we are only in the third quarter of the game after we finish HRT, and can still bring home a win in the final one. It is looking as if exercise expands and strengthens our telomeres. More research is needed, but my favorite girl gang, those Nobel Prize winner dynamic dames, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel, the experts in telomeres and aging, would take the bet that exercise looks like the magic bullet. Even better news? Midlife men also seem to benefit from exercise, telomere-wise!
A ground-breaking study from South Korea and published in the highly respected Menopause: The Journal of the North American Menopause Society states:
“Compared with a sedentary lifestyle, long-term aerobic exercise and increasing levels of physical activity are associated with reduced telomere attrition [shortening]. This cross-sectional study demonstrated that postmenopausal women who perform habitual physical exercise have significantly longer telomere lengths than do those with sedentary lifestyles.” Straight from the horse’s, researchers, mouth, so to speak.
Compiling this information on how to slow down aging inspires me to put on my tennies this very minute and take a brisk stroll. Come join me!
Until next time….Be Vibrant!
It’s Never Too Late to Help Our Aging Brain!
A number of years ago, before I went back to school to study gerontology, I began noticing articles in a variety of publications suggesting that exercise might just be the key to unlock the door to vibrant health—mentally and physically– as we enter the second half of our lives. As I write this, we now know beyond all doubt that exercising every day is the key to dynamic aging. It will effectively disrupt aging and can stave off a vat full of health problems. In two past posts, Shake Your Booty and The Rhythm of the Drums, I explored the latest research citing dancing as one of the outstanding ways to lay down new tracks in our aging brain and grow new brain cells along with sleeker muscles.
If you ever participated in your high school’s annual musical production, or took modern dance or ballet because your mother forced you to, you will remember those students who never got the steps, and who had the grace of a spastic earwig. I confess to being one of those students. Therefore it was with no expectations, and little hope, that I signed up for tap class. The first semester wasn’t pretty, I couldn’t cotton on to this kind of dance; so different from the free-form rock and roll dancing I knew. I would sit in my car after class and cry, disheartened that the parade of life had passed me by and that, maybe, I was too old to get this. Same experience for the second and third semesters, but by the beginning of the fourth, I noticed a small but encouraging change: I could remember how to execute some of the steps after a few tries, and some days both feet would behave for most of the class. Finally, I could keep up with the routine. My teacher, Vicky, a life-long dancer near my own age, who is demanding but very kind, never gave up on me. My fellow tappers were also free of judgement and full of encouragement. The continuously positive environment was the reason I stayed, unlike years before when a ballet teacher shamed me in front of the class for being such a hopeless beginner.
Shuffle-ball-change by double-toe-tap, I improved. Some weeks it all flows, and other weeks I just give up and make up my own steps while the others tap out a perfect routine. Over time I learned to joke and laugh at my mistakes, and everyone laughed with me. I gave up trying to be perfect, and let the over-achieving aspect of L.J. take a break on the bench.
As our time together as a class has increased, everyone has lightened up, we laugh more, and have a lot of fun. Some days we follow class with lunch together. I look forward to my class each week, and miss it when summer comes. About the same time I could follow along fairly well, I noticed my mind felt clearer, a little sharper. Now, even when I am tired I think better, and my thoughts seem more organized. From my research I know the tracks I began laying in my brain two years ago have gone from resembling noodles, to ones stronger than cardboard, to pathways now as strong as wood. That’s only one step away from making permanent steel tracks. Maybe then I can get the routine down on the second or third try. At this moment, I am so grateful I didn’t give up, that I found a new form of exercise I enjoy.
And, I expanded my world with new friends who share my passion for aging vibrantly.
Until next time…Be Vibrant!
Tapping Into a Better Brain
I recently had lunch with a dear friend who is in his mid-eighties. In our many years of friendship we have covered a huge variety of topics from politics to the latest James Bond movie to the best kind of pajamas (cotton, with dog print, of course.) A couple of years ago, I noticed a shift in his thought process and responses. He is still as sharp as a Swiss Army knife, however, when we hit on a topic and I offer a counter perspective, in the past he would nod, contemplate my words and offer a considered response. Lately, he has gone from doing that to simply dismissing my opinion as irrelevant. The pitch of his dismissal has also escalated. He has developed a habit, which I see is a variation of the Socio-emotional Selectivity Theory in action: Selective Exposure Theory.
