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Shifting our Inner Conversation

Monkey-Mind:

You know that voice in your head that is always chattering away? The one that is usually telling you something is wrong? Or will go wrong. Or that you aren’t good enough in some way? Or that your house, car, job, boss, spouse, family, or life situation are somehow bad or in the wrong, or not enough, or too much? You know what I’m talking about; we all have it.

Lately, I am finding it increasingly important to address my “monkey-mind” (as the Buddhists call it, referring to its restless and uncontrollable quality), and get real about all the unhelpful bull-pucky that it spews on a regular basis. I am convinced that being aware of the incessant blithering in our heads, and consciously shifting our inner conversation, is vital for finding contentment and furthering health on many levels. Yes, you heard that right – the ceaseless chatterbox in our minds is likely negatively impacting our health.

This is because that mental conversation has a subconsciously programmed “default” setting to focus on something we think is wrong, something we DO NOT want. To put it succinctly, it is complaining.

This inner complaining is the biggest source of the stress that we feel. We all have stressful events and situations in our lives; but it is the monkey-mind constantly regurgitating the negative thoughts and feelings about those situations that perpetuates and compounds our experience of stress.

Plus, it actually creates more to complain about. It is self-perpetuating. Take this example…

It is 2 am.  You woke up and can’t get back to sleep:

What do you do? You tune in to your monkey-mind complaints…

“…darn it…why am I awake… I have to get up at 6…of all the days this week, tomorrow is my earliest day…why did it have to be tonight…this is so unfair…I have such a busy day tomorrow … maybe I have too many blankets on …what time is it no…how much sleep time have I lost…this is so frustrating….”

Does this sound familiar? What am I focused on here? That I can’t sleep and how awful it is that I can’t sleep. I’m thinking about what I DO NOT want. In no way is it helpful. In fact, the big irony is that listening to the monkey-mind complain is actually keeping me awake!

Once I become aware of my mental complaining, and its uselessness, then I can consciously choose to focus on something else: perhaps some soft music, the sound of the cat purring, or my own breath; and this is when I can fall asleep easily.

The Law of Attraction:

Much has been written about the Law of Attraction recently. It says that we attract into our experience that which we think about most, be it good or bad.  And, that the more emotionally charged those thoughts are (again, good or bad) the stronger the attraction of that situation into our lives. (If you are not versed in the Law of Attraction, do a Google search; it is very interesting.)

Most often the Law of Attraction is described as a phenomenon of subconscious or even spiritual manifestation.

Whether or not you subscribe to the spiritual aspect of the Law of Attraction, the fact remains that negative thoughts produce very tangible stress chemicals in the body which invite mayhem; wreaking havoc on every system of our physical bodies, making us more susceptible to pain, inflammation, dysfunction and illness, and doing nothing good for our mental & emotional state.

In addition, these stress chemicals and negative emotions trigger reactive behaviors in us that further harm our physical bodies and mental outlook.

How about another example…

Feeling Fat:

Ladies, how many of you are not happy with what you see in the mirror?  Most of us have very negative monkey-mind, complaints about our bodies.

When you look in the mirror, what is your mental conversation? Are you grateful for this AMAZING, living, breathing, moving body which is a miracle of science and engineering, with all of its automatic chemical messaging, electrically pulsing, fluid pumping, cell dividing, self-healing, energy producing, idea forming, memory recalling, fact learning, emotion feeling, offspring making and tissue building functions?

Are you in awe of this mind-blowingly complicated masterpiece of life, forged of water, earth and air, which has the ability to sense, react to, affect and interact with its environment and with other living beings, providing us a vehicle through which to appreciate the beauty around us?

Or do you think your thighs are too fat?

