Meditation

Wednesday ZenDay: The New Year Project

Each year in my meditation class we do an interesting exercise. We meditate with the express purpose of figuring out our intention/theme for the year and each month. I think there’s a misconception about meditation that you’re supposed block out thoughts. And just focus on your breathing. That’s part of it. But it’s also a means to get you to a place where you can engage your super conscious mind, where you can tap new ideas, new solutions, or just reassuring thoughts that your subconscious mind tends to sabotage with negative thinking and mental clutter. So in that deeply relaxing meditative state, we go to find our intentions – those new things to focus on that are meant to satisfy our desires for the year. They’re not necessarily your stereotypical New Year’s resolutions. A couple of years ago, I set an intention to laugh. It was a great month. Another friend decided she wanted to give a gift to someone every day in the month of August. (Why wait ‘til Christmas?)

I don’t have my whole year planned yet, but I do have my theme for the year. It came to me last night. Strength. Then everyone buys a colorful calendar, we track our progress each day on our path. One of the kinda of comical things I discovered about myself is that I seem to be a month or two late on acting on my intentions. Will it be that way this year? We’ll see. Does it matter? No. We’re not about “shoulds” in meditation class. It’s not a pressure thing. More like a guidepost.

How did 2013 go? Read on, if you want to know.

Last year, my intention was “My Well Being.” I was in a bad place. Dealing with some heavy family long-term stressors had taken a toll on my health. My doctor said, “No exercise.” What was a triathlete to do? I focused on what I could change. I improved my nutrition a lot. I meditated almost every night. I stopped using a couple of glasses of wine or beer as a reward for a hard day. Instead, I turned my cocktails into elaborate juices. I worked on letting go of some things like resentment and things that didn’t bring me peace. This summer, I pretty much stopped watching the news. This fall, I took a break from social media.

Very gradually, I felt better. But my well-being continued to be high-jacked by concern for my loved ones and the new responsibility of picking up the pieces of their lives. My dad has dementia. We moved him out here almost two years ago. But we’re still in the process of emptying our childhood home 3,000 miles away and prepping it for sale. My oldest sister, lives a few states south of there. She has paranoid schizophrenia and the complications that go with it. She lives alone and in her own delusional world, won’t speak on the phone and is completely unaware of her disease. She was hospitalized four times this year. I’m responsible for her finances, smoothing things over with her neighbors, collaborating with her court-appointed guardian, answering healthcare workers’ requests for information about her and submitting detailed reports to the court each year. In 2013, I made five trips to the East Coast.

As I sit here reflecting on the year, I feel much more relaxed and even a sense of pride. I feel like I'm finally out of the eye of the storm. My dad is safe and well cared for down the street. If I had my way, my sister would not live alone. But the mental healthcare laws don’t allow any further intervention than an outpatient commitment, which we finally obtained this summer. Fortunately, one of the hospitals arranged to have a social worker visit her three times a week. That was a huge victory. A lot of heavy-duty clerical tasks are taken care of too. My part-time job for them is a lot less time consuming and draining. Their intellect used to be one of their greatest assets. It’s been a shock. I’ve had to accept that they’re not getting better.

Though they are still here, I think watching their sudden cognitive decline actually involved a whole lot of grieving. And I sense I’m finally coming out of it – no matter what happens with them next. Getting to that place emotionally has, in turn, made a difference physically.

My doctor allowed me to work out a half hour a day after a couple of months of complete rest. Then, in August, I got the go-ahead to do more intensity. It was a year without racing, except for a little fundraiser meet for my old high-school’s x-country team. I’m doing much better. A hard workout doesn’t keep me up half the night or render me useless the next day. I’m back to doing everything – swimming, biking, running, and crossfit. I started doing yoga in the morning too. So when “strength” came to me as my theme for the year – well, it just felt right. I’m looking forward to finding all kinds of new strength in 2014. What about you? Whatever you do, I hope it's a very Happy New Year!

Wednesday ZenDay: 100-Day Meditation Challenge Reboot

My 100-Day Meditation Challenge was going so well. It was getting easier and easier to get into that pleasant, indescribable (or maybe someday I will) state after a few minutes. I was determined to follow it through to the end. A couple of weeks ago, I had an exceedingly busy day right before taking a Red Eye out to Boston. Sitting outside a baggage carousel with a cup of coffee at 5:30 a.m., feeling like it was 2:30 a.m., it dawned on me, “I forgot to meditate yesterday! There goes my streak,” I said to my sister. “Oh, you must’ve done it on the plane,” she suggested as if leaving me an out. “No, I didn’t.” Yeah, I may’ve experienced a slightly Zen-like state from the drink I had before boarding the plane, but that doesn’t count.

