Rising Above Anxiety

I have a lot of free-floating anxiety these days, most likely because I think I’ve successfully transcended some significant emotional crutches. Yet after relying on them so long, I feel a void; I don’t know what to do with the mental space it created.

When the anxiety takes over and I can’t identify the cause (or there are many causes weaved together), I noticed that I rely on a particular visualization – an out of body experience. I began doing this almost unconsciously a long time ago, but recently started to pay closer attention when I realized it helped release the restriction in my chest and slow the swirling thoughts.

To bring it to life a bit more, I tried to capture the feeling in words. The more vivid the sensation feels, the faster I can calm myself.

Flash of life and death,
Pins and needles climb my scalp.
Expectant silence.

Limbs braid, spin skyward.
My heart dissolves in
a radiant burst of light.

Compelled to let go.
Body cast off like snake-skin;
No lungs enclosing my breath.

Stretching, expanding
I fade; the final notes still
reverberating.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson

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Crossword Clues

crossword puzzle

“They say Confucius does his crossword with a pen.” — Tori Amos, Happy Phantom

When I do the occasional crossword, I start with the Across clues and see how many I can answer before moving to the Down column. Usually, when I go back, clues that stumped me the first time are more obvious with a few more letters. In some cases, I realize that I had the wrong answer.

My crossword puzzle “strategy” serves as an apt metaphor for an epiphany I had recently.

For as long as I can remember, losing weight was the prerequisite to any other important goal in my life. “Just get your health in order and then you can begin.” I thought this would give me the confidence, discipline and energy to pursue other personal developments and dreams.

In other words, I wouldn’t let myself move to the Down clues until I’d answered all the Across ones first. Even though “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” I earnestly tried so many times. But without any new insights, it was pointless.

This week, I attended a yoga class for the first time, something I’ve wanted to try for ages. Usually, many fears stop me. What will I wear? What will other people in the class think of me? I only have so much time in the day – shouldn’t I be doing something that would help me lose weight faster?

Yet after the class, I realized that I’d finally switched columns. By getting in touch with my body and relaxing my mind, I will gain new letters to help me work through the entire puzzle. The Across clues (or weight loss) won’t be as difficult or feel as impossible to solve. Each column informs the other; they aren’t separate and linear.

When I’ve exhausted all resources and have those last boxes left, I can ask for help. Every crossword puzzle has those last few that you just don’t know, no matter how many clues you have.

Where else am I stopping when I don’t know the Across clues? All of my professional jobs have led to stress and burnout. What can I do to switch columns and help me see this issue in a new light, with higher level insights from myself or others?

Photo by gajman on flickr

Food for Thought

As we all know, food is not just energy for our body. Food can represent comfort, tradition, medicine, celebration, culture, status and love — the list is endless.  We associate food with memories and places we’ve been – both positive and negative. To complicate matters, our current society has a lot to say about what you should eat and how you should look. Quick judgments are made about your character by what’s on your plate and how much you weigh. There’s an obesity epidemic, have you heard? Your weight is everyone’s problem.

Like each of us, I’ve absorbed information about food over a lifetime and processed it from my unique perspective. I don’t expect that this metaphor will resonate for everyone, though it may provide some food for thought. (Pun intended) I uncovered this metaphor after asking “But why do I feel this way” over and over. I knew my unhealthy behaviors were based upon complex, underlying beliefs. I just didn’t know what those beliefs were.

Restricted Eating

Based on my internal questioning, I found that the act of dieting reinforces a restrictive mindset that permeates all aspects of my life. It represents holding myself back, denying who I am. It is the physical act, every day, of telling myself that I should do as I’m told.

You should be a size 6. You should always be selfless and fade into the background. Be responsible. Don’t bother anyone. (Again, these are just my own feelings) Ideas about weight are intermingled with other statements about my place in the world.

Therefore, when I fail a diet and gain weight, I feel exposed and vulnerable. I’m suddenly unable to hide from the disapproving masses. Appearing in public when I’m overweight is like wearing a neon sign that says “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please don’t look at me.”

In the same way, when I speak my mind, put myself first or become the center of attention, my immediate reaction is to retract into my shell.  My “good” self, who pushes me toward restriction, is frightened. She wants to hurry back before everyone sees what we’ve done.