And, when you are thinking about how fat your thighs are, do you feel inspired to treat this incredible, dynamic, body-mind-spirit complex with love, nourishing food, fresh air, adequate rest and movement that feels good and energizing? Or do you feel badly about your body? What happens when we feel badly about our bodies? We feel compelled to wash down a bag of Cheetos and a box of Cinnabons with a 2 liter of Diet Coke, while lounging on the couch watching Netflix.

So now, along with the stress hormones, our arteries are pumping with high levels of trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar, artificial chemical additives, saturated fats, sodium, and preservatives, all of which increase inflammation and oxidative damage to our organs and tissues. Not to mention, we’ve made our thighs even bigger! We have created more of what we DO NOT want by listening to and reacting to our monkey-mind.

A Perpetuating Cycle:

Of course, there are countless other examples of reacting to the inner blithering that leads to many other dangerous (even illicit) behaviors, in an attempt to escape the bad feelings that our own thoughts have created. Addictions of all sorts often have their roots here: alcoholism, substance dependency, food addiction, sex addiction, and adrenaline-rush seeking.* Even behaviors that seem healthy to the casual observer could be taken to unhealthy extremes when used to escape the monkey-mind.

These escapism behaviors, though they provide a temporary respite, simply reinforce the bad feelings. It is a vicious feedback cycle that we all get stuck in to some degree or another. The more we are caught in this perpetuating loop, the more it saps our energy, vitality and sense of wellbeing.

Can we Stop the Monkey-Mind’s Complaints?

It is nearly impossible to stop thinking about something. For instance, if I say, “Don’t think about a lion wearing a Santa hat,” what comes to mind? A lion wearing a Santa hat, of course. Our suggestible subconscious minds do not acknowledge the words “no”, “not”, “don’t”, “won’t”, “never” and “shouldn’t.” So, telling our monkey-minds to stop complaining is ineffective. Typically we end up just complaining about our complaining. Instead, we need to shift our focus to something else: something positive that we DO want.

Several years ago I purchased a series of hypnotherapy CD’s. The set included CD’s for weight loss, insomnia, success at work, etc. After the initial relaxation exercise on the weight loss CD, the therapist started making simple statements aimed at shifting the subconscious thoughts and reactions about food:

“My body drops excess weight effortlessly”…“I eat only when I am hungry”… “It feels good to exercise daily”… “I do not overeat”…

…WAIT…WHAT??  Did he really just say, “I do not overeat.”? The subconscious mind doesn’t understand “not” so the focus of that statement is overeating, which is something that we DO NOT want. He should have said, “I eat only until I am pleasantly satisfied,” changing the focus to something that we DO want. I turned off the CD and never listened to any others in the series.

Having a Say in the Matter:

There are a large number of disciplines that we can use to alter our inner conversation. They may be referred to as “stress-relieving” practices because they refocus our minds away from the source of the majority of our stress, our monkey-minds. This creates a shift in our mental attitude and emotional state, releasing us, at least for a time, from the perpetuating feedback cycle discussed earlier. These practices allow our bodies a break from the assault of our stress hormones and unhealthy escapism behaviors.

These stress-relieving practices include, but are not limited to: hypnotherapy, certain forms of talk therapy, focused breathing, spiritual dancing/singing/chanting, guided relaxation, prayer, gratitude practice, meditation, and yoga. Many of these have been around for millennia, and are still practiced by people the world over.

These practices don’t directly address the monkey-mind. Instead, they redirect our focus elsewhere by using one or more of the following techniques:

  1. Making a conscious effort to focus on something we DO want (as in hypnotherapy’s simple, positive statements, certain forms of talk therapy, a request prayer, or creating a new possibility for our lives),
  2. Making a conscious effort to focus on something we are grateful for (as in a gratitude practice, certain forms of talk therapy, or a thankful prayer),
  3. Making a conscious effort to focus on something other than words (such as our breath, the rhythmic movements of a dance, or the resonance of sound in a song, chant or instrument.)