I got a couple more sessions of meditation in on my trip, but I hit the reset button on this 100-Day Meditation Challenge a week ago. So, 7 days are in the books, well technically, it’s the Wonderful Day app. Only 93 days to go.

Have you tried meditating yet? Here’s a guided meditation by Dr. Andrew Weil you can try. With all you do with your training to get your heart rate and breathing up, meditation will help give your body and mind an opportunity to slow down and recover.

Wednesday ZenDay: A Conversation with My Inner 7-Year Old

Recently, my Zen Coach gave us an interesting exercise and guided meditation. She asked us to close our eyes, “Think back to when you were 7-years old. What are you doing? When you have that snapshot, open your eyes.” I looked around the room and every single one of us looked very happy and content. I saw myself running on the grass of my parents’ front lawn and my dad on a aluminum lounge chair with white and green webbing. What was the point of that? She picked that age because this was the magical time of our lives where we had no thoughts about responsibilities or feeling judged. It’s a particularly joyful age.

Then she took us on a guided meditation to talk to our 7-year old selves. My mind was partway open, but I must admit, I was pretty damn skeptical that I’d be able to talk to little ‘ol me. I think we all were.

Zen Coach took us down an imaginary river that represented our adulthood and adolescence until we arrived at our destination. Ah, wow, where was I? I landed at the nursery my mother used to take me to look for plants. It had a babbling brook where I used to escape with a wagon. I remembered pulling the wagon into the cactus greenhouse when it was 12-degrees in the dead of winter and how wonderfully balmy it felt to be there.

Then she asked us to talk to our 7-year old. I saw her. Little me in with cat-eye tortoise-shell, thick glasses, a red shirt, beige corduroys, and bright red Stride-Rite sneakers. I asked me/her, “What do you want? She responded, “I want to climb trees. I want to play with boys. I like my sneakers.” I grinned. No doubt about it. That was me alright. When I was a little girl, I was a little Tomboy in a big neighborhood of boys. Which meant endless tree climbing, tackle football games, hitting wiffle balls over the neighbor’s house, and mimicking Evil Knievel jumping off ramps on my purple Schwinn and popping wheelies when my mother wasn’t looking.

After she guided us back to reality, we feverishly wrote down in our journals what we saw. Zen Coach then asked us, “What do you think you need to do to bring that joy back into your life?” I grinned. It all made sense."Crossfit," I answered. This is why I love crossfit so much. I’m basically climbing, playing with boys, and well, I like my sneakers.

But I can’t do that kind of intensity right now with my endocrine system out of whack. So I think it means I need to spend more time on the trails too. A few days later, Todd took me on one of his Strava trail outings. I hiked it and watched him peg it with a trail run. My inner 7-year old was very satisfied.

Wednesday ZenDay: 100-Day Meditation Challenge

As I was reading this excellent post over at Wildmind Buddhist Meditation, I came across this 100-Day Meditation Challenge. Okay, it officially started at the beginning of the year, but my/our participation is welcome nonetheless at anytime. Today represents Day 3 for me.

I’ve been meditating for years, but struggle with doing it daily. I often feel like a human pinball, flitting from work and family responsibilities to social stuff and workouts. And before I know it, it’s time for bed! (Woops, there goes another day without meditation.) But I feel so much better when I fit it in.

Since my doc still has my workout activities limited to 30 minutes/day, this is the perfect challenge for me to wrap my head around right now. I won’t be going for the miles, but instead I’ll log on several more minutes of deep breathing, quiet solitude, and bits of unexpected wisdom that often emerge from my super conscious mind.

Here’s how to join the challenge. There’s no submit button, no medals or tee shirts, but some solid recovery I’m sure. If you want to join this journey, here’s another post on how to meditate regularly.

Wednesday ZenDay: Breathing Techniques

The December 2012 issue of Triathlete magazine had a Training Tip article that stated, “Constant exhalation is a necessary skill for an efficient freestyle stroke, but many athletes (especially newbies) have a tendency to hold their breath underwater.” Hmmm, I think I’m guilty of that too. So when my crossfit gym Beach Fitness posted a breathing workshop, I thought it might offer some insight last Saturday. The breathing workshop was taught by Laura Adams, a certified Pilates and yoga instructor. The hour-long class really helped us think about breathing beyond just our normal cardio workouts. I must admit much of it reinforced what I’ve learned in my meditation classes. But I was up for a refresher and a new perspective.