Overeating

However, the other part of me is angry and wants to take advantage of this opportunity. If dieting represents restriction, then binging/overeating represents complete and utter freedom. It’s my untamed ego, on the loose yet still laying low. However, she is hounded by my good self the entire time – “We should feel guilty. This isn’t right. Let’s turn back.”

I see the “bad” self in dreams when I’m screaming at people, breaking things and beating up authority figures. She doesn’t appear in my waking hours, thankfully, but it’s an expression of frustration for years of self-denial.  In real life, instead of breaking the law, I eat whatever I want because it’s a way of saying “FU” to the world of restriction – food or otherwise. It’s like a jail break – I want to have as much fun as fast as possible before I’m caught.

Good or Bad, Still Trapped

Obviously, these are opposites on a continuum. When I artificially hold myself at the restricted end of the continuum, I am anxious and tense. I always fear failure. When I can’t do it anymore, I spring to the other end like releasing a taut rubber band. I eat to show my independence, to show that no one can stop me. But soon, the eyes of disapproval are too much and I trudge back to restriction. Either way, my soul is being controlled. Even when I think I have freedom, I am still just reacting to the perceived voice that judges me.

Complete Paradigm Shift

So how will this play out? Will I scurry back to restriction or careen out of control?

I’ve decided to throw the continuum out the window. No matter where I am, even in the middle, I am still a prisoner to these illogical beliefs. I want real freedom. I hope that by dragging these beliefs out into the open, the light of day will expose them as frauds.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson

Haiku 2011

In 2011, I began writing a haiku poem each month to intersect my present emotional state with the seasonal changes of the year. Due to the emotional turmoil at the end of the year, this trailed off. Despite this, it was a useful exercise.

I’ve read some truly beautiful haiku that manage to capture both a feeling and a moment in time perfectly. Mine always seem too obvious or too abstract, too cheesy or too forced. Ah well, I’ll keep writing and sharpen my skills…Even if they aren’t beautiful, they help me express a feeling by identifying a metaphor.

January
No turning back now
You cannot un-realize truth
New year, fresh snow – go

February
Cover of darkness
Icy layers form a shield
Impenetrable?

March
Warmth tentatively
grazes my face, Winds scatter
cool air, uncertain.

April
water unceasing
wash it away, can’t keep up
No one to hate, love

May
Senses overwhelmed
Vernal cacophony – stop!
Pause for this moment

June
Sliver moon soon gone
Clouds obscure, spinning darkness
But you know the way

July
Should I dance or cry?
Warm rain drops while sun looks on
Bittersweet summer

August
Deep below the ground
something old and forgotten
is stirring inside

Coming Into Focus

I have a fear of seeing my photograph — a fear much more intense than simply being unpleasantly surprised by an unflattering angle or poor fashion choice. My weight is part of it, certainly. It is always jarring to see yourself as other may see you, especially when the weight gain has been so dramatic and fast.

I realized tonight that avoiding photographs is symbolic of my inability to look at myself — I’m afraid of what I’ll find. I fear nothingness; the lack of something unique to mark me as an independent human being, capable of true, original creativity.

I’ve begun to wonder if I focus on other people as a way of making up for my perceived emptiness. It also diverts my attention from introspection. “I’m sorry I have nothing to offer, let me invest all of myself into you. I can feel worthy in my selflessness.”

A striking scene from the Stephen King film Dolores Claiborne comes to mind — a woman was so overwhelmed with her long repressed memory of sexual abuse, that for a split second, she looked in the mirror and her body was facing away from her. She was looking at the back of her head. It’s hard to explain, but this scene terrified me.

It is a similar feeling — an overwhelming need to turn away and avoid the chaos and pain of feeling empty. Perhaps my weight gain was an unconscious strategy to keep me from looking too closely. It has certainly worked. And although this blog is a means of internal reflection, I don’t take it to the next level. It remains an idea, tentatively waiting for action.

