Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Loving Kindness Meditation for Self Care

In the yoga and mindfulness world, there is a particular type of meditation referred to as “Loving Kindness,” or “Metta.”

It is a mediation practice that is rooted in compassion and love, and is usually guided by a script.  It asks you to send intentions of peace, safety, health, and love toward an individual, a group of people, or the entire human race or the universe.

 It is a wonderful practice that I have begun to implement into my own personal life, as well as into my work with caregivers. Part of why this resonates with me and the people I work with, is because this type of meditation taps into the light that we each have within, and sends that light and compassion out into the world.

This is something that as caregivers, we all intimately know.  It taps into the warmth and light that we know can be so nourishing and necessary in this world when we activate that towards others. But what about activating that towars ourselves?

In our work with self care, I like to start with visualizing a person you are caring for. (Keep in mind that if you care for multiple people, the first person who comes to mind is usually the exact person who should. )

As you visualize this person, repeat the following intentions silently to yourself with your eyes closed:

May you be free from inner and outer harm and danger.
May you be safe and protected.
May you be free of mental suffering or distress.
May you be happy.
May you be free of physical pain and suffering.
May you be healthy and strong.
May you be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.

Next, think of a person whom you is very dear to you. It might be a family member, it may be your child, or a grandparent figure. Who is it that comes to mind when you think of love and warmth and closeness? The first person who appears to you is usually the perfect one.
As you visualize this person, send the intentions silently:

May you be free from inner and outer harm and danger.
May you be safe and protected.
May you be free of mental suffering or distress.
May you be happy.
May you be free of physical pain and suffering.
May you be healthy and strong.
May you be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.

For the last phase, I want you to hold onto those feelings and now visualize yourself. Speak directly to your own heart as you send those same, loving intentions to yourself.

May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger.
May I be safe and protected.
May I be free of mental suffering or distress.
May I be happy.
May I be free of physical pain and suffering.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.

Sit with that for a few minutes, and see how you feel. Afterward, it is interesting to ask yourself:

-        How was that last set of intentions?

-          Was it easier for you to send love and light to another person you love than it was to send that same wish for love to yourself?

If the answer is yes, you are not alone.

For so many of us, especially women, we have no problem seeing others as being worthy and deserving of safety, health, and love. We sacrifice our own well-being if it means making sure someone else feels that sense of safety and love. Yet, when it comes to ourselves, this concept may even feel foreign.

Traditionally, this meditation is done by sending the intention to yourself first, followed by expanding the intention outward to specific individuals, and ultimately to the universe.

But in a self care practice, I find that focusing on someone who is dear to you first activates those feelings of compassion that caregivers easily access toward others, making it a bit easier and perhaps more powerful when we shift that light onto ourselves.

To all of you caregivers, who give tirelessly day-in and day-out, consider taking a few moments today to spread some loving kindness to yourself.

If you are interested in reading more about loving kindness meditation, "Loving Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness," By Sharon Salzberg is highly recommended!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Random Acts of Kindness as Part of Your Self Care

It's funny how sometimes you notice themes that keep popping up in your life. For me, over the past few weeks I have read about, seen, and experienced random acts of kindness happening, and it got me thinking.

One of these things was a a "random acts of kindness" challenge posted by many friends on Facebook. The post says to leave a comment with "I'm in," and the person who posted the comment will randomly send you a gift or do something nice for you in the upcoming weeks- the only request is that you also post the challenge and pay it forward to others.

Then yesterday, as I was listening to one of my favorite talk radio shows, the woman featured on the program began speaking of a recent study that came out about the correlation between performing random acts of kindness, and boosts in self esteem of the person who performs the acts. At the heart of the study is the confirmation that we gain pleasure and feel better about ourselves when we know that we have helped others.

Now I didn't necessarily need to hear the results of a formal study to confirm this for me. I generally feel a deep calling to spend my life in ways that will positively impact others- but the fact that lately this theme of random acts of kindness keeps coming up for me, got me thinking about random acts of kindness as part of self care.

So I want to share some of my favorite RAOK with you, and see if you would share some of yours.

