How to Feel Happier & Be Healthier inside and out!
If you’re like me and looking to make this a year of abundance or a year of less suffering, perhaps choosing an intention rather than making a resolution can help you achieve this or perhaps it’s NOT making a resolution at all and instead practicing self-compassion and accepting yourself for who you are!
Confession: I used to be a Resolution Addict. I typically would set one or many lofty goals each new year trying to make myself better and in turn, enhance my experience of living. Because I love a good challenge and the opportunity for a fresh start, resolutions were always right up my alley, especially during a time of exhaustion and depletion after the holiday craziness. What better a time to pick yourself up by the bootstraps and kick your butt into shape, right? But so many times, I’d start out strong and then, life would happen and I’d fall back into my old patterns and eventually fall short of my goals. The problem with this, year after year, Resolutions translated into failure and, over time, it became harder and harder to set worthy goals that I could accomplish. I was reinforcing fear, disappointment and the pattern of beating myself up because I failed again or didn’t want to take the hit and realize this year wasn’t going to be any different than the past. No wonder why I began setting small goals at first and eventually no goals as the years ticked by. Subconsciously, my mind was telling me you can’t take anymore failure. Pick an easy one this time. It was like adding “brush your teeth” to my daily, to-do list so I could easily check it off.
But was that really the purpose of Resolutions? To put meaningless, small minded tasks on an already very full plate?
I think somewhere along the line I confused Resolutions with goals, and google confirms that fact defining resolutions as:
“A firm decision to do or not to do something. The action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter.”
Although goals can help us to solve a problem, YOU ARE NOT A PROBLEM! Goals can tend to be so broad, like “get healthy” or “be happier” that they don’t provide us the guidance and clarity of how we can reach them. And in reading this definition, it’s apparent that I was overshooting my Resolutions trying to make them BIG enough to last the Whole year. But who says?
When I began meditating a few years back, the word “intention” was everywhere. My teachers would guide us through each practice reminding us to set an intention for our practice and remind ourselves of that intention again at the end of each practice. I looked at intention-setting like many goals I had established in the past. Set the big goals, break them down into smaller, more manageable ones, and then tackle them head on one by one. And then, boom, the task is complete. Little did I know, the universe laughs at this sense of micromanagement when it comes to intention-setting.
So there I was, a new meditator, eager, and a bit of a control freak. I wanted to set an intention that was “right” but also not that hard. One I could accomplish. Deep in the midst of getting my MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) certification, I was asked to set an intention for the week and share with a friend. As an obedient student, I did as I was told. I meditated, and waited, and meditated, and waited some more. For six days, I waited and got absolutely nothing, no response. I was certain that this meditation and intention-setting wasn’t working.
Day after day, I sat waiting for an answer, an idea, anything. Night after night I scanned Pinterest and searched for Intentions that resonated with me. Still, nothing felt right. Then, finally, one night as my family had our usual dance party before bed, playing our favorite songs and remixes through You Tube, my boys requested the fart version of “Let it Go.” And, BOOM, there it was!
I shook my head in dismay as I danced with tears in my eyes and goosebumps on my skin, laughing and crying at the same time. It wasn’t how I expected it to come, but I finally had my answer. It was time to let go of that which I couldn’t control, that which no longer served me and let go of the thoughts and feelings associated with this powerful script that played incessantly in my mind!
We’re all guilty of trying to control every aspect of our lives. Setting intentions is an extremely powerful tool, but the process must be respected for it to work. Here are some tips to help you use intentions with your meditation practice:
1- Practice Acceptance
One of the greatest gifts of my Meditation practice is the realization that every moment of awareness is a chance to begin again. Each time I sit with discomfort or realize my rising stress level it is a chance for me to make a different choice, or respond more skillfully. So I’m having a bad day or I’m irritated that I have so much to do, but don’t want to do anything. I could write it off and hence turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy where everything will turn to crap or I can recognize the presence of unhappiness or sadness, respect myself enough to let it be or even choose to do something to make it better. The more we practice sitting with discomfort and accept it in a relaxed state, the more we mold our experience to be just that. We retrain our bodies and our minds to remain calm in the midst of a storm time and time again until that becomes our normal response to the storms.
2-Expect Troubles and Obstacles
Dr. Paul Ekman and his daughter, Dr. Eve Ekman developed the “Atlas of Emotions” (www.atlasofemotions.org) focusing on the 5 Universal emotions that are experienced by all humans regardless of where or how they grew up: Anger, Fear, Disgust, Sadness and Enjoyment. I think it’s noteworthy that 4 out of 5 are considered uncomfortable emotions and can make us understand a little more deeply that the purpose of emotions is to protect us or keep us safe and not to make us happy. The atlas also draws a connection to the following associated aspects of each emotion:
States-The continuum of emotions from mildly to extreme and somewhere in between.
Actions-The response to our emotions.
Triggers-What causes a particular emotion.
Moods-Longer lasting states that can cause us to feel an emotion repeatedly without any clear trigger.
Experiencing Calm-a state of balance that can be reached when we develop an awareness of our emotional loop (the trigger, the emotion and our reaction) so that we can respond constructively.