So…I took my picture tonight — a few shots in the mirror. I stared directly into the camera for the first one but it was too much to bear. So I gazed away. Once I viewed the picture enlarged on the computer, I saw someone I didn’t recognize. I blurred the photo as a way to blunt the feelings that arose. When it’s out of focus, it’s not as overwhelming and allows me to keep looking — a good first step.

I want to treat myself as a person worthy of respect, just as I would anyone else. If that strange person looking back at me was indeed a stranger, I would treat them kindly and gently, reassuring them of their value. Why wouldn’t I do the same for myself?

The Long and Winding Road

“Every step is on the path.” –Lao Tzu

I spend a lot of time agonizing over decisions – both big and small.

Will this take me in the right direction? Does it align with my values? Am I being influenced by others?

This game of twenty questions paralyzes me. I keep waiting for that flash of insight – that jolt of knowing – so I can unequivocally say YES! This is the right decision! But unfortunately, that’s a rarity. Life is too complex. And in my case, when a spark of intuition does come, I immediately question its validity. By ripping it apart with my rational mind, I lose the larger message.

While walking in the park yesterday, I had an epiphany about my indecisiveness.

As you enter, there is a primary path that follows the Wissahickon Creek. This creek empties into the Delaware River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. As I walked, I imagined that my destination was the ocean – I was following my life path, returning to the source of everything.

The Scenic Route
It occurred to me that creeks and rivers do not follow a straight line. They meander toward the ocean. Just because the water isn’t flowing exactly eastward doesn’t mean it won’t arrive eventually. If I applied this concept to my life — I can’t expect that every decision will help me make direct progress toward my life’s purpose. As long as I’m facing the ocean, a thoughtful compromise is better than a deferred decision. Making no choice is like standing still in the water, full of tension and fighting the current. I am categorizing decisions into right and wrong, when there are no absolutes. The complexity of our world means that I must make compromises or I will never move forward.

The Element of Surprise
The creek is definitely flowing east – just not in the most efficient way. It sounds like a bad thing until you realize that efficiency doesn’t allow for beauty or the unexpected. Knowing exactly where you’re going is boring. The creek’s curves provide interest and anticipation for what’s around the corner. It also creates choice when the water splits in two directions. As long as I’m heading east, the choice isn’t life or death. No agonizing required.

Let Go
If something feels hard and scary, does it automatically mean I’m “going against the flow?” Not necessarily. Intuition is the only way to know for sure. I’d like to imagine that this sensation means I am teetering over a waterfall, holding back. It takes all my strength to avoid sliding down. I know what to do, but…it’s steep and it’s not directly east. If I’m going to take this chance, shouldn’t it catapult me like an arrow toward the ocean?

That’s how I feel right now. I’ve been grasping at slippery rocks for too long, waiting for the creek to magically shift so there is no question about its destination. But this concept gives me faith that as long as the water carries me, I’m on my way.

 

For a lovely video of The Beatles song (The Long & Winding Road): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUO7N-zSMYc

Turning Into The Skid

When it comes, my depression is colorless and oppressive.

Sometimes it feels like a fog. It slowly rolls in until a white wall of nothingness blinds me.

Other times, it appears in an instant. A blizzard kicks up — enormous snowflakes blot out all visibility.

In both cases, I am lost and alone, disconnected from everything. I want to curl up, wrapping my arms around my knees for reassurance. I am still here and the world still exists. I just can’t see it right now. The fog will dissipate; the snow will stop. I have to remember that. The clouds will roll back and I will regain my sight. I need to continue living despite the fact that the future has disappeared.

In fog and snow, the roads are slick and deceptive. I am a nervous driver. In bad weather, I tend to drive too closely to the person in front of me. Being able to see something ahead gives me comfort, but if they stop suddenly I am in trouble. And I’ve broken the cardinal rule a few times — when I find myself sliding into the wrong side of the road or toward a guard rail, my instincts tell me to hit the brakes and turn the other direction. Of course, this will make things worse. When the wheels lock, they lose the ability to grip the road. The classic advice is to turn into the skid and slowly accelerate.

I must do the same for my depression.  Turn into it. I need to face these emotions. Running the opposite way causes paralysis. I freeze, re-living the same depression time and time again, sliding into it with no control over how it will affect me. To regain control, I must turn toward the pain, acknowledging its existence and purpose.