One of my favorites is leaving a dollar with a sticky note on it in a magazine in a waiting room of a dentist or doctor's office, or somewhere people may be waiting with anxiety or fear. On the sticky note, I write a short little note, something like, "This is meant for you, please take it and have a wonderful day!" The note makes it known to the person that it is there to take, that someone left it on purpose, and they were the lucky one to find it. Its such a small act, but it could really make someone's day.

Another favorite, is to send a text to someone who may come to mind, someone you know is going through a difficult time, or maybe even someone you haven't spoken to in a long time. Send them a text that says, "Thinking about you and sending love," or something simple to that effect.  You would be amazed how many times the person will write back, thanking you and exclaiming how much they needed to hear that in that moment.

I tend to go to a lot of events for my job. I find that when it is an event that has a catering staff, seeking out one of the servers at the end of the night to thank them for their wonderful service solicits the most surprised and grateful responses. Caterers are trained to work under the radar, so as not to distract guests from the speakers or performances going on during the meal. The servers are often ignored or treated rudely, and rarely are they thanked by the guests- because honestly the best ones are the ones you hardly notice. So a simple acknowledgement of how hard they worked that night, a simple thank you, and an acknowledgement of their existence and service can go such a long way! I never regret the extra minute it takes at the end of the night to find someone to say this to.

One story that the woman on the radio program shared, had a similar theme. She spoke about how one day at the check out line in the grocery store, she looked up at the cashier and noticed that she was elderly. She said to her, "It must be so hard to have to stand all day." And the woman's eyes actually filled with tears, and she said, "Thank yo so much for saying that. I really need this job to pay my bills, but I am getting older and it is very hard for me to be on my feet for a whole shift. Some days I don't know how I will make it through, but I have never had anyone notice before. Thank you." That moment of connection made both women feel validated and just a little bit better.

Even though the point of these acts is to make others feel better, the truth is, they make the giver feel good. (After all, isn't that why many of us choose to be caregivers in the first place?!) The next time you find yourself having a difficult day, or overwhelmed by your responsibilities as a caregiver, try out one of these simple random acts of kindness- even if you feel like you have nothing left to give- and I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the positive impact it has on your mood, your self esteem, and your feeling of connection with the good in the world.

Leave a comment and share some of your favorite random acts of kindness!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Importance of Rituals in Self Care

I recently attended a workshop by the amazing and inspiring author, Thomas Moore. He was speaking in relation to his newest book "A Religion of One's Own: a guide to creating a personal spirituality in a secular world."  Even though he spoke about his purposeful decision to use the word 'religion' in the title, I found myself wishing he had not done so, because the use of 'religion' may turn people off who might otherwise enjoy and connect with his message.

Moore's major point in the book is that we can all create our own "spiritual practice," whatever that may look like. His central theme was that we can individually create practices that speak to our heart, and help us find balance and peace, emotionally and spiritually. For me, I understand this in a context of creating self care rituals.

A part of making this work for you is finding rituals that you can incorporate into your practical life. Rituals can be part of the traditional religious experience, such as attending church or participating in the formal sacraments, as in the Catholic tradition. But more importantly, they can be really ANYTHING that nurtures you and your heart, and helps you find connection and balance.

Rituals can be daily, weekly, annual, or once-in-awhile activities. If it speaks to you, if it forms connections with others or your surroundings, and gives you peace, it should be considered part of your self care rituals. Something as simple as meeting a friend for coffee at your favorite coffee shop once a month can be a ritual that nurtures you. It could be attending an annual baseball game with family or friends.

I know for me, when I enter Fenway Park, I feel energized and excited in a way that not many other places make me feel. That park is a sacred place to me, and attending an annual game with people I love is one of my most valued rituals, and I consider it part of my self care.

For many people, sports-related activities have a true ritualistic nature. Think about the guys and girls that get together every Sunday for food and football. Or others who meet up on the golf course. It is a communal gathering that has traditions and rules, and can ignite a spark inside us that we may rarely find in other activities.