This can happen at any age, but it is a behavior often adopted by the elderly. This behavior is happening in the US in greater numbers and is becoming a growing concern for the seniors’ friends and family. More and more these seniors refuse to hear anything that defies their set beliefs, or their worldviews. Why does this really matter? It matters because it is a sign that these people no longer want to be fully engaged in the world, learn new things, or think deeply about important life/cultural issues specific to their areas of interest or expertise, as in the case of my friend who is a literary scholar.
This decision, whether conscious or unconscious, halts the intake of new information, a critical part of keeping our brains engaged, active, and challenged; all key components in opposing the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s. We become what my sweet grandmother used to call, “set in your ways.” I have said many times before, (and will again!) our bodies are “use it or lose it” cellular machines, and that is equally true for our brains, our emotional hearts, and our physical bodies. I call this behavior Locking In, and once we start to lock in, our brains in all areas, begin to atrophy. The first to falter are our memory functions followed by our higher reasoning skills. From there we start to favor re-runs of I Love Lucy and twenty-four-piece puzzles. Maybe not right away, but the die is cast.
Now for some good news! You, or a loved one can avoid the above scenario by making different choices. Remember, if you don’t like the way your life is going, you have the power to re-choose.
Here are a few ideas to engage your mind if you begin to feel the Selective Exposure Theory surfacing in your psyche or see it creeping into a loved one’s: 1) Go to a lecture/discussion group on a topic you are only mildly interested in, listen to the comments, and keep an open mind; 2) Even better, learn about something completely new that you have no prior knowledge of; 3) Listen to music other than what you prefer, and try to appreciate its value; 4) Take a break from your usual reading preference and try something different. If you like mysteries or romances, check out some historical non-fiction, true crime, or sci-fi. Then, find a friend who loves that genre and share opinions; 5) Sign up to volunteer in a field you know nothing about. (For me that would be childcare ;-))
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The goal is to challenge your brain, force yourself to think and learn about new things. Before too long, I wouldn’t be surprised if your memory is better, and you look five years younger!
Until next time…Be Vibrant!
Set in our Ways
Quarterly Blog Post Recap
April 1, 2019—What With Age Comes Wisdom Really Means
Growing older, gaining wisdom, means understanding that being right is often not as important as being kind
Stress increases our levels of cortisol, which at high levels is toxic to the brain. Regular exercise not only reverses the damage, but also improves brain and memory function and lengthens our telomeres.
April 15, 2019—Why Multi-tasking is Draining Your Brain and Memory Banks
Many things we do every day are hurting our brains more than helping, but our memory banks don’t have to stay in drawdown mode; we have the power to make generous deposits by choosing new ways of doing things that will add to our lives in every moment.
April 22, 2019—How Stress Negatively Impacts Your Memory
Lowering stress levels should be our number one priority. An overabundance of stress messes with our minds, and as we enter middle ag, our bodies don’t have the same reserves we once had to preserve brain function.
April 28, 2019—Dancing May Be the Best Aerobic Exercise to Reduce Dementia
Put on your dancing shoes at least once a week to maintain and even boost the long-term health of your brain and reverse telemetric aging.
May 6, 2019 –Please Define Gerontology
Gerontology is the all-encompassing study of aging and the problems related to aging. The practice of gerontology is both a science and an art; it’s the blending of research and education, advocacy, and care for the mid-life and beyond population. It is the study of body, mind, and spirit.
May 13, 2019—Aging In Place
Remaining at home, or as the gerontologists call it—aging in place—allows us to keep our connections to neighbors and friends, slows memory loss, and preserves our independence as long as possible. It is often more economical, too. Most of all, aging in place makes us happier!