Although I’m changing metaphors mid-way, another way of viewing it comes to mind. I can’t outrun the rain — it will hit me no matter how fast I am. Can I stop and look up at the sky? Can I let each drop hit me deliberately rather than slipping into a desperate sprint with a broken umbrella? I may get drenched. I may feel cold and miserable, but I will finally cleanse myself of these dark emotions.

It is frightening to contemplate, but these clouds will come again. I have to make a decision — which way will I turn? I hope that with experience and practice, I can navigate even the most blinding stretches of road.

Into the White by the Pixies

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson

Walking Through Fire

“If you suppress grief too much, it can well redouble.” –Moliere

Over the past two years, I’ve gained and lost the same 25 pounds twice.  Each time, I tried to approach it with more self-awareness, but obviously I haven’t yet reached the core. This time I won’t look for a new exercise regimen or eating plan. I already know what to do; spending time reading about the latest fitness trend will only delay the inevitable.

Instead of focusing on these external distractions, I’ve created a metaphor to give me strength and new insights as I face the emotions underlying self-sabotage. This struggle is much larger than just weight loss (no pun intended), so I’ve settled on a visual that speaks to personal transformation. I also believe this will be a more compassionate path, something that was missing in past attempts to “whip myself into shape.”

The phoenix (as the story goes in various cultures) is a beautiful bird that lives 500 years. Once prepared to die, it creates a nest, which bursts into flames. From the ashes, a new phoenix emerges.  In keeping with its method of regeneration, the phoenix is often depicted in bright warm colors like red, orange and yellow.

How does the phoenix relate to my physical transformation? I began to see many interesting parallels when I examined what happens to the body when you lose weight.

Untapped Potential
In very simplistic terms, your body’s fat cells are reservoirs of energy, waiting for release. When more exercise or reduced calories generate a need for more energy, the fat cells release triglyceride components into the bloodstream, shrinking the size of the fat cell.

I love the idea that I have huge reserves of energy and potential — ready for action! I imagine the triglyceride components as tinder for the fire — fluffy and flammable. Right now, the tinder sits in my cells, taking up space and not serving any purpose. However, once released, it will quickly catch fire and ensure that the fire continues burning.

It also occurred to me that muscle is often hidden under expanded fat cells. In order to build upon that secret strength, I must break down muscle (create that fiery nest) so it can grow back stronger. Once the fat cells reduce, my muscles will emerge.

The Same, Yet Different
After several biochemical changes, the released triglyceride components eventually provide energy for the body to carry out essential processes like breathing, blood flow and moving muscles. The heat generated helps regulate the body at 98.6 degrees.

This made me think about how “renewable” my body is. Just like the ashes of the phoenix, energy is changing its form to meet the needs of my body. It doesn’t dissipate into nothingness. Rather, it creates something new from the self that already exists. That’s powerful — I don’t need to look outside myself in order to transform. It’s all within.

Pain in Transformation
I imagine there must be immense pain for the mythical phoenix when it bursts into flames. I know that the same will be true for me in this process. My weak body will rail against the introduction of exercise; my mind will invent countless reasons why chocolate is the only thing that will ease my depression. Discomfort and sadness are a given, but the outcome will be worth the pain.

I haven’t decided exactly how I will use this metaphor to push through obstacles in my journey, but the symbolism seems ripe for investigation. I will see how it plays out…First step – find a beautiful phoenix picture for my new home.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson

Guarding Your Own Life

If you saw a loved one in danger of drowning, your immediate reaction would probably be to jump in and pull them to safety. Unfortunately, it is actually the most dangerous action to take. A panicked person has unusual strength and will actually push the rescuer under the water in an instinctive attempt to reach the surface. It is better to keep a safe distance and extend something toward them to retain leverage.

I am certainly not a lifeguard. A friend shared this tidbit of safety knowledge with me today as a metaphor for being in a relationship with someone managing depression. The idea sparked a few insights that I wanted to explore:

The Water
Individuals with mental illness were born in deeper waters than most; the depths beneath them are always there. The danger of “drowning” (falling into a deep depression) is inherent within their make-up as a human being, particularly when life circumstances or chemical changes in the brain cause rough, choppy waters.