How do these practices differ from escapism behaviors? Escapism behaviors are automatic reactions to the monkey-mind. There is no conscious thought as to why we are doing them, and what long-term effect they are having. Nor are they truly reducing the amount of stress we are imparting upon our bodies and minds. We don’t feel a sense of inner peace or contentment afterward; in most cases, we actually feel worse.

In contrast, stress-reducing practices require conscious effort to refocus the mind away from indulging in and reacting to the monkey-mind. Plus, every one of these techniques has been proven to have beneficial effects on physical and mental health. And, after the practice, we feel a sense of peace, calm and tranquility.

Some Great Options:

Journal-writing can be quite helpful to work through inner chatter, as long as you then shift into writing/thinking about what you DO want, how you might go about creating that in your life, and perhaps even what you are grateful for. Gratitude shuts down the negativity of the monkey-mind very quickly.

Prayer is a powerful stress-reliever, and can produce even more inner peace and health benefits if you omit the words “no”, “don’t”, “won’t”, and “not” from any requests, keeping all statements simple and positive. Again, expressing gratitude is wonderful here as well.

Meditation is also amazing. The difficulty in meditation for most people is that they try to think about nothing, and all they hear is the monkey-mind. Instead, try focusing on something specific. For example: imagine a beautiful rose. Picture its every detail: the lines and folds of each petal, the colors, the scents, the soft, velvety feeling. Imagine it with as much detail as you can muster. That is a simple meditation; it takes your focus off of the incessant chatter.

If you have a smartphone or tablet, do a search for meditation apps.  Some of these can be quite helpful.

Yoga is my favorite practice lately. My body always feels great after practice, and the focus on the Ujjayi breath (or “ocean breathing”) is effective to quell the inner blithering. My experience of yoga can be summed up by my new favorite yoga shirt which says “Awareness, Consciousness, Harmony,” reminding me to have Awareness of my monkey-mind, to Consciously redirect my focus, and to enjoy the resulting inner Harmony.

Practice, Practice, Practice:

All of these stress-relieving disciplines require conscious effort to practice in order to reduce the impact of our monkey-mind. Of course, the chattering will pop in during your practice; so, as soon as you become aware of it, without judgement, simply redirect your focus back to your practice.

This is why it is called a practice! The more we do it, the easier it becomes. And the more often we practice, the more benefits we receive to our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

As we approach the bustle of the Holiday Season, I encourage you to take time to practice some of these techniques. Even just a few minutes a day can make a world of difference in how you feel. Give yourself this wonderful gift.

Dawn Balusik, AP, DOM

*If you are suffering with an addiction, it would behoove you to seek the appropriate professional help.

Reflections, New Perspectives and Wishes for 2013

I just returned from an unexpected trip to New Mexico to help a good friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer. When I lived in New Mexico, over 10 years ago, this friend was a sister to me, and her parents my family. So, when the news arrived of her diagnosis, and that she could use some assistance following abdominal surgery, I wanted to be there to help in her day-to-day care, to be a moral support, and to share with her the information I have learned over the last 3 years regarding diet and lifestyle for cancer care.

Much time was spent happily preparing organic, vegan meals for her and her boyfriend, while listening to jazz on Pandora, cleaning out her kitchen cupboards of expired or unhealthy foods, preparing her Chinese herbs, driving her to various medical appointments, taking advantage of a bit of energy she had to go shopping when she felt stir crazy, catching up with each other’s life events, watching comedies together (laughter is healing!) or educating the family on the merits of a whole food, organic, vegan diet, especially for bodies fighting cancer.

But, in the quiet moments, I did a lot of reflecting.

Simply being in New Mexico, a place that is dear to my heart, provokes introspection, as does being away from my everyday life for a week.  These were compounded by this time of year – winter holidays – which always trigger reflection for me.  And to further deepen this contemplation, of course, was my friend’s diagnosis.

