Monday, October 24, 2016

How Nature Can Remind Us to Be Present

Bryce Canyon, Utah. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Buikema

By Kimberly Buikema
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir, early advocate for US wilderness preservation
Throughout 2016, the National Park Service has celebrated its centennial anniversary, with its actual 100th birthday having taken place on August 25. Anyone who has been lucky enough to visit any of the national parks can attest to their overwhelming beauty and majesty. Visiting them, whether for a few photographs, a brief stroll, a hike, or camping can invoke a sense of awe, wonderment, and peace.

So what is it about that experience that makes it so special? There are most likely scientific studies out there that explain the benefit of getting back in touch with nature and the earth. Instead, I’d like to mention why visiting the national parks have been so special for me.

  • The parks remind us that we, as humans are all connected, both to each other and the grander universe. 
  • Fresh air and sunshine can work wonders for mental and physical well-being.
  • The views are simply awe-inspiring and humbling.
  • The quiet and solitude, while being surrounded by beauty, reminds me that I am OK just as I am. 
  • The only distraction is nature and abundant life as seen in vegetation and wildlife. I never even look at my phone (unless it’s to take a picture).

I’m seeing new things and views I don’t usually see in the city. The colors are so different and vibrant.

Here in Chicago, we aren’t close to The West where national parks, mountains, deserts, and canyons are abundant. So what can we do here, among the high-rises, sprawling suburbs, and expressways do to feel closer to nature?

  • Don’t be afraid to get outdoors! Chicago can be hot and muggy (or REALLY cold) but can you spare a few mindful moments to feel the air on your skin, the earth beneath your feet? Even if the weather is uncomfortable, can you incorporate that into your experience? Can you feel the sweat collecting, the heavy humidity on your skin? 
  • Take a moment to listen. What sounds do you hear? Is there wind rustling leaves in the trees? Dogs barking? Birds chirping? Cicadas?
  • Open up the windows when the weather allows it. Let natural, fresh air fill your home. Notice how your home smells, feels, or sounds different with the windows open. 
  • Take a moment to admire the sky. We have our fair share of lovely sunsets, not to mention clouds, thunderstorms, and stars. 
  • Take your meditation or yoga practice outside. 

       Although these ideas seem simple, simplicity is often involved in practicing mindfulness. It allows us a moment to pause, breathe, notice, and connect. Connecting back to nature and the earth can help us feel connected to others and our inner selves.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine into trees.” – John Muir
Kim Buikema is a graduate intern at The Awakening Center. She is currently in her second and final year in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. She believes that goodness and truth lives within everyone and hopes to help people find their own inner-truth and goodness through counseling. She has a regular yoga and meditation practice, and enjoys traveling and music. She has recently returned to Chicago after living in the UK for ten years.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Power of Language: Part 3 Negating Words.

By Sheana Tobey, MA, LPC
            In Part 1 of this three-part series on language we explored rigid words. Part 2 delved into pressure words
            In this final installment, we’ll look into words and phrases that keep us from being open and accepting of ourselves and others. These are negating words or phrases, such as but. These types of words close off opposing forces that co-exist in our everyday lives. For example, yesterday I walked by a beautiful pair of shoes, and I thought, “I want those shoes, but I need to save money for rent.” (Notice the pressure word need that slipped in there? Could this mental fight have been avoided had I changed it to want? Just a thought) I walked away and didn’t even try them on. I continued thinking about those shoes and fighting with myself about them all day:  
“Those shoes were so pretty.”
“But you can’t afford them, Sheana.”
“But they were so perfectly edgy, and they would look great with that one dress…”
“Sheana, you always spend too much money on things you don’t need.  You’ve got to stop!” 
(Notice how the mental fight escalated and how I used the rigid word always with myself.) By throwing the word but into the middle of that initial phrase, I negated the part of me that wanted the shoes. By replacing but with a period or and, I could allow room for both parts of myself to have a say in whether or not I bought the shoes. So, had I stated “I want those shoes. And I need money for rent,” I would have opened the conversation up to choice. I still might choose to not buy them; however, I gave myself the space to fully experience wanting them. This allows me to feel more confident in, and to better understand, my choice. 
            So, consider following these steps to change this language pattern.
  1. Notice that you have used a negating word.
  2. Change it to a period or and.
  3. Allow space for both opposing items to exist at once. 

