Thursday, April 16, 2015

Practicing Intentions in Our Daily Lives


Intentions help us gain clarity. They are tools for maintaining balance and order, tools to help you connect with the spiritual being within and maintain a sense of peace and clarity amid the external chaos and noise. Setting an intention or two each morning is a highly beneficial practice. Write this intention down or say it out loud. Remember that you can hold onto the intention for today or make it part of your daily practice. Focus on how you see yourself today and how you can be your most authentic self.
Here is a quote that I use to set my day and connect with my authentic self:

“I am responsible for the growth and maintenance of mindfulness in my own life. Each day is an opportunity for me to discover deeper truths about myself. Every moment is an invitation for me to grant others the space they need to be themselves. Within me exists a world of awe and splendor, and every morning is a reminder of my innate obligation to participate in my own majesty. This life is my inheritance as a human being and I will claim it by living as fully as I possibly can through mindful and compassionate participation.”

“May any reward I receive be recycled through my service to others.”

Here are some basic intentions you can set for yourself each morning:

  • I will identify and honor my needs.
  • When I notice my defense mechanisms present, I will be aware and take the next right action.
  • I will make time for myself, for self-awareness even if it’s just five minutes.
  • I will have at least one genuine conversation.
  • I will nourish my body and eat one warm meal.
  • I will truly listen when someone else is talking to me instead of planning what I want to say next.
  • I will disconnect from my electronics 30 minutes before bed.
  • I will take a moment of gratitude.
  • I will do some form of physical activity for at least 45 minutes.
  • I will light a candle or burn incense when I get home to ground myself.
  • When I notice my mind thinking about the future, I will bring myself back to the present moment.
  • I recognize that I have flaws, and I will embrace them with love and forgiveness.
  • I will take actions not to isolate myself.
  • I will practice forgiveness to those I am angry at or feel resentful toward.
  • I will be mindful, especially when I eat, shower, brush my teeth, and walk.
  • I will recognize the labels and judgments I have and practice releasing them.
  • I will honor myself and let go of the need to people-please, even when it makes me uncomfortable.
  • I will ask for what I want and need with no shame. 
  • I will talk back to my inner critic when it wants to keep me insecure and paralyzed in fear.
  • I will open my heart and mind to learning something new today.

Dr. Mari Richko has been working in the holistic health field for more than 20 years applying her background in Integrative Medicine, Body-Centered Psychotherapy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Body Therapies such as Zen Shiatsu. Mari is well known in the addiction community for her work in enhancing recovery for those suffering from mental and physical ailments. She utilizes mindfulness, body awareness, Internal Family Systems, and yoga psychology in her work with clients. Mari is the owner of The Center for Authentic Living and Director of Programs and Integrative Services at The Awakening Center. She is an avid lecturer on combining psychotherapy and the Five Elements of Chinese Medicine as an educational tool for recovery. She also runs the YogaTalk therapy group every other Sunday at The Awakening Center.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Meditation Monday: Self-Regulation



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 meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or nancyhalltac@gmail.com

We’ve all had the experience in which we feel that our emotions and nervous system have minds of their own. We feel the poke of anxiety, which might trigger anxiety about anxiety. “I’m not going to feel anxious! Just calm down!” That generally never works. We cannot wrestle our emotions into submission.

Self-regulating takes a different mindset. And it starts with self-compassion. The body cannot calm itself nor can emotions be processed unless the experience is fully understood. Unfortunately, many feel shame and embarrassment over having strong emotions.

Everyone’s level of sensitivity is different, and those who feel emotions intensely are not weaker or “less together” than someone with a steadier baseline. But coping with life challenges can become tough for someone who is easily triggered.

Meditation can help build emotional regulation tools. I recently created a guided meditation that gently prompts participants into feeling low levels of anxiety followed by calming cues. The meditator has the experience of tolerating the anxiety in a safe environment and begins to track the natural ebb and flow of the emotions.

In this “Unpredictable Path” meditation, an image of a smooth, stable path is called to mind. At some point, the path becomes a bit more challenging—perhaps it becomes muddy or rocky. Nothing too treacherous; but not as relaxing as the start of the path. The meditator notices any physical responses to the change in the path—nervous stomach? Increase heartrate? Then the path settles back into its initial calm state. This cycle is repeated a few times, with the challenging portions getting a bit rougher each time but never too intense or really dangerous. Prompts to focus on breathing are given throughout.

