The Zen of meetings: Remembering to listen

Sometimes being in the moment means being bored. That is the uncomfortable reality of attending meetings.

I’m not a big fan of meetings. If they go on too long, and what meeting doesn’t, they release the squirmy preteen who lives in my head.

bored looking preteen girl
My inner squirmy preteen

She flicks her gaze back and forth between the clock and whoever is speaking. She scribbles nonsense in the margins of her legal pad. When she has exhausted all socially acceptable diversions, she resorts to that middle-school favorite, criticism.

“Let’s think outside the box,” she fumes silently. “Really?!”

Of course she’s not the only person who finds that cliché, or any cliché, distasteful. After all, clichés indicate a certain laziness in the speaker, right, so it’s okay to heap scorn and mockery on their heads, right?

Simmer down, I tell my inner brat. It isn’t that simple.

Sometimes using clichés is a mistake. But sometimes using them indicates a code, a common language indicating common goals, a way to get to the point faster. In those instances, a cliché can be an effective communication tool. So what’s really going on here, I ask my inner tweenster. Why the eye roll?

The ugly truth

The truth, it turns out, is very unflattering. To me. The truth is that when I’m bored and fidgety, it’s often because I’m not truly listening. I’m using boredom as an excuse to disengage and think snarky thoughts. Rather than tuning out, I need to tune in.

Listening is a skill. It’s an active process requiring not just my attention but thoughtful consideration of the message. It requires setting aside my own impatience and extending the courtesy of my full attention to the speaker. In short, it requires mindfulness.

Coming home to mindfulness

It all starts with the breath. I begin silently counting my breaths, from one to four. Inhale slowly, exhale slowly, and count one. Inhale slowly, exhale slowly, and count two. When I get to four, I start again.

Four Leaf Clover
I count to four and start again

This return to mindfulness helps me engage my listening skills. And once I do,  the meeting transforms. Or rather, my experience of it transforms.

I feel more connected to the others in the room. I start to understand what it is they’re saying, or trying to say. I’m more actively involved. This sense of connection is a good clue that I’ve tuned in again.

Do I still get fidgety? Of course. And I still think no meeting should last more than 20 minutes. But I’m getting better at reminding myself to listen. One meeting at a time.

zen garden
Zen garden
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Stress is good for me?

The answer is yes, stress can be good for us. It all depends on how we respond to it. In fact, we can learn to respond in a way that’s actually good for our hearts (and our souls).

First we need to learn to look at our body’s response to stress as helpful. Second, we need to learn to reach out to others instead of keeping our stress all bottled up. In other words, we need to listen to the wisdom of our bodies.

Stress can be helpful

When I’m stressed, my heart races, my breath get shallow and fast, and my palms sweat. In my mind, I look like the person depicted in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Edvard Munch's painting of a person on a bridge screaming
Edvard Munch’s The Scream

I always assumed this physical reaction was a bad thing. Turns out I was wrong. This response can actually be heart healthy, depending on how we look at it. If we can regard our body’s physical response to stress as positive, it can actually be good for us.

In addition to the physical symptoms of stress, we also feel a need for support and connection. Following that impulse is key. When we tell someone else how we feel, our body starts to respond differently to the stress.

I learned this in an excellent TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist. It’s only 15 minutes long, but if you’re pressed for time, scroll down for a summary.

You can watch the 15-minute talk here:

Summary of TED Talk on stress

Ms. McGonigal describes a study done at Harvard in which participants were given tests under stressful situations. Before the test, they were taught that the physical sensations of stress were helpful, that their bodies were preparing them to perform well on the tests.

Because they now viewed the stress response as helpful, participants felt less stress and more confidence. And rather than constricting, their blood vessels relaxed, which is much healthier for the heart. In fact, this cardiovascular profile is similar to that of moments of bravery and joy.

(6:51) “And when you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier.”