May 20, 2019— Does Ageing Suck? Part 1
Getting older is a blend of acceptance, adherence, and attitude. Whenever we don’t like the way our lives are going, we have the power to re-choose a new life path. Often the smallest changes make the biggest difference.
June 3, 2019— Does Ageing Suck? Part 2
Everyone eventually learns that growing older is a mixed bag of mostly good times with the inevitable bad. Seeing the glass half full is at times almost impossible, but good health practices and having meaningful relationships help us survive those toughest of times.
Quarterly Blog Post Recap
June 10, 2019— Are You Out of Balance?
Keeping your balance throughout your life is an empowering –and do-able goal.
June 17, 2019— How Much Water Should I Drink? Part I
Every organ in our bodies, and every system and process of our bodies, need water to run properly. And, they all need enough water to work optimally. Drink up!
June 24, 2019— How Much Water Should I Drink? Part II
A minimum of sixty-four (64) ounces of good quality, filtered water will cover your needs, adding in a few more glasses during and after exercise, and in very hot weather. This means only water. Other liquids—iced tea, juice, coffee, or vodka– don’t count toward your total daily intake
Quarterly Blog Post Recap
The topic of water is as big as an ocean, and so to continue…
In addition to the benefits I mentioned last time, drinking enough water can help us cut calories by filling up the available space in our stomachs with this zero-calorie fluid verses, say, Orangeade™. What works with weight loss is if you choose water or a non-caloric beverage over a caloric beverage and/or eat a diet higher in water-rich foods that are healthier, more filling, and help you trim calorie intake,” says Penn State researcher and multi-published author, Barbara Rolls, PhD.
One of the most widely known benefits of drinking water is good kidney function. Poor kidney function can cause all kinds of problems, including kidney stones. One in twenty of us will suffer from kidney stones in our lifetime, and the scale tips toward seniors as those who will suffer the most. Why? Because as we age, our thirst dial gets turned down and we are less able to register the need for water, so it becomes doubly important for us mid-lifers and seniors to consciously adopt the habit of drinking enough water. Dr. Barry Poppins at UNC Chapel Hill found that even after seniors were in dehydration, they were less thirsty and drank less replenishing fluids that did the younger folks in the study. Even when offered yummy drinks, the seniors in the study failed to drink enough to fully hydrate themselves. They had to choose to drink enough.
You may have read or heard about the connection between delirium/dementia and seniors. To stay on point here about the benefits of hydration for seniors, let me just say seniors are sometimes misdiagnosed as suffering from dementia, when in fact they are suffering from delirium—delirium being a serious disturbance in their cognitive abilities that results in confused thinking and a reduced awareness of their surroundings. A possible cause for the delirium? You guessed it, not enough water. Another strong connection with not drinking enough water is an increased expression of Bronchopulmonary Disorders like asthma and other bronchial issues when people, especially seniors, are dehydrated and exercise. These folks need to be sure to drink adequate amounts of water to prevent an episode when they raise their heart rate.
Lastly, do you want your skin to feel and look younger? Drink enough water. Dehydration makes older skin look even drier and more wrinkled–a state improved overnight by drinking enough water to be properly hydrated. It can’t erase wrinkles, dang it, but softer more supple skin when glowing from being properly hydrated does make those laugh lines look positively endearing.
So the ten million dollar question on the front burner of your brain: How much water should I drink in a day? The answer varies according to a few factors, but a minimum of sixty-four (64) ounces of good quality, filtered water will cover your needs, adding in a few more glasses during and after exercise, and in very hot weather—like Texas in July and August. This means only water. Other liquids—iced tea, juice, coffee, or vodka– don’t count toward your total daily intake. Those are just extra.
I started with a little cup with a dial on it as my way in, but there are now new-fangled ounce-and-cup- counting vessels all over the market. Choose the one that appeals to you and buy two—one for the office and one for home. Your brain, your heart, and your parched skin will thank you for it. We can beat dehydration in old age and move toward being vibrant just by drinking water—and it’s calorie free!
Until next time…Be Vibrant!