Laura gave us a great overview first of the basics of Diaphragmatic Breathing. (This video is a short and a little dry, but bear with me because it demonstrates the mechanics of what’s going in your body well). She had us practice deep belly breathing by putting one hand on our stomach and another on our chest. So often we actually don’t breathe from our belly, especially when we’re anxious and that’s why we can end up with that tight feeling in our chest when stressed. Hint: if you have a big presentation, race, heated conversation, test, etc., focus breathing from your belly to relax.

Lateral Rib Cage Breathing emphasizes breathing into the costal muscles between the ribs as the lower belly is gently contracted. She had us lay on our mats so we could feel our ribs expand. Here’s another video that demonstrates how to do it.

Pranayama breathing is utilized to alleviate pain and unbalance in the body. I was first introduced to it in my meditation classes. But Laura suggested this technique to use during stretching to help loosen up tight muscles or joints. Here’s another video that show you how to do it.

While much of our breathing happens autonomically without any thought, we can improve our performance, sleep and recovery by applying these techniques.

Wednesday ZenDay: A Big Enough Dream

One of my favorite things about my bimonthly meditation group is that our “Zen Coach” often reads to us a wonderful passage from Ralph Marston. And our group usually responds with a satisfying sigh of agreement. I usually can't wait to share them with Todd and his bro. So I thought I’d share them with you here from time to time too. A big enough dream

How big is your dream? Make sure it it’s big enough to overwhelm all the challenges.

Are life’s pains and problems and annoyances getting to you too often? Though you can’t stop them from popping up, you can stop them from dragging you down.

When you’re passionate about where you want to go, you’ll more easily deal with all the things that happen where you are. When you focus on what’s on the other side of the challenges, you’ll find the strength to persist through those challenges.

There is a beautiful purpose within you. It is a purpose so compelling that it absolutely will not allow you to give up.

Open yourself to the truth of who you are, and you open yourself to that purpose. Allow that purpose to inspire you, connect with it, and tap into its undeniable power.

Express that purpose with a dream that is too big and too wonderful and too meaningful to abandon. With a big enough dream, anything is possible.

Ralph Marston

Wednesday ZenDay: Photography as Meditation

7Sleeping.jpg

For the past few years, I’ve been practicing meditation. I’m still taking a bi-monthly class that I love. Every month it amazes me how many different ways there are to meditate. They all offer a way to look at your life through a different lens and relax.

The common theme? Slow breathing and quieting the mind. Very few things can do that for me. But I couldn’t help noticing a while back that I feel as relaxed and refreshed after taking pictures as I do after a meditation session. When I’m alone, taking pictures of nature, my mind ceases to think of all those to-dos and other things that concern me. Getting caught up in the visual delight of composing a shot is my mental break.

Part of it, I’m sure is my upbringing. My dad gave me my first camera in the third grade. I’d spend many school nights down in our basement darkroom. Dad guided me as we dipped photo paper into trays of chemicals and watched them slowly come to life. I look back fondly on those days as much as I look forward to pulling out my iPhone or digital camera at unexpected moments.

The real reason I started meditation? I read that it was good for the adrenals. When you overwork those little glands through physical (training) or emotional stress, your body responds with fatigue, a weakened immune system and other symptoms. A decade ago, my adrenals weren’t up to snuff. My doctor forbad me from running for nine months! The only thing that kept me from losing my mind was learning how to play golf with my then young nephews. I don’t want THAT to happen again. So meditation is now a regular part of my recovery. Yeah, 7 (pictured above) isn’t the only one who needs to slow down.

Wednesday ZenDay: Setting Your Intention/Making Cooking Easier

A couple of years ago, our Zen Coach Devi gave us a pretty interesting exercise. We had to take out an old-fashioned paper calendar and “set our intention” for each month at the beginning of the year. We had to do it in a way that sounded empowering rather than negative or self-admonishing. For example, me (little Minnow) couldn’t write:

“Swim better in the ocean”

Nope!

“Face your fear of the ocean”

Nope! Nope!

“Find courage in the water”

Bingo. Much better!

It could be anything that you want to focus on that month. It doesn’t have to be a total self-improvement thing. January was a blast for me because after a pretty intense year, my intention was “to laugh.” And hanging out with Todd’s family over the holidays helped me get a jumpstart on that one.