The second way to make stress work for us is to follow our social impulse. The stress hormone oxytocin makes us feel a need for connection. It also protects our hearts. When we talk over our problems and stressors with our friends and family, our body releases more oxytocin, also known as “the cuddle hormone,” which helps the heart heal and recover from stress.

(9:32) “I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.” 

Making stress work for us

A friend of mine who knew I was stressed suggested I watch this talk. I was skeptical, but also desperate. I tried out the first strategy of changing my view of stress. I was working on a presentation for grad school and feeling panicky and overwhelmed. Every time I sat at the computer to work on it my heart raced and I felt jittery. I kept telling myself that this was a good thing, that I could channel this nervous energy into my work. It took some persistence, but finally I started feeling different. Energized, but not stressed out. Focused, but not obsessive. I got the presentation done on time and received positive feedback on it. Now I find it much easier to trust that my body knows what it’s doing.

I employed the second strategy just yesterday, and not for the first time. I was facing a difficult conversation, one I felt was necessary but might permanently alter a relationship. So I called my friend Sue. We’ve know each other since junior high, and I know I can count on her to listen and to respond with compassion and honesty. And sure enough, during our talk I began to feel lighter, more relaxed, less freaked out.

Eastern medicine has long understood the power and importance of the mind-body connection. I’m glad that researchers in the West are finally honoring this connection and exploring it in depth.

I would love to know your reaction to Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk.

What about you? What are your strategies for dealing with stress?

Who are you grateful for?

One of the ways I’ve found to live a healthier, more mindful life is to reflect on what I’m grateful for. As I mentioned in an earlier post, keeping a gratitude journal helps me focus on the people and things I am lucky to have in my life.

Today I’m thankful for the ways my sisters help and support me. I can always count on them, whenever I’m teetering on the edge of hopelessness, to reel me back in. I wrote about them yesterday in my gratitude journal.

My gratitude journal entry about my sisters
My gratitude journal entry about my sisters

No matter what I do, my sisters still love me. And it hasn’t always been easy. Growing up I was the bossy older sister. (Actually, sometimes I still am!) But somehow they’ve gotten past all my obnoxious behavior and now they’re my own personal cheering squad. And I’m theirs.

For some reason I can no longer recall, we used to call each other “piggy,” which wasn’t an insult but rather a term of endearment. And we spoke our own piggy dialect (not pig Latin), which involved bizarre accents and inside jokes. Sometimes we still call each other piggy.

three cartoon pigs
The Piggy Sisters

My sisters live thousands of miles away, but we’ve managed to stay close in the ways that matter. It didn’t happen automatically, of course. We had to work at it. We had to stay in touch. We had to talk openly and honestly.

And we had to appreciate each other.

30 words. That’s all I wrote in my journal. It’s amazing how powerful the simple act of writing something down is. I can’t wait to call my sisters this weekend.

Who are you grateful for?

When was the last time you told them?

An Attitude of Gratitude

On Facebook recently a friend challenged me to name 3 things I was grateful for every day for a week. I didn’t make it. Does that mean I’m an ungrateful wretch? I hope not.

grumpy cat staring straight at you
Ungrateful? Moi?!

The truth is that I was frustrated by trying to come up with 3 fresh items for my gratitude list without repeating myself. But if I felt blessed to have such wonderful friends on Monday, surely I felt the same on Thursday. Since the point of the challenge was to open my mind rather than make me cranky, I gave up in frustration and embarrassment.

Luckily I found this article on the website for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California. It offers 6 sensible and easy tips for keeping a gratitude journal which made which made me feel better about the whole stupid challenge. Here’s a quick summary of their tips:

6 Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal

  1. Easy does it. Don’t expect to write in your journal every day. Let go of expectations that can snuff out our good intentions.
  2. Decide that you really want to feel more grateful. Just writing stuff down won’t magically change your attitude. The point is to become more mindful.
  3. Go for quality over quantity. Instead of making a long list, stick to just a few things, or even just one, and then explore that in depth.
  4. Yes, things are nice, but thinking about the people we’re grateful for will result in a greater change in our outlook.
  5. When something good happens unexpectedly, write it down. These happy surprises can touch us deeply if we slow down and let them sink in.
  6. If you’re stumped, think about what it would be like if you didn’t know certain people or have certain things.