The Drowning Person
The instinctive self-preservation of the drowning person – pushing the rescuer down in an effort to reach air – made me think about how depression changes a person’s personality and motivations at times. Mental illness is real; there are chemical imbalances and genetic predispositions. Actions that appear selfish or illogical are often manifestations of this illness in the brain. That’s not to say that choice does not exist, but these physical components of the illness tangle together, making motivations unclear. Thinking of it like this softens the pain of misunderstanding and disappointment.

The Rescuer
The advice not to jump into the water feels counterintuitive. My tendency is to dive right into the dangerous waters, thinking I can solve any problem, fix any situation. In reality, I can’t even swim and I’m not particularly strong. The panicked strength of a drowning person could quickly overpower me. Despite my enthusiasm, all I would accomplish is my own drowning, in addition to the loved one I sought to rescue. At times, I am in the water already, struggling with my own depression. How can I save someone else, when I am barely treading water?

Distance
In my own situation, I realized that because we both suffer from depression of varying degrees, I need more distance to keep myself from falling deeper into the water. It gives me more leverage which enhances my overall strength. We can’t be together, but I can offer more loving support from a safe distance than I ever could from beside him in the water.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson

Right Road to Somewhere

“There are no wrong roads to anywhere.” –Norman Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

I used a GPS navigator for the first time recently. After making a few wrong turns (despite the technology), I was amused and relieved to hear the navigator’s voice calmly providing the next step as if nothing had happened. She did not berate me for making a hasty judgment or whine about the fact that I’d just made the trip longer. She simply got her bearings and — knowing the destination — offered the best route forward from our current position. From her vantage point (multiple satellites orbiting above), it was just a small adjustment in the larger scheme. A different path to the same place.

As I drove, I wondered how I could apply that concept to my life. What if the destination represents a personal goal? Instead of panicking when my neat plans don’t fall into place, I could evaluate the new situation, factoring in the new variables, and devise the best way to reach the goal as quickly as possible. Channeling the calm, non-judgmental navigator lady, my mind would say… “Recalculating…Recalculating” and offer the next best option.

Hmm. Seems too simple. What stops me from doing this? Underneath any goal is an attempt to achieve a state of mind — like serenity, security, fulfillment, acceptance, love. This is the true destination.  Often, the goals we set for ourselves won’t get us there; they are really expectations drawn from our upbringing, culture or personal experiences. Like a fixed location, we think that once we arrive, we can enjoy that state of mind permanently. If we step off the path or perceive a delay in getting there, our anxiety rises. We feel lost.  We hold on to our goals tightly, even when they don’t make sense anymore — or never did.

For example, although the destination is the same, my 16-year-old GPS set to “love” would take me to a very different location than my 34-year-old GPS. Love might be connected to a person or place for a time, but ultimately it is not tied to anything in the same way forever. In order to reach the true destination, I have to be willing to reset my location, given my current coordinates. In other words, I must look more closely at the goals I’ve set for myself. Will achieving them really get me to the state of mind I seek? Or am I relying on old versions of myself, other people’s opinions and society’s expectations to guide my choices?

Although it is challenging to seek a destination that is constantly moving, acceptance of its changing nature reduces anxiety about the journey. It is exciting to think that my life is not laid out before me in a straight line, as it would be if I stubbornly refused to change my location. In my quest, I am guaranteed to see and experience things that are out of the realm of possibility now. On the other hand, in some cases, I only have to shift my thinking to realize I’ve already arrived.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson

 

Dancing Moon as Teacher

Circles are often used to depict relationships — between couples, amongst family members, within organizations, or in nature. They are an ideal visual for understanding connections and boundaries. This is certainly not a new concept, but a recent conversation with a friend triggered some fresh insights.

She described a healthy relationship as two circles, overlapping slightly like the picture below. One circle does not overtake the other. Unhealthy relationships, on the other hand, overlap so much that there is just a sliver of individuality left for each. This graphic made me think of the moon. Once the idea presented itself, some parallels began to emerge.