            Working to change these categories of words takes time and patience. These are words we use in our everyday language. So, go easy as you begin to catch yourself (nonjudgmentally) in the act of using them. Then, when you feel ready, move onto Steps 2 and 3.
           I hope these tools allow you to live your days more openly, accepting, and peacefully.

Sheana is a Licensed Professional Counselor at The Awakening Center working with individuals and groups. She creates an empathic, accepting environment in which she walks with her clients on a path toward peace and happiness. For inquiries or to set up an appointment, please contact her at (773)929-6262 Ext. 16 or

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Power of Language: Part 2 Pressure Words

By Sheana Tobey, MA, LPC
As noted in Part 1 of this 3-part series, we’re exploring how language can affect our peace of mind. In this post, I’d like to delve into pressure words, or the words and phrases that keep us from being open and accepting of ourselves and others. Examples include have to, must, should, and good enough. I lovingly say that when we use these, we are shoulding all over ourselves. I can appreciate how these types of words are usually trying to motivate us. However, in my experience, we end up pushed into tight corners with few acceptable outcomes.
            For example, if I tell myself “I have to finish writing this blog post by tonight,” then I’ve created only one acceptable outcome. (Did you notice the rigid word only that popped up there too?) What happens if I don’t finish the blog post by tonight? Odds are the mental fighting begins, and I shame myself for not getting it done. But imagine, if I said to myself “I would like to finish this blog post by tonight.” There’s so much space now. If I don’t get it done, that’s OK because my language allows me to understand that it wasn’t the only possible outcome. I can get it done tomorrow!
            One way to create space within these phrases is to follow these steps:
  1. Notice you’ve used a pressure word or phrase.
  2. Consider why you might actually want to complete the task or engage in the activity.
  3. Change the pressure words into more giving words, such as I want, It would be nice if, I would like to.
Now, you might be thinking, what if I have a task that I don’t want to do, such as laundry. First of all, I am with you. I know very few people who enjoy doing laundry. However, how happy will you be when you have clean underwear tomorrow? So “I have to do laundry” becomes “I would like to do laundry today so I’ll have clean underwear tomorrow.” Now you have created motivation. And if you decide you really don’t want to do your laundry, then you can go commando, and all will be well.
            Now, let’s consider that you have a work task with a firm deadline. It must get done. The word must automatically adds pressure to the situation. If you are anything like me, odds are this type of pressure causes you to play one too many games of Solitaire to procrastinate. Consider instead all of the reasons you want to complete the assignment. Perhaps you will get accolades from your boss, or you might feel good once you’ve completed the task. The idea is to add joy back into your to-do list and extract the pressure from it.
            This week, I encourage each of you to try step 1 with pressure words. Once you’ve mastered this step, you can move on to the others. And, as always, leave any judgement out of the work!
            Look for the Part 3—Negating Words—coming soon!

Sheana is a Licensed Professional Counselor at The Awakening Center working with individuals and groups. She creates an empathic, accepting environment in which she walks with her clients on a path toward peace and happiness. For inquiries or to set up an appointment, please contact her at (773)929-6262 Ext. 16 or


Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Power of Language: Part 1 Rigid Words.

By Sheana Tobey, MA, LPC

Language plays a powerful role in our lives. It allows us to communicate with others and with our Selves. The language we use can either open us up to considering multiple options and outcomes, or it can close us off from them. In the next three posts, I will pose three basic categories of words and phrases that tend to keep us from being open and accepting: rigid words, pressure words, and negating words.
          Today, I will talk about rigid words, including always, never, exactly, only, every, and none. These words tend to close us off from other possibilities or outcomes. For example, last week I was changing my sheets, and, as usual, I struggled with the fitted sheet. I often have a tough time knowing which is the long side and which is the short side. I took my best guess and got angry with myself when I got it wrong, thinking “Uggghhhh… I never do this right.” I ripped the sheet off, turned it around, and put it on the bed; I was in a bad mood for about 10 minutes before I realized what happened. I had insulted myself, and a part of me felt insecure and belittled.
          A mental fight ensued, leaving me in a bad mood. Can you imagine how much more peaceful that 10 minutes would have been had I said to myself “I often have difficulties putting a fitted sheet on the bed”? Go back and read that last sentence in an angry tone. It doesn’t have the same effect, does it? By nature of the word choice, it is a more accepting statement.
           Now, let’s double back to the time I was in a bad mood. Imagine that my partner was in the room with me, asking for my help with the laundry. Perhaps my patience was limited because I was preoccupied with the mental battle within. I may have snapped at him and told him to figure it out himself. This is one of the ways the language we use with ourselves can seep out and affect our relationships with others. 
            You can change the quality of these rigid statements by following these steps. 
  1. Recognize that you’ve used one of the rigid words with yourself or someone else.
  2. Take a step back from it--perhaps with a deep breath--and consider with curiosity the validity of it. Is it true that “I NEVER put a fitted sheet on correctly?” Of course not! I’ve gotten it right at least one time in my life.
  3. Change the phrase into a more accurate statement: “I often have difficulties putting a fitted sheet on the bed.”