 A daily ritual for  me is attending yoga class after work. For me, knowing that I will be able to attend a class that will nurture my body and mind, helps me get through the day-- even when it has been full of draining tasks.  Attending this ritual also helps me to transition from work to home life. It allows me permission to observe myself without judgement, and helps me to let go of feelings of guilt or sorrow that I could not have done more to help someone that day. When I leave that yoga class, I feel more centered and am less harsh on myself for the things I wish I could have done better that day.  I leave it there, and am able to be more present for the rest of my evening.

Having a morning ritual is a wonderful way to start your day. It doesn't have to be intricate or take a lot of time, either. A friend of mine describes her morning ritual as taking the few minutes when she is waiting for her tea water to boil, to sit in silence and just breathe. When the tea kettle begins to whistle, she pours her tea and drinks that in silence while she reads the newspaper. This is very simple, but for her, having that consistent start to her day, can make all the difference.

Connecting with nature can also be a part of your rituals. Hiking a certain path through the woods, or walking down the beach are forms of self care rituals. Incorporating mindfulness into your time with nature can also help you find peace and grounding, and appreciation of the beauty all around us, even on days when your world may feel harsh and small.

Growing up, my siblings and father and I would hike a local hill called Lantern Hill every Columbus Day weekend.  Looking back, I realize this was a special ritual that we shared. It was the time of year when the leaves had changed to the bright golds, reds, and yellows of a New England fall. We would hike to the top and look out, taking in the beauty of the New England foliage all around us. For me it was a bittersweet ritual about taking in nature's beauty, but also saying good-bye to the leaves that were about to fall, and preparing for the transition to winter. For someone who does not enjoy the cold dark winter season, there was something very comforting about knowing that we would be back to do it again next year.

What do your rituals look like? You may already be doing some of these things, but never thought about it in this context of self care rituals.  Are there more things that you can purposefully engage in on a regular basis to improve your self care?  Take a few minutes to think about one ritual you can add to your repertoire, or one you can continue doing in a purposeful way to help take care of you.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Creating a 'Practical Mindfulness Practice'

As caregivers, the central theme that we all share is that we put others' needs before our own-- which is the main reason why purposefully choosing to engage in self care is so important for all of us. 

When we embrace the role of a caregiver- whether it be as a part of a profession or part of a role as family member or friend- we commit to giving of ourselves. We may give our emotional support, our spiritual support, or we may need to literally give of our physical strength to hold someone up, to carry them, or to restrain them from hurting themselves or others.  All of these forms of giving take a toll on our own spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being.  And on top of that, take up A LOT of our time.

This is why it can be so difficult for so many of us to envision how we can possibly make time to take care of ourselves throughout our busy days.  My message to you today is this: it IS possible to practice small acts of self care. It is just about figuring out how to fit it into your daily life, in a practical way. You CAN create your own "practical practice." I recommend starting with a mindfulness practice.

While there are many definitions of mindfulness, my favorite is from the mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat Zinn. He describes mindfulness as, "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." 

If you are not familiar with the practice, I suggest searching YouTube for guided meditations by Jon Kabat Zinn or Thích Nhất Hạnh. These are two amazing mentors who will guide you through the basics of the practice. 

Mindfulness asks you to slow down, to pay attention to your breath, and to observe yourself without judgment.   For caregivers, who feel like we barely have time to think about anything else but the needs of others, it may sound daunting, or even impossible, to find the time to meditate or practice mindfulness. BUT- the best part of mindfulness, is that you can practice it pretty much anytime and anywhere.

Once you have a general understanding of mindfulness, and have practiced it a little bit, you will find that you can practice mindfulness in walking, eating, even in sitting at a red light, or answering a ringing phone.  Thích Nhất Hạnh suggests using a red light like a meditation bell. Instead of being frustrated that the light is stopping you from getting where you are going, you can learn to actually love the red light in this moment (this may sound impossible, I know!). 

When you begin to look at the world through a lens of observation and awareness, it will become possible for you to make the shift from wanting to curse the red light, to thanking that red light for giving you the opportunity to stop for a moment. In this new awareness, you may look at the light as the universe giving you permission to slow down, even for just a few seconds. The light is giving you the opportunity to take some time to nourish your body and mind with your breath, to become present, and to clear your mind of any judgmental thoughts that are not serving you. You may find that when the light turns green, you feel a little more calm and centered, instead of more stressed and frustrated.