Perception and Wholeness. The moon doesn’t actually change shape or size; our vantage point on earth and the sun’s reflection determine its appearance. If I compare my “self” to the moon, it means that I am whole. This is an immutable fact of nature. Therefore, feeling less than whole is simply a matter of perception, not reality.

Dynamics. Rather than visualizing two static circles, like the picture above, I envisioned the moon dancing with its “shadow” following in concert, like a dark moon shifting back and forth beside it. The moon’s constant orbital tango with its shadow partner, seen by watching the waning and waxing quarters and half moons, could represent the importance of both awareness and flexibility.  In a healthy relationship, I would anticipate change and quickly adjust to the circumstances. I would naturally know when to allow my needs to take priority or a back seat, depending on my partner and the situation.

Movement and Balance. Of course, dance requires movement. Regardless of where the moon might “stop,” there would be dire consequences. Tides provide an interesting analogy. They are highest at the new and full moons. If the moon ceased to orbit at either of these times, there would be a perpetual high tide — pinned in place by the moon’s gravitational pull. From a relationship perspective, a full or new moon represent one person negating the other. Like the ocean being pulled toward the sky, the relationship would feel tense and exhausting. Extremes are never welcome in nature; retaining balance requires constant change.

Nature is always teaching me something. Full moon tonight — look up and be enlightened!

Jumping into the Present

There will always be something in my life environment that’s incomplete, imperfect, unsettling, or in progress — providing a great excuse to procrastinate, avoid, worry about, or sabotage personal aspirations. I have a tendency to discount the present, like many of us do, thinking that the future holds my “real life” — when the important stuff will begin, when I’ll get it together, have it all figured out. I’ll move from this unpleasant “limbo” directly into my future, like gracefully stepping into a Double Dutch game already underway. As soon as I get inside the ropes, I’ll be in perfect rhythm, responding to my environment with ease and agility. In my mind, it’s an immediate transition. That’s when my life begins.

However, it doesn’t work that way. In life, it isn’t possible to stand outside the game. You have to jump all the time, responding to the ropes whether you want to or not. If you stop, you get tangled up — but the ropes start right up again. I have to accept that I am in the game at this very moment — this is my life and this is my present environment. It won’t ever magically transform into the perfect setting for Zen Cara to suddenly emerge, jumping rope while juggling. But if I pay attention to the ropes, I can at least avoid skinned knees.

Maybe someday I will breakdance while doing Double Dutch. But this fantastic feat won’t arise until I jump — a lot — within ropes that go too slow, too fast, at an uneven pace, or maybe with frayed edges that trip me up. After a while, these conditions won’t matter as much because I’ve learned how to pay attention, anticipate and prepare. It will appear like the ropes are ideally suited for my amazing gymnastics, but truly, I’ve just worked with the ropes, as they were, and practiced. Never stopping, always jumping.

Metaphoric Sunscreen

My skin is very fair. I have suffered from enough sunburn to understand the importance of sunscreen and its meticulous application. I can recall a particularly painful incident at the beach where I dutifully covered myself in sunscreen, only to find later that I’d missed the tops of my feet. With my poor feet in a bucket of cold water, I pondered the power of that sunscreen. Most of my body would have been throbbing with the same painful redness, had it not been for a seemingly benign lotion. It’s like an invisible force field lying on the surface of  your skin. A sweet-smelling cosmetic is stronger than the sun’s powerful rays? It’s pretty unbelievable, but I’ve seen it work and I trust its effectiveness. Once I lather on the sunscreen, I feel comfortable and safe. I am protected from immediate and long-term harm.

What if I could have that intuitive sense of protection from an emotional perspective?

If physical skin represents emotional boundaries, I need a metaphoric sunscreen to prevent the absorption of other people’s feelings. Just as I have fair skin, I have weak emotional boundaries. It is very difficult for me discern my own emotions from others, especially when there are strong feelings involved. They seem to seep inside me, whether positive or negative. I then act on these emotions and thoughts, never quite sure if they are truly my own.

I did a bit of research on skin protection and gleaned some insights from each fact that can apply to the concept of emotional boundaries  —

1. How much exposure is too much? We’ve all heard that humans absorb Vitamin D from the sun. On the other hand, the sun’s radiation can ultimately have dire consequences like skin cancer. I learned that 10-15 minutes a day, twice a week, of direct sunlight is enough to obtain your Vitamin D requirement without risk. Otherwise, sunscreen should be applied.