So, I looked down at my calendar this weekend and realized I had written for September, “Nourish myself.” Pretty funny since after reading TriSaraTops blog, I downloaded this slow-cooker e-recipe book she recommended for $5.99. And as a belated b-day gift to myself, I replaced the hand-me-down crockpot my family has had since the Carter administration and got a new, larger programmable one.

With a couple of hours of chopping and assembly in front of the TV on Saturday and Sunday, I was able to prep what I think will be about 30 cheap, healthy meals for this single gal. The recipes are designed for families, but I just divided up the portions into more bags that are in the freezer and ready to go in the slow cooker. If you’re like me, Zen is just finding a way to be at a peace. And lately, some nights that has meant eating half a tub of hummus with some rice crackers and a couple of Steinlagers. I'm human! But I think this style of “cooking” once or twice a month will do just that for me too. Now I’ll be able to pop a bag out of the freezer and into the slow cooker and come home from my master’s swim workouts or crossfit classes with some nourishing, warm comfort food meal ready to go. (Without blowing my mostly gluten-free diet or budget.)

WednesdayZenDay: Rewire Your Brain to Become a Better Athlete

The word of this WednesdayZenDay is “neuroplasticity.” I interviewed a neurosurgeon for a story a couple of years ago, and he explained, “It occurs when other neurons make new connections and learn new tasks by practicing them over and over again. It’s like rewiring the brain.” I’ve done a lot to change my swimming over the years. But there have been a couple of areas that I perceive as being a real hindrance to taking my swimming to the next level. One in particular is flip turns.

Figuring how to do a flip turn has required me to completely rewire some circuits the past couple of weeks. It’s something that has not come naturally to me over the years – AT ALL. (But I’ll save the blackmail material details for another post.) I’ve decided to embrace it. Every awkward, baffling, frustrating, and exhilarating moment of it. Because that feels a whole lot better than dwelling on the not knowing how to do flip turns.

Logically, I know that if I can do flip turns I will become a more conditioned athlete in the pool and the open water. My average lap times will drop. Psychologically, I’ll feel like I’m joining all the cool kids in the Master’s lane by finally mastering them.

It’s just a matter of practicing this new task and the various parts of it over and over again. What about you? Is there one thing that you’d like to nail that’s going to force you to rewire your brain? A faster cadence on the run? A more powerful stroke in the water? A better position on the bike? Learning to do that one thing better just might be the key to taking your performance up a notch.

Since the Wednesday ZenDay series was inspired by my Wednesday meditation classes, I’d be remiss in not mentioning that numerous studies have shown that meditation can help your brain make those new connections. To learn how, I highly recommend the book “Rewire Your Brain for Love” by Marsha Lucas, PhD.

WednesdayZenDay: Visualization Like an Olympian?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like tennis player Chris Everett. (Yeah, dating myself.) I would spend six hours a day hitting a tennis ball around the court and against a backboard in the summer, honing my two-fisted backhand. So when I read an article “You’re Not an Olympian: Imagine That” in The Boston Globe’s fitness blog about mental imagery in sports, it took me back. The author delves into how certain visualization techniques can help or hurt your performance and a couple of great research studies.

My favorite quote, “…imagining yourself as Ryan Lochte powering through the 200-meter freestyle may be nice, but imagining you yourself exploding off the walls during a 200 freestyle will yield greater mental and emotional benefits.”

Sure that kid is still inside me. Once in a while I might fantasize about qualifying for the Boston Marathon or Kona. Maybe you do too? But if we really want to get there, we better focus more on visualizing the ways we’re going to become faster and stronger, not the end result.

Wednesday ZenDay: Olympians Who Meditate

I was watching Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings play in their Olympic beach volleyball match and heard the announcer Heather Cox say, “Playing their last match came with an extra layer of pressure. It weighed on them too much. So they worked with sports psychologist Mike Gervais. He helped them with trust and dealing with pressure. The duo met with him today. They worked on breathing. They did meditation. And he finished by saying, ‘Everything you need is within you.’” And one of my favorite Twitter peeps @DrMarsha also passed along a great article from the BBC on how Olympians practice meditation to improve their performance.

Do you meditate? Would you like to learn? It might be the one thing you need to reach your next PR.

Wednesday ZenDay: Humpback Whale Rescue

Last week at the end of our meditation class, my instructor gave us our homework, "Look for the magic in the world and see what you find." Feeling totally relaxed after a great session, I could've gone straight to bed. Still working on unplugging, I checked my email one more time and received this from my swim buddy Janice. Yup, MAGIC!