         A key to doing this work is to leave judgement out of it. This week, I encourage all of you to try Step 1. Take time to notice when you use a rigid word. Notice what it does to your mood and how it effects your day, without judgement.  When you feel ready, continue on with steps 2 and 3.  It is easiest to begin stepping back from and changing words and phrases in less emotionally charged statements or subject matter. So begin there and work your way up. Remember that eliminating these words from your vocabulary takes time, so go easy on yourself as you begin the process.       
            Over the next two posts, we will look at the other two categories, pressure words and negating words, to create more space for peace and acceptance within.

Sheana is a Licensed Professional Counselor at The Awakening Center working with individuals and groups. She creates an empathic, accepting environment in which she walks with her clients on a path toward peace and happiness. For inquiries or to set up an appointment, please contact her at (773)929-6262 Ext. 16 or

Monday, August 22, 2016

Meditation Monday: Reflections on the Summer Games

By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC

In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly mindfulness group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or

The start of the Summer Olympics in Rio coincided with some time I had off from work. So, needless to say, I tuned in ready to cheer on the US’s athletes.

I enjoy watching these elite athletes and am always struck and impressed by their stories of hard work and persistence. Each was born with a natural talent or genetic advantage—I’m looking at you, Michael Phelps, and your long arms and insane lung capacity—but no one gets to this level of competition without hard work.

Of course, the downside to watching these games is that those gremlin voices inside our heads can get triggered: “She’s only 19 years old and look how much she’s accomplished! You’re clearly wasting your life.” Or “That guy overcame poverty and oppression and look what he can do! What are you complaining about? You’re clearly weak.”

Those gremlins are most often fired up by the stories we tell ourselves. To these parts, admiring the achievements of Simone Biles inevitably leads to self-doubt and shame at our meager accomplishments.

But, our inner wisdom knows there is room for all stories. The record-breaking performance of Katie Ledecky does not cast a shadow over achievements in work, school, or recovery. We can find inspiration in the stories of resilience without belittling ourselves.

So when you’re judgmental gremlin part gets loud in your head, try the following:
  1. Gently remind yourself that the judgmental gremlin is just a Part—not your whole Self.
  2. Reflect upon what the gremlin Part wants you to know. All our Parts have good intentions. Often, the judgmental Parts say things like “I want her to accomplish her goals so she’ll be happy!” What does the gremlin Part worry will happen if it doesn’t berate you?
  3. Lean into the gremlin Part with compassion. I know—that seems counterintuitive. Why would you want to lean into something that berates you? Because while the execution might be misguided, the gremlin Part is trying to help.
  4. Consider what the gremlin Part needs from your inner wisdom to help it feel less worried. Then, what do you need from the gremlin.

Use your meditation practice to connect to your inner wisdom so you can gain objectivity and perspective on the judgmental gremlin. Breathe, and let yourself move into a place of compassion and curiosity. Who knows. You might just make friends with your gremlin.

Enjoy your practice.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Wabi Sabi and the Art of De-Cluttering the Mind

Photo courtesy of Nancy Hall
By Florian Burfeind

Wabi Sabi is the Japanese worldview that celebrates functionality and spaciousness and that finds beauty in simplicity and imperfection. When we feel overwhelmed by a barrage of thoughts, feelings, and emotions, how can we create space and embrace our imperfections?