How Much Water Should I Drink a Day? Part II
My mother wasn’t a water drinker, and so I wasn’t a water drinker until I was in my late twenties when I first read about the benefits of good hydration and the importance of staying hydrated for healthy aging. It took a while for me to add this habit into my life. I used to have an eight-ounce cup with a dial, and each time I drank a full cup of water I got to turn the dial to the next opening. It somehow made it easier, and a little more fun to chug down those glasses. Now, thirty-plus years later, it comes naturally. What’s more, I can feel the effects of dehydration when I don’t get enough water. Here is the really, really terrific news about drinking water: the effects are virtually immediate, and the positive feelings (which I will discuss in more detail) you will experience become accessible anytime you fill your body with this life-enhancing elixir. Now that’s pretty great in my book.
Our science lesson for today: Think back to high school biology class for a moment, where we learned that our bodies are made up of 60% water, our brains and hearts are 73% water and our lungs 83% water. Every organ in our bodies, and every system and process of our bodies, require water to run properly. And, they all need enough water to work optimally. Some of the most important functions of proper hydration include our digestion, circulation of our blood, the transportation of nutrients in and out of our cells, removal of toxins and waste from our organs and cells, and maintaining our body’s temperature. Whew, and that’s just the short list! Without enough water our body downshifts into crisis mode, causing stress to all parts, inside and out.
Without enough water, our cells can’t stay balanced (with the correct amount of fluid) and so electrolytes (a substance present in all our bodily fluids) can’t do their job effectively. Electrolytes are needed for all nerve reactions—in our muscles and…you guessed it, our brain. According to research, an electrolyte imbalance can cause a variety of negative symptoms, some potentially deadly. Fatigue after only limited activity is a sign of dehydration; the muscles don’t perform as well, and cramping may occur. This is especially crucial for folks who exercise regularly, and/or do so in a warm climate.
Brain fog and mental confusion are also triggers that tell us our bodies need more water. Remember when you drank too much alcohol at your niece’s wedding? The headache and foggy thinking you felt the next day were due to dehydration from choosing to replace your water intake with gin and tonics. 😉 In a large study published in Nutrition Review in 2010, researchers found that a steady practice of denying your brain the water it needs can speed up the development of dementia. They also discovered being even mildly dehydrated causes mood fluctuations, difficulty in maintaining concentration, and influences the short-term memory process in all people regardless of their ages. It seems no one is immune. Running on empty, water-wise, impairs higher brain functions we use in math calculations. Insufficient water also affects the use of fine motor skills—think sewing or silver-smithing, as well as our eye-hand coordination needed to fold laundry, put on make-up, or write a letter (in the olden days, that is). Again, filling our internal tanks will alleviate most of these difficulties in double-quick fashion, so drink up!
I have more to say about this important topic so stay tuned, and…
Until next time… Be Vibrant!
How Much Water Should I Drink a Day? Part I
Until I pass on into the next world, I want to be independent and mobile; if I can prevent it, no wheelchairs or rocking chairs for me. I’m sure you feel the same, right? I have covered many aspects of aging which will help us stay out of those kind of chairs, and maintain our ability to get out of our favorite chair. Today, we will look at one more: Keeping and improving our balance. So if you are in your fifties reading this, you might thing, “well, that’s not something I need to worry about now,” but, au contraire, the research shows balance begins to slow down in our fifties and continues declining unless we stop and reverse this tendency.
First, let’s breakdown all the elements contributing to our ability to get out of a chair with ease and walk down the sidewalk in high heels without ending up in the street, embarrassed and bloody. Balance is actually a complex whole-body exercise. Your science lesson for the day: balance requires your sensory systems, your brain, and your muscles and joints to work together. Our sensory system is made up of our eyes, ears and sense of touch. Our eyes tell us where we are in relation to other objects, and if these objects are still or moving; our inner ear has tiny hairs and tiny nerves which work together to tell our brains the position of our head, and like the rudder of a boat or airplane, the hairs and nerves are constantly trying to right the ship and keep it in perfect alignment to the earth, standing still or in motion. Additionally, small crystals of calcium inside our ears help us sense the pull of the earth-gravity, and recognize movement. No small tasks for such fine hairs! Our feet and joints let us know if we are on even ground or moving across rough terrain, and our brain takes all this in and sends messages to our cerebral cortex. We then understand all this input as “Watch out, it’s dark and the path is angled and covered with loose rocks!”