I think it’s important to point out the multitude of variables and ways these emotions can be felt and acted upon making it confusing to differentiate, especially in the moment. When I think of how many times I mistook excitement for fear or sadness for anger, I’m not at all surprised that I spent close to four decades as an anxious migraine sufferer. Meditation offers us the ability to practice identifying not only our emotions, but also to examine their strengths and effects both internally and externally. When we become the master of our emotions, knowing what they feel like, where and how we feel them, we also begin to recognize the patterns in our responses. Each time we sit, we learn to expect these emotions to appear like a friend we know well. We come to “greet them at the door,” as if to say , “Hello dear anxiety, I was expecting you.” I believe the same can be true about our experiences. If we expect traffic, does it change our response to it? Maybe instead of feeling irritated, we choose to occupy ourselves differently by listening to music, looking out the window, or people watching. If we plan for challenges or difficulties in our daily lives, does it change the way we feel about them and our ability to handle them?
3-Know that Nothing is Perfect or Permanent
That Nich Hahn, a great mind of Mindfulness Meditation, reminds us that “Everything in life is impermanent.” Everything that lives, eventually dies and the same can be true of our thoughts, feelings and experiences. Good or bad, comfortable or uncomfortable, nothing lasts forever. When we resist or deny this by clinging to pleasant experiences or push away or resist the unpleasant, we cause our own suffering.
For so many years, I tried to avoid strong emotions by ignoring them or distracting myself from them. I would typically throw myself into a task of organizing or cleaning out a part of my house or classroom in an attempt to busy myself, ignore the uncomfortable emotion and feel accomplished in the end. Time and time again, I successfully avoided anger, sadness, grief or worry by going into “hyper productive” mode. At the time, I knew it wasn’t the healthiest way to manage my stress, but I rationalized that I could have chosen a far more destructive coping mechanism and at least the only negative side effect was that I was left exhausted in the end...WRONG!
As I’ve come to learn and witness over and over again as a result of my Mindfulness practice, repressing emotions doesn’t make them go away; clinging to thoughts and ideas doesn’t help me solve them; avoiding difficulties in life doesn’t make them any easier to navigate and over time, this desire for the perfect and avoidance of the imperfect experiences can cause more than just a lack of energy, but can also affect our overall sense of health and happiness! The more I sit in the midst of those stormy situations, the more I see these thoughts and feelings rise and fall.
It is said that emotions typically last for 90 seconds or less if we do nothing and simply allow them to be. (Psychology Today-How Brief are Emotions?) It’s when we allow our emotions to create our moods by inhabiting them, we only perpetuate them. When we react to them over and over through our facial expressions or body bracing (where/how we hold our energy), we prolong our experience with them. We also know that in life and by human design we cannot expect to feel joy if we don’t allow ourselves to feel suffering. When we build walls, they keep everything out, not just the bad stuff. So when we sit in Mindfulness Meditation we expect thoughts, emotions and sensations to arise. We accept and acknowledge their presence without judgement (meaning not defining them as good or bad) and return to our single point of focus (our breath, sounds or other sense that you are working with). Naturally, we notice them come and eventually go and slowly, we retrain our reactions to these experiences to be more gentle and compassionate toward ourselves and others.
This year, I’m choosing to focus on the process-the infinite present moments in which transformation will occur-rather than the single instance of its attainment. I’ve realized my own tendancy to beat myself up for falling off the wagon or not sticking to a plan and recognized that I often fail to pause and celebrate the small accomplishments before I rush off to the next task on the list.
So this year, rather than setting lofty goals or a resolution, I’m choosing an intention or reminder: Compassion and Celebration! I’m choosing to treat myself with the kindness I extend to all others and forcing myself to pause in life and in my business to acknowledge and feel the joy in the process!
If you’re looking for a twist on your New Year, want to try something different, need more or less of something that is more manageable and less critical, working with an intention may be just what you’re looking for. Try asking yourself:
1-What have I accomplished recently (both big and small)? You may be surprised by the list you compile and appreciate the dopamine hit that comes from feeling accomplished.
2- What do I want more of in my life? Be it happiness, money, health, etc. I truly believe the universe works in mysterious ways and we have to be brave enough to put it out there for abundance to follow.
3-How do I want to feel? This was an easy question for me to answer yet it was eye opening to realize that if I wanted to feel happy and fulfilled, I needed to add activities and opportunities for this to occur. You too, may be surprised when you take a look at your answers and discover that it’s no wonder you’re feeling exhausted or overwhelmed or why you’re lacking peace or health, especially if your plate is full of responsibilities that do not align with your intentions.
4- What do I want less of in my life? Again, whether it’s stress, sadness, work or the gym, acknowledging unpleasant experiences helps us to not only examine our reality, but make a different plan or choose to respond more appropriately. You may find there are things on your list that are non-negotiable, like making kid’s lunches or doing the laundry, and for those you may choose “how” you do those tasks to align with your answer to numbers 2&3. But you may also find tasks that no longer serve you, that you are doing more out of habit than need, that you can eliminate. For me, it was picking out my kids’ clothes and jamming chores into the weekend. They used to be helpful when I worked full time out of the home, but now I’m home most mornings and have plenty of time do them whenever of better, I can take the time to help my children do them so that it’s one less thing I’m responsible for. Finally, you may come to discover tasks that can be shared or even delegated to others. Grocery shopping and putting away clean laundry were two huge tasks that occupied a lot of my time and took me away from more important activities. Asking for help or realizing that my time is worth money too has been a big awakening that has afforded me more space in my days and more time in my life.