I thought about her, our friendship, what she meant to me over the years that our lives were intertwined, and the years that have passed since then; the ways in which she helped me to grow and develop as a person; my ever expanding appreciation of the incredible person that she is; and the profoundly difficult journey she is now required to make.

I also found myself contemplating what it means to have a cancer diagnosis. How it instantly asks you to scrutinize your priorities; life looks wholly different when you must make your healing your number one daily priority. And when, at age 35, you realize all of your plans now must be put on hold, and may never be the same.

She is doing an amazing job of staying optimistic and positive, for which she has every reason, since her type of cancer usually responds very well to treatment. While I cannot speak for what my friend is finding during her own introspective moments,  I can say that some questions are standing out for me:

What if I were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow? What would I change about my present life? And why? And, perhaps more importantly, why would I need to have cancer to re-evaluate my priorities and make changes? I think these are worthwhile questions for all of us to consider.

As a rule, my friend has always been a great teacher for me, simply by her own example. My pondering of these question found her life to be, yet again, a great teacher:

Friendships.  I was struck by the number of visitors that my friend had during the week. She has cultivated so many beautiful friendships with people who brought meals, groceries, gift cards, flowers, hugs, smiles, laughs, babies, moral support and love. I was floored, pleased, and a bit envious of the community she has built around her. This was in stark contrast to my life: though I know many people, I only have a few close friends, and those I rarely see. My life is very busy, I work a lot, and I’m an introvert, which means I need alone time to recharge. So I don’t find much time for socializing, making new friendships, or deepening existing ones. If I had cancer, would this change?

Being in Nature.  One reason for my love of New Mexico is the mountains and the desert. It is difficult to explain, but this landscape feeds my spirit in a way that no place else yet has. When I lived there, I could go to the mountains whenever I needed to reconnect – with my own center, with universal love, with God – to gain a higher perspective on my life. The mountains and their view over the valley “fill my cup” so to speak.

I’ve not yet found a place in Florida that does this for me as powerfully. But, I have now resolved to try. It must become a priority to find the natural places near home that feed my spirit. It is when my cup is full that I am the happiest, at my best, and the most effective in my contribution to others.

Having Fun.  Again, my friend is a teacher for me. She and her boyfriend partake in many activities they find enjoyable, completely outside of their jobs: taking and teaching dance classes, renovating their house, running a booth at a consignment store of mid-century furniture and décor (and shopping for items with which to stock it), looking at houses for sale, traveling around the world, making and selling beaded jewelry, hosting parties and entertaining at their home. These things bring them obvious pleasure.

While I will probably never take on as many different activities as they have, I certainly feel an obvious lack of enjoyable activities in my life, for too much time and energy spent working. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy my work, I do. But one needs to create balance in life. It is time to reconnect with “play” and find those activities that bring me joy.

Focus on Health.  Like most healthcare providers, I am not as good about taking care of my own health as I should be. While I eat a healthy vegan diet, get regular acupuncture and massage, and take herbs, which keeps me feeling good, there are things that could be improved: I often eat sugar when I am stressed, I don’t always get enough sleep or drink enough water or exercise enough, and sometimes I rely too heavily on caffeine.

During my stay in New Mexico, my friend treated me to a massage from a deep-tissue therapist with whom she works. It was amazing and very intense. I knew I needed the deep work, so I let myself breathe, laugh, grimace, resist, release and sob through it. I felt completely emptied out afterward, like a wet washcloth that had been wrung dry.

The therapist encouraged me to continue to get deep tissue work, reminding me of the importance of releasing emotions that get trapped in body tissues (“cellular memories”). I was already familiar with this concept: it is not uncommon for patients to shed some tears or experience emotion during or after their acupuncture treatment.

But this reminder had me wonder about my friend and her cancer. Was there an emotional component to the development of her cancer? There exists research that says many cancers are diagnosed or develop shortly after an emotionally traumatic event in the person’s life. It is an important possibility to explore, and it underscores the need for routinely releasing emotions in a healthy way as another aspect of health care.