The worst part of taking a fall when we are over sixty comes more from the psychological toll than the physical one: the fear of falling. Suddenly, we might start limiting what we do—traveling, going out to unfamiliar places, resisting new experiences, all because we might fall. That wheelchair or rocking chair now starts looking positively inviting. STOP HERE! Do not past GO and collect your $200 to use on one of these. There is good news, and it is this: falling is NOT a normal part of aging. You have the power and the ability to keep your balance until the day the angels take you away, but you must, like all things, work on it to keep. Thankfully relief from the fear is as close as your YMCA/YWCA, gym, or rec center. Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese practice of slow, meditative movements done in a particular sequence ranks as one of the most effective practices to enhance or restore balance. It also works great on lowering your stress and cortisol so you will live longer to dance with your favorite partner. Additionally, yoga is an outstanding practice for shoring up balance, there is even a one-footed balancing pose to get right to it!
Outside of organized classes there are some very effective daily practices we can incorporate to help us be fall-free:
- Try heel-to-toe walking as if you were on a balance beam like an Olympic gymnast
- Sit on an exercise ball to strengthen your core and practice getting up without holding on to anything or toppling over
- Exercise on a wobble board or Boscu ™ ball (one of those half balls nailed to a flat board
- Practice standing on one foot while you brush your teeth—left in the morning, right one at night.
All of the above should be done once your doctor has given you the go-ahead and ruled out any serious inner ear disorders, Parkinson’s, diabetes and/or certain medications which might affect balance.
Keeping our balance throughout our lives is such an empowering, and doable thing one wonders why we don’t all work on it every day. What might be stopping you?
Until next time…..Be Vibrant!
Are You Out of Balance?
Such a potent and controversial topic requires at least two posts to even begin to discuss how the process of getting older can affect us. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the feelings of comfort and ease my husband and I experience while walking George on the same streets we have covered for almost three decades. I know almost all my neighbors—except for those who landed here in the last few years. Those warm, familiar feelings only come with the passage of time, which is the same arc of time in which we get older. These are feelings I wouldn’t give away.
Decades-long friendships of sharing every success, failure, bad haircut, and yucky boyfriend are experiences I would never trade. The richness of those moments comes from living them. Watching family wee ones being born and then go off to college and down the aisle are priceless joy. The amount of data I hold in my brain, three distinct careers worth, could only be acquired from spending the time learning it. Now I get the chance to share it with the world. Lucky me! To me, half a lifetime of wonderful— and some not so hot—memories with my sweet husband is so worth getting older just to have those experiences in my memory bank.
My looks aren’t as snappy as they once were, looser has replaced tight, and there are other obvious signs of aging. White is growing in with the blonde; bikinis and sleeveless dresses, things of the past. Yet, I have learned grace under pressure, forgiveness in the face of severe harshness and unfair treatment. I now know how to take a longer view of things and really consider the other person’s world before I pop off my mouth. I also know there is more sand in the bottom of my hourglass than in the top, and that makes me hungry to go and do everything I can, to learn everything I can, and embrace every delicious/fun/exciting moment presented to me. I could never have known these things at twenty-seven or even forty-two.
It takes time for the cloak of age to gently enfold us. And, admittedly, it’s sometimes not an easy path, even for an incurable optimist like me, to accept the changes we must make if we are to thrive in this last third of our lives. Depression, illness, the inevitable loss of those we love, and our never-realized hopes and dreams all work against this acceptance. At times life hands us too much to handle alone. The good news is the older I get the lass I care about things that once made me anxious or stressed in my younger years. I know now if we have worked to keep our bodies and minds the best they can be through good health practices and meaningful relationships, surviving those toughest of times only add to the gifts we can share with others: wisdom, acceptance, and abiding love.
Until next time, be vibrant!