...The Whale... If you read a recent front page story of the San Francisco Chronicle, you would have read about a female humpback whale who had become entangled in a spider web of crab traps and lines. She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. She also had hundreds of yards of line rope wrapped around her body, her tail, her torso and a line tugging in her mouth.

A fisherman spotted her just east of the Farallon Islands (outside the Golden Gate ) and radioed an environmental group for help. Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined that she was so bad off, the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her. They worked for hours with curved knives and eventually freed her.

When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles. She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, and nudged them, pushed them gently around as she was thanking them.

Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives. The guy who cut the rope out of her mouth said her eyes were following him the whole time, and he will never be the same.

May you, and all those you love, be so blessed and fortunate to be surrounded by people who will help you get untangled from the things that are binding you. And, may you always know the joy of giving and receiving gratitude.

I pass this on to you, my friends, in the same spirit. Life is good.

It reminds me of my friend Lynne Cox's experience, which inspired her book Grayson.

So, what about you? What's been magical?

WednesdayZenDay: An Observation of a Tour de France Champion

I was riveted to the Tour de France TV coverage as usual this year. Yes, I may’ve watched it two or three times a day. It was everything I hoped for – incredible views, amazing race footage, new talent and old favorites. One thing that caused me to have a double take was listening to Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin as they discussed how sport psychologist Steve Peters had helped Bradley Wiggins. According to a BBC article, “Steve Peters has been key in getting the Sky riders to conquer their emotional "inner chimp" and stay cool, focusing on the process not the outcome.”

Sounded very much like the advice I’ve been getting over the years from my Zen Coach in meditation. Being present and being mindful comes from being in the now. Of course, with some things it’s easier said than done. But a few minutes of meditation a day does help.

As I was thinking about focusing on the process more in my own training, I realized I’m a real mixed bag. Even in one master’s swim workout I am a mixed bag. Last night, I struggled again with learning flip turns for a good 15 minutes before moving on to the rest of the workout. I know when it comes to this new skill I am way too focused on the outcome of successfully flipping my legs over my body. But then a few minutes later when Coach Hanna gave me sculling drills on my back, I was totally focused on the process. It’s also very much a new skill for me. I enjoyed being in the moment, staring up at the sky as dusk took hold and feeling the sensation of my hands doing small figure eights and the movement of the water.

What about you? Where are you focused on the process? Where do you need to tame you “inner chimp” and not think about the outcome?

WednesdayZenday

For the past five years, I’ve been taking a meditation class with an incredible group of five women. We meet every other Wednesday. I plan my training around it. Our husbands and significant others know we can’t miss it. The class has done more for me than I could have ever imagined. Devi, who Todd has nicknamed my “Zen Coach” has a way of helping us constantly look at our lives through a different lens. Set our intentions for the little and the big goals. Change some of our bad habits. Recognize the good. Learn to be more mindful. And cope with the variety of stress that enters our lives. It’s become my own personal re-set button.

I’m still working on all of the above. I’m human. For instance, a while ago, I set an intention to blog more about the things I’m passionate about. This is one of them. I’m going to make WednesdayZenday a regular feature and share with you some of the things I get out of my classes and elsewhere. Devi usually passes out a handout near the end of class that makes you want to read it again and again. Here is the last one, which I may just have to commit to memory:

Peaceful Awareness

Open your awareness to the abundance. Open your awareness to the goodness and the possibilities.

Life is renewed in every moment. There is no need to keep re-fighting the battles of the past.

Relax, and let the fears dissolve. Be at peace, and allow the abundance to flow through you.

Send all your energy into all your love. Now is when opportunity is transformed into beautiful value.

Focus on what is good, what is right, what is true and meaningful. Give the whole of your presence to the best you can envision.

Let the richness into your awareness and into your life. Enjoy and love and live and create with no hesitation, free of worry and doubt.

Ralph Marston

Joyfear

I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Zenhabits, recently and came across this word, which Leo Babauta coined. He writes a lot of good stuff on health and fitness as well as tapping into a more focused state of mind and working more efficiently.

His post on Joyfear really captured the essence of why I like triathlons. He defines Joyfear as “a mixture of intense joy and intense fear into one ball of powerful emotions that both lift me up and make me see things clearly when I hadn’t before.”

That really rang true with me. It’s exactly what I experience when I race. Or when one of my ad agency clients calls me in to work on a big pitch. Or lately, when I go to a Crossfit class.

So two questions: What brings you joyfear? What non-triathlon blogs do you read for inspiration and why?