Number 3 really resonated with me: quality over quantity. It’s easy to say, “I’m thankful for my friend Lucy.” But to take a pause and dwell on what makes Lucy so special, what my life would be like without her friendship (see #6 above), that to me lays the groundwork for a practice of real gratitude.

So I rushed right out and got myself a small notebook in which to jot down the people and things I am thankful for.

gratitude journal
My gratitude journal

One of the things I am very grateful for is photography, especially outdoors. I love approaching a subject from multiple angles and trying to capture a mood, or a meaning, that I might otherwise have just walked by. And I’m thankful for the magic that happens when a shot that I thought was terrible turns out to be good. That’s what happened with this photo, which I took on a trip to Seaside, Oregon with my family.

heron in the river in Seaside, Oregon
Heron in the river in Seaside, Oregon

I had fun editing this photo and applying different effects. I wanted the image to feel dramatic, and I wanted to emphasize the rhythmic element of the ripples in the water. Looking at this picture reminds me of the fun we had on that vacation, walking on the beach, cooking each other meals, and watching Mel Brook’s movie Young Frankenstein. I guess photos are another way to chronicle who and what we’re grateful for.

Why am I awake at 3:00 a.m.?

Stress and sleep

Stress messes with my sleep, and the last few years I’ve had a lot of stress. (But then, who hasn’t?) So after months of broken, restless sleep, followed by stupor-filled days, I finally consulted a sleep specialist. It was money well spent. Within a week I was getting more rest. This was a big step in learning to take better care of myself.

The doctor quickly ruled out sleep apnea and the need for a C-Pap machine. Blood tests revealed that I had low levels of vitamin D, so I got a prescription for mega-doses of it which I took for a couple months. He suggested using a light therapy box during the day because they help regulate sleep cycles (as well as combating seasonal affective disorder). I found mine online for about $70.

light therapy box

Improving my sleep habits

The doctor told me that in order to improve my sleep, I needed to improve my sleep habits. During the day, he suggested I make these changes:

  • Avoid caffeine after noon.
  • Get regular exercise, but not too late in the day, because it can cause a boost of energy just when it’s time to wind down.
  • Avoid naps, no matter how sleepy I am, because they upset sleep patterns.

In the evening he suggested the following:

  • Put away or turn off all electronics at least one hour before bedtime (TV, cell phone, tablet, computer, all of them!) because they emit blue light, which revs up our brains.
  • Use a neti pot or other type of sinus irrigation to ease breathing (but not right before bedtime because it causes the sinuses to drain).
  • Take 3 mg of melatonin right before bed to induce drowsiness.

In my quest for for restful slumber I’ve picked up a few more tips. I use earplugs, especially when I’m traveling, to block out noise. A sleep mask prevents me from peeking at the clock and is also helpful when traveling. The scent of lavender calms me down, so I keep a sachet under my pillow when I’ve had an especially tense day. And I’ve found that listening to ambient sounds like ocean waves or summer crickets helps me unwind. You can find audio files or CDs of these sounds online or at your library.

sleep mask, ear plugs, and lavender sachet

 

Resources on improving sleep

The doctor also referred me to the website for the National Sleep Foundation, which offers lots of information and resources for improving your sleep without pushing for prescription medications.

national sleep foundation

The website for Harvard Medical School offers 12 suggestions for improving your sleep naturally. There’s also helpful information on the website for The University of Maryland Medical Center.

The results

So how easy was it to improve my sleep habits? Well…Let’s just say that some changes were easier than others. Renouncing all electronics an hour before bedtime was hard. As I’m getting ready for bed I’m always thinking of something I want to do online, like checking tomorrow’s weather or looking at Facebook “just one last time.” And once I’m in front of that screen, I lose track of time (and common sense) and before I know it I’m too wired to sleep.