Does Aging Suck? Part II
As I was researching for this week’s discussion, I found an old Chinese proverb I thought beautifully sums up last’s week’s post on stress and feelings of control. It says, “Eight out of nine things that happen to us do not match our expectations.” How true, and the response we often have is to feel stressed about those eight things. I wonder, did the author of that truism mean eight or nine times in a day, a week, a year, or a lifetime? In my world, it would be eight in a day, and that would be a light day. I think this saying begs the question, then what do we do about it? Ahhh, the perfect segue into this week’s topic: the benefits of finding quiet contemplation time, or time for meditation.
A train car full of research confirms the immediate, and long term benefits of sitting quietly in silence and letting go of conscious thinking—the planning, reasoning, problem-solving type thinking–and instead bringing your mind and thoughts to focus on a single thought: “I am at peace,” “Let it all go,” “I am fine,” “I am safe,” “I have enough,” “I am well,” or any special phrase you find comforting. You can also think of nothing in particular, and let whatever thoughts that come to you flow by as if you are sitting on the banks of a river watching it babble along. You simply observe your thoughts as they float by. There is no right or wrong way to practice being quiet, it’s whatever works for you. The key here is to stay unattached to the thoughts, letting them go instead of grabbing on to them and going down some rabbit hole of thinking the next thought about the first thought, then a second one about the first one, then a third, and on and on, until you are right back in your busy mind.
From a recent article, I would like to offer the words of one of the world’s most respected experts and teachers, and one of my favorites, Pema Chödrön. I appreciate her writings especially because she was reared on a New Jersey farm, attended Sarah Lawrence College, married, had two children, lived and worked as a wife and mother in the real world decades before she became a fully ordained Buddhist nun and teacher. She has walked the walk we are all walking.
“One of the most effective means for working with that [stressful] moment when we see the gathering storm of our habitual mind is the practice of pausing, or creating a gap.
If you take some time to formally practice meditation, perhaps in the early morning, there is a lot of silence and space. Meditation practice itself is a way to create gaps. Every time you realize you are thinking and you let your thoughts go, you are creating a gap. Every time the breath goes out, you are creating a gap. You may not always experience it that way, but the basic meditation instruction is designed to be full of gaps. If you don’t fill up your practice time with your discursive mind, with your worrying and obsessing and all that kind of thing… caught up in the work you have to do that day, the projects you haven’t finished from the day before… caught up in busy mind, caught up in hesitation or fear, depression or discouragement. In other words, you’ve gone into your cocoon.
If you don’t fill up your practice [with busy mind] you have time to experience the blessing of your surroundings. You can just sit there quietly. Then maybe silence will dawn on you. Or maybe not. Maybe you are already….If you connect with… the stillness… maybe that feeling can stay with you and you can go into your day with it. Whatever it is you are doing… the expansiveness, the stillness, stays with you. When you are in touch with that larger environment, it can cut through your cocoon mentality.
On the other hand, I know from personal experience how strong the habitual mind is. The discursive mind, the busy, worried, caught-up, spaced-out mind, is powerful. That’s all the more reason to do the most important thing — to realize what a strong opportunity every day is, (the emphasis is mine) and how easy it is to waste it. If you don’t allow your mind to open and to connect with where you are, with the immediacy of your experience, you could easily become completely submerged. You could be completely caught up and distracted by the details of your life, from the moment you get up in the morning until you fall asleep at night.
You get so caught up in the content of your life, the minutiae that make up a day, so self-absorbed in the big project you have to do, that… the stillness, and the vastness escape you. You never emerge from your cocoon, except for when there’s a noise that’s so loud you can’t help but notice it, or something shocks you, or captures your eye, and you say, ‘Wow’.”
I quoted Pema because she hits the mark so beautifully. I don’t think most of us want to live this second half of our lives in a cocoon, but so often we find our feet stuck in the minutiae, our minds in the jet stream. Instead, please try this: In the coming week, take fifteen minutes in the early morning or late afternoon, find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and sit comfortably. Close or lower your eyes below center and focus on a single, comforting thought. Notice how you feel. We will continue this discussion next week.
Until next time…Be Vibrant!