Being Present.  A short time ago, I read a quote on Facebook that says something to the effect of:  if you are depressed, you are living in the past; if you are anxious, you are living in the future; it is only in the present moment that you can experience true peace, contentment and joy. Since reading that, I’ve been “trying on” this bit of simple insight in my life.

Every time I feel melancholy or blue, I examine my thoughts, and they are, in fact, dwelling on times or events that have passed and in some way wishing for their return, in order to experience them again, or change something that happened. And when I feel nervous my thoughts are on something that hasn’t happened yet – something I must do, haven’t completed, or am fearful might happen. And, usually, when the actual event does occur (if it does), it was not worth all the worry and anxiety that I created around it.

But, when I get present – become aware of my surroundings, see what is around, listen to sounds around me, sniff for any aromas, feel the temperature of the air, notice the position of my body, and how it is feeling right now – it has an immediate calming effect.

I am beginning to realize that this moment is no less magical than any of those times in the past for which I am longing. And, it is in being present that I am able to enjoy myself. I notice that I have the most fun when I am completely present, and not giving in to the “hamster wheel” that my mind can spin ad nauseum. It certainly takes practice, but it seems that being in the present moment is giving myself permission to be happy.

Gratitude.  As an extension of the previous point, I find that being present is the only place from which to notice all the wonderful people, situations and things in my life, that I could be grateful for. I think that gratitude is a powerful agent of healing on many levels and is important to make into a daily practice.

Love.  Lastly, I notice that when a crisis is going on, like serious illness, that I appreciate people more. I become less self-conscious about telling my friends and family that I love them. When something makes me stop long enough to remember that we all have a finite amount of time here together, it becomes more important to let others know they are loved and appreciated. Why wait until something major is happening?

So, once again, I thank my friend for being a great teacher. Life is a canvas of many colors, textures, shadows, lights, connections, and puzzle pieces, and she always seems to help me gain a new perspective on it. She is an amazing person; I am very grateful for her, I love her deeply, and I wish for her a speedy recovery and profound healing.

May your 2013 be full of friends, fun, experiences that “fill your cup”,  good health, happiness, gratitude and love.

Dawn Balusik

The Medicine of Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is certainly one of my favorite holidays.  In most of our day-to-day lives we are striving to do/be/have more.  Thanksgiving asks us to stop and look from a different perspective, to reflect on what we have, what we’ve been given, what we’ve created and become, and most importantly, who we have in our lives, and to acknowledge those blessings.

In our modern Western culture, most of our holidays revolve around giving things, but this one is about giving thanks.  How refreshing!  Gratitude is its own gift that we can give ourselves and our loved ones.

It has always seemed to me that those who maintain grateful attitudes are happier and healthier.  In fact, there is research that proves this.  Dr. Robert Emmons is a professor at U.C. Davis.  In 2007 he published a book called Thanks!: How the new Science of Gratitude can make you Happier.  In it, he summarizes several research studies demonstrating that those participants who kept a daily gratitude journal reported feeling better about their lives, more optimistic toward the future (which, by the way, contributes to stronger immune system), as well as fewer health problems.  They also reported sleeping deeper and longer, and feeling more refreshed in the morning.

Emmons says that grateful people tend to take better care of themselves by eating healthier and getting more exercise.

Studies have also shown that regular “counting of one’s blessings”  is beneficial for those with neuromuscular diseases (such as post-polio syndrome), and it has a protective effect from heart attacks.  It also is wonderfully helpful in the management of daily stress, which, in fact, is a cause or major contributor to many of our common health problems.  Even when life is difficult, or tragedy strikes, there is something we can be grateful for, and in fact, this is probably the most important time to acknowledge these blessings.

Use this Thanksgiving as a reminder to cultivate an ongoing attitude of gratitude, as part of your health and happiness regimen.

Dawn Balusik, AP, DOM
727-475-4710