Sometimes, tidying up our home can help us feel better: creating space, putting things in their right places, or perhaps discarding items we no longer need. We have accomplished something, and by managing the outer chaos we have created space within.

When we feel triggered, it is important to keep our project manageable: “I’m going to sort through just this one stack of paper,” or “I’m going to go through this closet for only 15 minutes.” Then step back, and appreciate your accomplishment.

However, sometimes we cannot rearrange the objects around us. What to do then? Start by taking a moment to localize the sensations in the body. You may notice racing thoughts or a tightness in the chest. What else? Oh, a numbness in the feet. Now you have separated out some sensations. But what’s next:
  • Breathe in deeply through the nose, and let the air flow into your lungs, filling up the chest all the way to the gut, even into the toes. 
  • Imagine compassion streaming into your body with the air, dissolving any unpleasant sensations or aches in the body.
  • As you breathe out, release any tension in your body along with feelings of anxiety, fear, or sadness and give it over to the wide space in front of you.

There is enough space in the world to hold the tension for you. Instead, use the space within your body for feelings that are helpful, like calmness.

But what about our thoughts? We can experience having many thoughts at once. And sometimes they nag us even when part of us recognizes that we don’t need to listen to them. And then there can be thoughts that overwhelm us or frighten us even when perhaps it’s not altogether clear what the thought really is. Here too we can try to create space.
  • Localize a thought and imagine putting this thought in a chair or in a corner of the room.
  • Look at the thought, acknowledge it.
  • Do the same for one or two other thoughts you may have.
  •  Now put these thoughts on different chairs or in different spots in the room.
  •  Are any of these thoughts helpful to you? If not, why don’t you ask them to wait in their chairs or even in another room if that feels safer to you, until you are ready to work with them.

If a thought is no longer useful to you, see if the time feels right to let go of it altogether, perhaps burying it in the earth. Now return to your mind--does it feel a little calmer, a little bit more spacious perhaps? If you have an affirmation, go ahead and say it.

There may be more inner work to do, but right now, at this moment, you are who you are even with all your imperfections. And you are good enough. 

Florian Burfeind is a graduate intern at The Awakening Center. They (Florian uses genderneutral pronouns) are currently in their third year in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at DePaul University. Florian grew up in Europe and likes seeing things with new eyes. They're passionate about helping others find and live out their true Selves. In their free time, Florian enjoys being outside with their dog. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Meditation Monday: Thinking About Thinking

By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC

In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates two weekly meditation groups at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or

On a recent New Yorker podcast, Patricia Marx describes becoming reacquainted with archery. According to her instructor, the key is to clear one’s mind from thoughts. Apparently, an expert archer focuses on the intended target, allows it to penetrate completely into the mind, removes all semblance of thinking, and lets the arrow fly. Marx wasn’t particularly successful, unless you count the near bulls-eye she got—on her neighbor’s target. She described not being able to quiet her thoughts and commented, “This is why I’m terrible at yoga.”

Many mistakenly believe that practicing meditation means removing thoughts from the mind. But psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach has a different perspective on thinking. According to Brach, we cannot stop or control thoughts, but we can develop a different relationship with them. She states, “Thinking is a very good servant but a very bad master.” We need our thoughts—that’s how we do stuff.

But to be mindful, we need more than thinking. The thinking mind can turn us toward mindfulness. But it can keep us caught in dead-end loops. Judgment, ruminations, obsessions. To fully experience life, we need to use thinking as a tool, not as the only way of being in the world.

Brach offers the following exercise to bring mindfulness to thoughts. 
  • Close your eyes and take a few breaths to center yourself and come into the present moment.
  • For the next few minutes (set a timer if you like), count your thoughts. Just as each one enters into your mind. There’s a thought. There’s another one. Just notice and number them.
How was that? How many thoughts did you count? Can you identify which type of thoughts you had? Worrying? Planning? Judgmental? Thoughts about thoughts? Were they visual or audio? Moving images or stills?

Brach reminds us that thoughts are not reality. Just as feelings are not facts, thoughts are thoughts—they are not truth. We do not have to identify with the thoughts. But we also cannot—nor should we—try to remove them from our mindfulness practice. Notice, identify, and label. Acknowledge the thought instead of resisting it so you can move through it continue to deepen your awareness.

Enjoy your practice.