Finding Zen in the Every Day

Here’s a little known fact about me: I’ve been ordained as a Buddhist nun.

Shocking, I know, but its true! It was way back in 1995. I spent two weeks in Sri Lanka, on an expedition led by my friend, Bhante Wimala, a Sri Lankan native, who has been a Buddhist monk since the age of three. We visited temples all over the island, reciting Sanskrit verses and giving offerings of frangipani and incense at every gilded shrine. Our journey culminated in a moving ceremony of earth-trembling chants in powerful harmony with sixty orange-robed clergy, at the end of which I and the other eleven members of the expedition became ordained as nuns and monks.

Of course, I cannot call myself a nun by any means today. I have since indulged in many a forbidden “carnal pleasure,” such as dancing (with abandon!), imbibing in an alcoholic drink (or two), and probably the biggest carnal pleasure of all, conceiving and bearing (two amazing and wonderful) children!

But I still try to bring the Buddhist teachings into my every day life. And frankly, I believe this is where the true value of the teachings of Buddha have their place. It is far easier to reach a state of Nirvana in a place where cell phones, traffic, and mortgage payments don’t exist. Where every member of the community works in harmony for the greater good, and the entire day is spent on the notion of “living in the present.” Atop a mountain where the morning sun rises gently through a layer of clouds down below…

But that isn’t the reality for the majority of the world. We can’t all just check out of life and check into a monastery whenever we feel the need to reset our stress levels. And yet, it is this very high-stress modern life we lead that would benefit the most from such a retreat. Pile on the need to navigate multiple food restrictions and struggling each day with your physical ailments, while also caring for needy children, and you become the perfect candidate for stress-induced symptoms and adrenal fatigue, which can trap you in a vicious cycle.

So I can’t stress enough the need to relieve your stress on a daily basis – even if you think you don’t have any stress!  My father is passionate about the importance of stress-relief as part of a healing routine, AND it was also emphasized many, many times at both the Autoimmune Summit and the Digestion Sessions this past week. Which is what spurred me to finally sit down and write this post on stress relief tips, a long time in the making.

We all know that gluten can cause damage to our gut and to our immune system. But did you know that so can stress?! Stress can actually cause inflammation and leaky gut just like gluten! [1] , [2], [3]. Stress comes in many forms. It can be physical, such as having to battle a chronic illness or recovering from an injury. It can be emotional, such as the loss of a family member, or psychological such as from mental abuse. Acute stress is a normal part of life and a healthy body has the ability to recover from it. It is the chronic, long-term stress that we have to worry about. While there are some supplements that help your cortisol levels (which is beyond the scope of today’s post), if you aren’t practicing regular stress-reducing activities, you will find your healing process to be much longer and more difficult.

So how do you relieve stress? Not all of us can afford to go on vacation, or even “stay-cation” all the time. And popping prescription pills may never get to the underlying causes of stress. Even medical marijuana (if its legal in your state) may not be the most practical recourse when you have to face traffic at 9 am or hungry kids at 3:30 pm. Instead we need to exercise our brain to learn how to reduce stress in times of need. This is the power of meditation.

Meditation is the exercise of freeing the superfluous thoughts in your mind. Whether it’s thoughts of hopelessness at feeling like you’ll never heal, fear of being able to handle all of life’s responsibilities, or simply pondering what you’re going to make for dinner or whether or not you responded to someone’s latest email… those thoughts are allowed to gently enter the mind, then are gently pushed away, until thoughts become clean, clear, and quiet.

There are several purposes to meditation, including:

  1. for mental escape and physical relaxation
  2. to change negative thoughts to positive ones
  3. to contemplate a specific idea or notion in order to analyze and deconstruct it

But if you’re a harried mom (or dad) with a whole lot of stress and very little time, setting aside time for quiet meditation seems nearly impossible. So what’s a stressed out girl (or guy) to do?

Start with just ten minutes a day. Everyone has ten minutes, somewhere in the day that they can carve out. Set your alarm ten minutes earlier and meditate when you rise. Meditate in your car before you enter work, or at the end of the day before your evening commute. You don’t have to sit in lotus position with your index and thumb curled together. You could simply sit in a comfortable position and let any passers-by think you are taking a ten minute rest. Which is exactly what you’re doing. You can also download a guided meditation app (I use Headspace), which not only give you gentle reminders to meditate each day, it charts your progress over time, and offers all kinds of specific types of meditation to focus on.