Another practical way to introduce mindfulness into your busy day, is to use the ringing of the phone. The sound of a phone ringing can often be stress-inducing for caregivers, especially if you are caring for a loved one who is ill, or if you are on-call for crisis situations at work. The sound of that ringing can trigger anxiety and dread for what bad news may be at the other end of the call. The challenge here, is to use that ringing, similar to the red light, as a signal to slow down, to take some breaths, and to become present in the current moment.  

In the Buddhist tradition, it is recommended that we build a mindfulness community with people who can share and encourage your practice. So for this phone exercise, have a conversation with the community of people who may be calling you with caregiving-related news. Make an agreement that at both ends of the phone call, you will each take three rings to breath deeply and become present before the conversation begins.  In those few moments, when you are both separated but listening to the same ringing, you become connected in mindfulness practice. 

Then, when you do pick up the phone, the conversation will come from a place of presence and non-judgment that otherwise may not have been possible. Even if there is difficult news to hear on the other end of that ringing, the connection and presence you bring to the moment will allow you to respond with compassion instead of react out of fear. 

This shift can be powerful on a physical and emotional level. Shifting from responding out of presence and compassion, instead of reacting from fear and anxiety, can protect our hearts and nervous systems from the rush of adrenaline that comes from anticipating the worst. Any time that we can reduce the body's fight or flight response, by changing stress triggers into mindfulness reminders, we reduce physical levels of stress in our bodies.  In doing this, we are performing small acts of self love that will help us sustain our emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, so that we can show up as our best selves for those we are caring for.

"When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there"
          - Thích Nhất Hạnh

Happy Practicing!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

For your Own Safety

On my recent flight back from Haiti, I found myself tuning out the flight attendant's "in case of an emergency" speech before take-off. But the speech came back to my attention when I heard the familiar line, "For your own safety, be sure to secure your own oxygen mask before securing that of the person sitting next to you."

"Self care." I thought.

The analogy is simple. Airlines asks that passengers  (especially mothers traveling with children) secure their own oxygen before they assist the person sitting next to them, so that they will have the oxygen necessary to sustain them through helping their neighbor. If mothers were to tend to their children and ignore their own needs, there is a good chance that the mothers would suffocate before they could help their child, and neither party would have a chance.

Following those instructions seems to make sense logically, but think about how difficult it would really be in that moment to take the time to save yourself when you know your child is suffering right in front of you. Would you really be able to make the choice to help yourself? It takes a conscious decision to do what's best in the long term, so that you both can survive.

This is completely relevant to self care. It is easy to put the needs of the people you are taking care of above your own. You give so much of your limited time and energy to your caregiving role, that sometimes when you stop and look around, you can't breathe.

Women, especially, have a difficult time putting their own needs before others. We feel guilty, or we don't think there is enough time in the day to set aside time for ourselves. But if you think about it in terms of the flight attendant's instructions, taking care of yourself is not only recommended, its required.

If it is important enough for airlines to remind travelers on every flight about the policy, and it is the training that they requires all employees follow, then there must be something to it, right?

The take away point is this: If you feel guilty about taking time out to do something for yourself-- to ground yourself, to release stress, recharge your batteries, or recenter your spirit-- then don't.

I know this is easier said than done, but the truth is, it is the only way that we will survive in the long run. It is the only chance we have at being present, compassionate, effective caregivers for any measurable amount of time. Without making self care a priority that we accept as general policy in our lives, there is a good chance we will damage ourselves to the point of having no chance to help anyone else, because we can't breathe.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer Rejuvenation

Summer (especially in New England) is the best time of year for self care in my opinion. Here are some of my favorite self care activities for the summer months.:

- Gardening
Spring and summer are wonderful times to utilize gardening as a self care tool. Taking care of something other than the people you are caring for, can be soothing, healing even. If you are a caregiver, then nurturing is in your nature. Tending to flowers provides a satisfying outlet where you can nurture something in to life and bloom, without some of the major stressors you may find in your work caring for human beings.  The best part about flowers is that they respond to your care, and the don't talk back to you! There is no complaining, there is no suffering to face and sit with (unless you slack off in your watering duties perhaps :-).