My intention is not to shut off all empathic communication/connection with others. There is value and beauty in sharing others’ emotions — whether helping someone grieve or celebrating their triumphs. The key is limiting this openness so you do not lose yourself.

2. What Sun Protection Factor (SPF) sunscreen do you need? It depends on your own personal skin type – how fast you burn without any protection. If it takes you ten minutes to sunburn, then applying SPF 15 will allow you to prevent sunburn for 150 minutes.

Everyone is different. Some people naturally have stronger emotional boundaries and don’t need as much “sunscreen” as I do. I have to acknowledge this aspect of myself and use the “formula” to gauge what SPF I need based on how long I will be amongst people who may inadvertently push their emotions onto me.

3. What is the difference between UVA and UVB? UVA radiation causes premature aging. UVB radiation causes sunburn and skin cancer. Most sources advise using sunscreen with “broad spectrum” coverage to protect against both.

The immediate effects of absorbing other people’s emotions may manifest as depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability – much like sunburn. After many years of foreign emotions taking hold, they can grow on their own, branching new ideas and thoughts, like an unnatural cancer. Individual actions are taken based on emotions that are not my own – or have been skewed by others. These actions have long-term repercussions – greatly impacting the direction of my life, causing sadness and pain that could have been avoided.

4. Do you only need sunscreen on sunny days at the beach? Even on a cloudy day 80 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays pass through the clouds. The sun reflects 17 percent on sand and 80 percent on snow. Also, ultraviolet radiation increases 4 percent for every 1,000-foot increase in altitude.

I must consider not only who I’ll be with, but where I’ll be. Will my emotional boundaries be weakened by the number of people, the purpose of the gathering or my connection to the place? I must remain vigilant and aware – a baseline of protection is always needed.

I wish I could pop into the drug store and pick up a bottle of metaphoric sunscreen, but it’s not currently on the market. However, I’ve written down some of the ingredients…although I’m sure I’m missing some…

1. Awareness: I know that my boundaries are naturally very open and permeable and that certain people and situations exacerbate this tendency. I still want to remain compassionate and open to others, but I know that limited exposure is healthier. Knowing all of this, I can plan ahead. If the situation seems dangerous, I can avoid it altogether.

2.  Preparation: If I know that I will be in a susceptible position, I can:

  • Visualize applying my metaphoric sunscreen. I could use body lotion, charging it with the intention of protecting my psychic boundaries. I could imagine a white light surrounding my body.
  • Meditate or practice some simple breathing exercises to ensure that I am grounded and hyper-aware of my own emotions so I can recognize others’ intruding.

3. Practice: With the above two, my boundaries will strengthen, so my protection is enhanced. Sunscreen (the real thing) can actually repair damaged skin if used regularly.

I’m sure other parallels could be drawn, but these were the ones that occurred to me. Must be the sunny weather. I welcome ideas and thoughts to strengthen the concept and provide guidance to others who are “fair-skinned.”

Biomimicry and Metaphors

I recently finished reading The Land of Painted Caves by Jean Auel, the sixth book in a series that took place about 30,000 years ago. Ayla, the heroine, was a Cro-Magnon in the Upper Paleolithic era. The author’s extensive research, particularly related to botany, herbal medicine and hunting always fascinated me. Their cultural practices, though described with creative license by the author, reflected a reverence for nature and a balanced, interdependent community. After closing the book, I was pondering how distant we are to the sources of our food and medicine today. I certainly wouldn’t suggest we return to caves, but I also know that our culture needs to be more grounded and respectful. The concepts in the book were important, but I didn’t know what to do with them.

Yesterday, while waiting for an appointment, I was skimming (of all things) an old Reader’s Digest and saw an article about biomimicry, a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. Intrigued, I looked up the Biomimicry Institute.

 In biomimicry, we look at nature as model, measure, and mentor.  