You need to find Zen in the every day. Meditation helps you to practice mindfulness, which is the ability to stop the internal chatter and become more present in everything that you do.  Mindfulness is often also described as being “Zen” (not that the original use of the word is an adjective!, but us Americans turn everything into adjectives. 🙂 ) There is a famous Zen proverb that says

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

The widely accepted interpretation of this proverb is that one can find enlightenment in doing life’s every day mundane tasks. Personally, I find peace in doing the dishes! I know, crazy, right? But I do a LOT of cooking since I can’t eat out much or eat processed foods. So the dishes pile up. Every day. Like it or not, they have to be dealt with. Rather than complain, I take a Zen approach and use it as my reflection time. I can contemplate my next blog post, listen to my favorite radio talk show, hum along to Bach or Radiohead on my Pandora station, or just stare off into some far away place through the window at the kitchen sink. When I catch myself returning to a negative thought over and over, I wash it away with the dirty dish water. When the dishes are done, there is a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in having a clean kitchen again. Only to be dirtied in a few short hours once more, I know… but its all part of the process – just like the Tibetan monks who create paintings out of sand, only to destroy them after they’re completed. Its all part of the transitory cycle of life.

Doing dishes is just one way for me to bring mindfulness into my every day life. Another way is exercise. Yoga is probably the best for stress relief, especially for its breathing techniques and its gentle movements. But when I have limited time, I prefer to get my sweat on quickly. My favorite meditative exercises are actually bike riding and swimming. When I’m on a bike and the wind is rushing through my hair, its just me and my thoughts while the world whizzes by. When I’m underwater, its like I’m in a completely different world altogether, and the sound of my breathing lulls me into a deep, meditative state.

But there are still other ways to bring stress-relief into your life. Laughter is one of the best ways. Certainly you’ve heard the phrase “laugher is the best medicine.” This isn’t just an old adage. There is actually some physical proof that laughter, among other things, “decreases stress hormones,… increases the immune system’s defenses, … and elevates pain and threshold tolerance.” [4] So watch your favorite comedy or have a tickle-fest with your kids. If you can’t find a reason to laugh, try laughing meditation. The brain doesn’t know if you’re faking it or not.

Fun and play are another way to free the mind and relieve stress. I try to do at least one fun thing each day, even if I only have fifteen minutes to do it. I’m currently the reigning champ of skateboarding on Wii Fit Plus, with my husband (who used to do real skate boarding as a kid) in a close 2nd, and my 7 year-old son in 3rd place. Trust me, to hold the winning title requires intense concentration, which means no stray thoughts as long as I’m on the balance board. They haven’t beat me yet!

If it’s a leisurely Sunday, I find some time to play my favorite Chopin piece on the piano, do some gardening, break out my SLR for some nature photography, or take a walk around the neighborhood. Connecting with music and connecting with nature are both good for the soul. A bubble bath or a massage are also great ways to escape, and quiet reflection can easily be incorporated into these activities.

Even if you are having the most super-active day of your week, carting kids to soccer matches, unloading groceries, making dinner, etc…. You can take just five minutes to expel bad thoughts with a forceful exhale, or recite an affirmation in the bathroom mirror (think Jack Handy ;-)). And whatever you are doing, always remember to “live in the present.” Take time each day not to think about what the future holds or how things went in the past. Instead take value in the very moment you are living in, as you breathe in and out. You know who are experts at living in the present? Kids and pets. Let them remind you how to live presently.

I know its difficult in this fast-paced world, with food sensitivities and illness piled on top. But if you are going to heal yourself, you must make stress-relief a priority in your daily routine.

Start now. Here’s one exercise you can do as you sit in traffic, fold laundry, nod off in that same old weekly staff meeting, or as you lie in your bed before falling asleep. Its called loving-kindness meditation, and its one of my favorites.

Loving-Kindess Meditation

The idea is to send loving and kind thoughts out to your circle, and just by feeling the love toward others, you start to feel warm and fuzzy inside, while also building up your karma points. You can either visualize the person in your head as you send them loving feelings, you can reflect on their positive qualities, or you can recite a mantra such as “I’m sending you love and kindness”. There are 4 steps to the process.

Step 1. Start by sending loving and kind thoughts to yourself about yourself. If you are someone who constantly berates yourself, you may have to practice this many, many times, before you are able to go on to step 2.

Step 2. Send loving and kind thoughts to the ones you love. This is usually pretty easy if you have several special people in your life, and will really escalate your positive feelings inside. Be sure to single each one out in thought.

Step 3. Send loving and kind thoughts to a “neutral” person. This would be the cashier at the grocery store, the mail person or the bus driver. Someone who doesn’t hold a special place in your heart, but is still deserving of love and kindness.

Step 4. Practice love and kindness toward an “enemy” or someone you know whom you have a troubled relationship with. This is the hardest, and if you can do this on regular basis, you should consider yourself a Zen master!

 

REFERENCES

[1] Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel SD. Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2005;1:607-28. Review.

[2] Caso, J.R.. 2008, June. The Effects of Physical and Psychological Stress on the Gastrointestinal Tract: Lessons from Animal Models. Current Molecular Medicine. Bentham Science Publishers. Bentham Science Publisher.

[3] Gareau MG, Silva MA, Perdue MH. Pathophysiological mechanisms of stress-induced intestinal damage. Curr Mol Med. 2008 Jun;8(4):274-81. Review.

[4] Mora-Ripoll R. The therapeutic value of laughter in medicine. Altern Ther Health Med. 2010 Nov-Dec;16(6):56-64. Review.

 

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