Because gardening produces a beautiful, tangible outcome that is both soothing to surround yourself with, and satisfying in a way that caring for others may not be.  One of the most draining parts of caring for others for me, tends to be the frustration in not seeing tangible results. Especially in the mental health field, progress can be so very slow, and digression is all too common. So for me, there is something about nurturing living plants that yield tangible results in the form of beautiful flowers, that sooths me.

I acknowledge that to all people who consider themselves to have green thumbs, and the thought of having another responsibility, such as watering plants, is just about enough to send you into panic. But if you make it part of your after work, self care routine, I find it is a great way to detach from the days caregiving stress, to take some quiet time for myself, and to stimulate my senses by feeling the sun and the water, by smelling the scents and viewing the vibrant colors. It is rejuvenating and recharging.

- Photography
One of my favorite creative outlets for self care has become photography. Similar to gardening, it is something  with a tangible outcome that I can surround myself with. Summer offers a beautiful time of year to photograph summer scenery. Taking pictures of the flowers in my gardens has enabled me to combine two of my self care outlets.  My living room has become my "photo gallery," so that I have been able to further surround myself with beauty that I have played a part in making.  I find scenery photography soothing and centering. It also is a great tool to surround yourself with pictures of loved ones and moments of connections and laughter. remembering our connections to those who love and care for us cannot be underestimated.

- A Great View
There is something incredibly soothing about sitting in front of a view that is far reaching, especially one with a vantage point. When I am feeling particularly overwhelmed, I go to my favorite local beach, that looks out toward a lighthouse on the horizon. There has been research done that suggests that this type of view with a vantage point in the distance is stress reducing and can promote clarity. The view doesn't have to be of the beach. It could be a meadow, or a lake, or the view from a hill. Think about where you live. Where is there a good view with a vantage point? Take some time to hike that hill, or walk out to that beach, or to drive out to that straight away. take some time to stop, and sit, and breathe. If you meditate this would be a great place to do that.

How do you take advantage of the summer months to rejuvenate yourself?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Self Care & Limit Setting- Protecting your Energy and Spirit

Self Care & Limit-Setting: no one is going to do this for you, and it requires work! 

Limit setting can be especially difficult for caregivers due to the simple fact that we are in this work because we want to give of ourselves, because we have the ability to put ourselves second (or third or fourth) so that others can come first. So, when we speak about setting limits, saying no, or looking out for ourselves, it tends to be an uncomfortable or foreign concept for helpers to grasp.  Along with wanting to give, caregivers tend to have a strong need to be needed. We pride ourselves on the fact that we can take care of people who need help taking care of themselves, that we can hold things together for other people when they are losing their grasp,

The challenge for caregivers is to have the self awareness to be able to identify what the important limits are for each of us, and to actively work to maintain and communicate those limits so that  we can ultimately be as present as possible when we are engaged, and we may actively disengage when we need to. This takes a conscious commitment to yourself to first get to know yourself and what you need, and second, to take action steps for setting limits in order to protect your mind, heart, and spirit. In a day where we are all connected on an unprecedented level through our smartphones, it takes a conscious effort to turn it off, to say no, to put it down, to get away. The attention paid to the realistic limits of a human being surrounded by suffering on a daily basis can make or break a life of care-giving.

Who would have thought that in order to reduce stress and workload that we would need to actively work at things like setting limits? But it is true; and without making that effort, it is easy to look up and find yourself facing an unrealistic workload with nothing left to give.  Setting limits is what enables us to save our energy, our spirit, and to protect our hearts.  In a field where you are asked to constantly give of your mind and heart, it has to be okay to say "I just can't right now."  It has to be okay to delegate a task, to say no to an extra assignment, to ask to continue a conversation tomorrow, or to leave work on time (and not feel a b--ch for doing so!). Without setting limits, saying no, and setting aside time for ourselves, we cannot maintain our own emotional and spiritual balance that we desperately need in order to be effective caregivers.

If you find yourself struggling to maintain your energy and emotional balance, perhaps it is worth examining your limit-setting practices.  The ability and willingness to actively set limits for yourself can be enough to make or break your career or lifestyle as a caregiver.