Giving up napping on the weekends was hard, especially on days that were rainy or especially cold. Cutting back on coffee in the afternoons was hard, because I was often sleepy before my new routine got established. Nowadays I’ll indulge in an afternoon mocha, but I try to be mindful about it. If I’m anxious about something, or if I’ve already had a lot of coffee, I’ll have something decaffeinated instead.

I’ve learned that meditating earlier in the day improves my sleep. It took me a while to get used to the change in my dreams, which became much more vivid. At first their intensity kind of freaked me out, but now I’m able to view them as little movies in my head. And sometimes I find that they offer me insights and solutions to problems that hadn’t occurred to me when I was awake.

I still have the occasional bad night, as everyone does. But I’ve made real progress in making sure I get a good night’s sleep. How about you? Do you have any tips to share on getting a good night’s sleep?

 

Why is there so much stuff?!

I moved recently from an apartment to a townhouse and the process overwhelmed me. How had I managed to fit all this stuff into a one-bedroom apartment? Some of it held sentimental value, of course, but much of it was just taking up space. A look at my bookshelves provided insight into the larger problem. The shelves were crowded with volumes I rarely looked at:

  • collections of crochet patterns, which I now prefer to browse for online;
  • Shakespeare’s plays (from the days when I could afford a subscription to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater);
  • gardening books (not useful for apartment dwellers);
  • user manuals for software and devices I no longer owned;
  • textbooks from my (long ago) days as an undergrad;
  • books I felt I should read but probably never would.

I walked past these shelves every day but I wasn’t actually seeing what was on them. I had accumulated much of this clutter by default, simply by not paying attention to what I had and what I really needed. Broadening my gaze to the rest of the apartment, I found the same problem everywhere: too much stuff. I was reminded of comedian George Carlin’s classic routine about stuff:

I felt better after watching George’s routine, but I still needed a plan, a system, to make sense of the chaos. I didn’t have a system of my own, so I decided to borrow someone else’s. I went to the Flylady blog, written by Marla Cilley. Flylady is a guru for those of us who need help with organizing and cleaning, cheerfully reminding us to take baby steps and learn to do a little bit every day. Her page on moving offered some liberating advice: If you don’t love it, don’t move it.

To get rid of clutter, or “decluttering” as she calls it, Flylady recommends getting 3 boxes or bins (laundry baskets work well for this) and using them to sort things into 3 piles:

  1. Put away
  2. Give away
  3. Throw away

I started with the books. At first, her system seemed harsh. How could I let go of things I had owned for decades? But gradually, as space opened up on the bookshelves, I started to feel better. I hadn’t realized how much all this stuff weighed me down. Letting go made me feel lighter. Freer. Relieved. I continued moving through the apartment, letting go of things I no longer needed or wanted. I regularly donated boxes of clothes, books, and household goods to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. I liked to think about the people I might be helping this way. I reminded myself how lucky I was to be in a position to help others. Interesting the way that giving often leads to gratitude.

I’d like to claim that I thoroughly simplified my life in that one move, but I didn’t. I held on to many things out of fear that I might need them in some far-off future. When I started unpacking at the new place I was dismayed by how much I had schlepped with me. So I got out 3 boxes, sorted things into piles and made daily trips to Goodwill. I’ve learned that living this way is a process, and a never-ending one. New stuff will always find its way into my home, so I need to make uncluttering a regular habit. When I buy a new book, which I am bound to do, I need to get rid of an old one.

I’ve found several rewards for my efforts. Dusting has gotten easier. I have more room to display the items I really treasure, like the brass samovar from my uncle’s travels. I don’t dread going into my closet to search for something to wear. And I have a place now that feels not just tidier, but more spacious, more serene, more welcoming. More like home.