Like the viceroy butterfly imitating the monarch, we humans are imitating the best adapted organisms in our habitat. We are learning, for instance, how to harness energy like a leaf, grow food like a prairie, build ceramics like an abalone, self-medicate like a chimp, create color like a peacock, compute like a cell, and run a business like a hickory forest.

Our current metaphors are about war — nature as the enemy to conquer and dominate. This world view has led us to global warming, water shortages and the extinction of species. It has created human solutions that are disconnected and short-sighted. If we consciously looked to nature for new metaphors as a starting point for solving problems (“scientific” or otherwise), what a fertile ground for innovation! We’ve seen Mother Nature’s work – it’s pretty darn good. Let’s not re-invent the wheel. (Ayla would be groaning at this pun if she were real.)

I am excited to delve more into this field to see if I can apply their knowledge. I’ve added to the Related Links for reference (right sidebar). Certainly, there are a lot of parallels — examining the stages of growth for a flower can be just as instructive for a scientist creating a power source as it is for a person trying to move beyond a personal crisis. Metaphors open up new thought patterns and anything can emerge.

Fiction, My Forgotten Friend

For the past few years, I’ve treated fiction as a luxury. Reading seemed like something I would get to — when I had time to relax. Instead, I “prioritized” my reading time, focusing on self-improvement, health, social issues, environmental concerns. I thought that by tackling these problems (both internal & external) that I could settle back, without guilt, and enjoy a good book.

Instead, I recently discovered that my reading choices had converged into a monstrous cacophony of voices telling me what to do, how to be, what’s wrong with the world, why I had a hand in it and how to deal with the guilt and stress. It was a sudden realization — like when someone hits the mute button on the TV and you realize how annoying it’s been all along.  The more I read, the more I felt I should read. I’ll get to the fiction later — there’s no time to waste in fixing these problems!

And then, I stopped reading altogether. It was too much. There’s no fixing me, much less the world.

But then I remembered something – dimly, from my past. I picked up a book, pushed past my anxiety and guilt, and fell into a story. When I lifted my head a few hours later, I knew. Fiction isn’t frivolous. It’s not simply a diversion for people who don’t care about the real world. Depending upon the skill of the author and the willingness of the reader to explore, it can be a conduit for transformation in your own life. It can have tremendous power to shift your thinking and give you strength for difficult life experiences. Empathizing with a character’s loss yields far more personal insight than reading a magazine article with, say, the top 10 ways to deal with grief.

Writing this now – it seems silly. Why did I think “experts” telling me how to live in their black/white terms would get me further on life’s journey? Fiction gives me depth, complexity – and most importantly, the ability to interpret truth and meaning on my own terms through personal experience.

But don’t take my word for it… (ha, get it, Reading Rainbow…sigh)

Book Review: Kitchen Table Wisdom

Kitchen Table Wisdom – Stories that Heal

By Rachel Naomi, MD

I was introduced to this author through my classwork at the Mt Nittany Institute of Natural Health. In reading these stories, I also learned about the concept of narrative medicine, a growing body of knowledge that seeks to engage with the patient through their own stories about illness and healing.

Naomi is exceptional. Though I prefer structure and clear ideas, she made me realize the value in qualitative sources. These stories are a perfect example of why Jesus used parables to teach – they endure – and they express more than just simple facts. Stories have layers of meaning. Their complexity provides a more comprehensive sense of the person’s illness than a list of symptoms, test results, and x-rays.

I enjoyed this book from the perspective of a reader simply engaged in the short tales, but also because it opened my eyes to the significance of stories in healing.

Book Review: The Body Language of Illness

The Body Language of Illness
By Eleanor Limmer

This book was part of my coursework when I attended the Mt Nittany Institute of Natural Health. Limmer’s book provided exciting validation of an idea that I felt intuitively, but was never quite certain how to grasp. She lucidly describes the connection between physical illness and mental/emotional/spiritual challenges. If attuned to properly, one can interpret the symptoms of the body and use them to grow, thereby resolving both the physical manifestation and its underlying source.

This is a fascinating book that I’ve returned to many times. There are no magical “indexes” that tell you what a headache “equals” in terms of an internal problem, but there are themes that one can use as a starting point. Unless it feels right to you, the connection is not there. It’s not easy to discern, but worth the investigation.