Here are some questions to consider to measure how well you are setting limits for yourself:

- How many hours per week are you required to work? How many hours per week do you actually work?

- Are you required to be on-call for work? Do you receive work-related calls when you are not on-    call?

- Does the work you are doing (beyond that of the hours required of you) have to be done then, or can   it wait?

- Do you have a hard time saying no to requests, even if the task does not fall under your job description?

- Do people come to you to fix things that you didn't "break"? Do you always attempt to fix them?

-Do you leave work feeling like the energy has been sucked out of you? What specific tasks or interactions make you feel this way?

Next, you may want to consider what you can actively do to improve your limit-setting:

-Is there a theme or pattern about what I find draining?

-Where can I set firmer limits? 

- Where can I communicate my needs regarding these limits so that the people around me understand what my limits are?

-What goal or action steps can I plan for setting better limits?

Over the years I have identified some key limits or boundaries that I need to communicate and maintain in order to protect my energy (and sanity).

Here are some examples of limits that are important to me: 

- I do not take calls from work when I am not on-call. 
Seems pretty common-sensical, however I have had to actively work at conveying that request to my supervisor and my staff. There is an on-call system in place where I work so that there is always someone available by phone. I have had to make it very clear that when my name is not on the schedule, I am NOT available for calls.  I do this not to be rude or disconnected, or because I don't care. I actually do it because I care too much, and would never be able to completely separate myself from work if I allowed staff to call my cell phone whenever they have a question.  I would never have a day to myself where I don't have to worry about work, which results in me returning from my days "off" no more fresh and energized than I was at the end of last week.  I have had no time to rejuvenate and recharge.  I have realized that I need to "emotionally reboot" after five days at work or I cannot be a good caregiver.

- I only entertain complaints and staff issues during supervisions or in writing.
 I have asked my staff to please not approach me with a complaint whenever they can catch my ear. Instead, I have asked that complaints should be put into writing and submitted to my mailbox, or brought up during regularly scheduled supervisions. I will then schedule an appointment to discuss the issue that has been reported.  Again, this is not to be dismissive, or rude, or to seem distant to the needs of my staff, but it is my effort at protecting my own positive energy. I am someone who feeds off of and is very aware of the energy of those around me, be it positive or negative.  I have found that in order for me to be effective at managing complaints or staff upset, I have to be in the right mental space to do so.  If I can manage when I am dealing with intense negative feelings from staff and be prepared to do so, then ultimately I will be more present and effective in moving forward, in supporting my staff, and for making positive change.

- I leave when my shift is over.
This one may not sound like rocket science, but it is extremely important for me to leave after I have been here for 8 hours. In a home that is open and operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it would be VERY easy to spend upwards of 60 hours per week at work.  On days where it feels like there is so much to do that we are never going to get it all done, I have found it to be more detrimental to my long-term emotional well- being to stay at work longer than 8 hours. I have tried working four ten hour days, and learned that for me, eighth hours is my limit if I still want to be effective.

For different people this may be different. But through my self awareness work, I have come to realize that I am going to be more productive, helpful, and effective if I stop when its time to go- and go! The work will still be there tomorrow, I will be more rested and productive in the morning, and if I stay too long today I am setting myself up to be burned out by the end of the week. Sometimes we are so used to being needed that its almost a let-down if I actually can get up and go home, and no one thinks we should stay. Thoughts like, "Doesn't anyone need me right now?" "So if I go, things will just go on, you mean no one may even notice!?" "There's no way this place can run without me." We have to fight our inner needy caregiver to allow us to take a break or call it a day for the sake of our own sanity!

These three limit statements may come across as harsh, and I have definitely had to work towards having my supervisor and colleagues understand and respect these requests. But the result of me communicating these needs is that I am able to be more present when I am here, and  I am able to sustain my positive energy better and longer than I would be able to if these requests and limits were not honored.  Sometimes in order to look out for others, we need to look out for ourselves first- because as psychiatrist Dr. Wayne Dyer says,
"You can't give what you don't have."

So, how are your limit-setting skills? Where could you improve in setting and communicating those limits?