Just imagining a slippery or steep path can elicit a physical response; and returning to the stable path brings the individual to a state of calm. And while this exercise taps into only a fraction of some real-life challenges, we can at least learn that becoming mindful and recognizing natural physical responses is normal. Shifting to a position of self-compassion allows us to see solutions that might have been obscured by our self-criticism and shame.

Self-regulation covers a wide range of responses—from taking oneself into a state of complete relaxation to preventing further escalation or arousal. Meditation offers a supportive forum to practice this important skill. So stop power-struggling with your anxiety and try a gentler approach!


Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group. Check and subscribe out her blog “All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner ChicagoNow.com.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Meditation Monday: The Candle Gaze



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 meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or nancyhalltac@gmail.com

“My mind keeps wandering!” It is perfectly natural to become distracted during meditation, but often, we get discouraged and start believing we’re “doing it wrong.” Meditation can become very frustrating when the distraction is followed by self-criticism, which just leads to more distraction.

It takes time to accept our challenges with self-compassion, so in the meantime, using a technique that facilitates focusing can be helpful

The Candle Meditation technique can help build focus but also takes some practice and guidance. But the technique gives the practitioner a relief from self-critical thoughts that can be so discouraging. 

Preparation

Choose your candle carefully. A scented candle is fine as long as the fragrance is agreeable to you. Sneezing and having an itchy nose do not exactly foster relaxation and focus. You want a good-sized flame, so make sure the wick isn’t trimmed too short. Position the candle so that it is at eye level or slightly below. You want it directly in front of you so that you don’t have to turn your head.

The room should be dimly lit to avoid eyestrain; make sure the candle is placed away from breezes or drafts. You want the flame to be as still as possible. 

Meditation

Start by taking a few deep breaths to center yourself. Then allow your gaze to softly rest on the flame. Try to remain as still as possible. Allow the flame to become slightly out of focused. When your eyes become somewhat uncomfortable or begin to water a bit, close your eyes and focus on the after image. Once it fades, return your gaze to the candle. 

Contemplation

As you practice, you might notice that objects in your periphery fade away and all you are aware of is the candle. This is when you can focus your energy toward something virtuous that the candle represents. The candle can allow you to shift into a type of lovingkindness meditation: 
“May light of acceptance replace darkness of fear and hatred.”
“May light of knowledge replace darkness of ignorance.”
“May light of kindness replace darkness of selfishness.”
Follow your breath and imagine you are inhaling candle light, allowing the glow to fill the dark places in your mind and body. 

Completion

When you feel ready, allow your focus to expand to the room around you. Give yourself a few minutes to sit quietly before returning to your activities.

Experiment with this meditation, finding what works for you. See if you notice a difference when you practice other meditation techniques. Introduce music or calming sounds—try different candles. Customize your Candle Meditation and enjoy the results!


Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group. Check and subscribe out her blog “All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner ChicagoNow.com.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Meditation Monday: Stepping Out of the Drama



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 meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or nancyhalltac@gmail.com

Living in this world means having to be among people. And people are stressful. They are also wonderful, kind, and compassionate, but, boy, they can get on your nerves. And we can’t always avoid the ones who rile us up the most. So what do we do?

  1. Accept that we don’t have control over others. Most people are motivated by good intentions and even the rudest person probably feels his or her behavior is completely justified. But we often hold on to the hope that the individual will change—and we get upset when that doesn’t happen. Maya Angelou said “When someone shows you who they are, believe them—the first time.”Accepting that we have no control over another person’s behavior does not mean that we approve or that we have to allow ourselves to be abused. Accepting allows us to assess how we are affected so that we can then make changes needed. This is where a loving kindness meditation might be helpful. 
  2. Take a step back. Sometimes everything can feel so immediate and right in your face. We have a hard time seeing the big picture or remembering that it’s a big universe. Taking time to connect with the expanse of our world can give us a little perspective and might open up other avenues for coping. For example, a meditation that guides your awareness to yourself, the room, the city, state, and continuing outward not only gives your mind a break from the intense emotion of a conflict but also reminds you that you are part of larger experience. You have control over what you want your life focus to be. You can’t avoid conflicts and emotional upset, but you can control how much energy and mindspace you’re going to rent to them.
  3. Allow for self-compassion. When we react emotionally to another person, we often make the situation worse by beating ourselves up for getting upset. “Why do I let him get to me?!” Your response is what it is. Allow yourself to be curious how you’re reacting. Stay in touch with your body—are you tightening up, clenching your jaw, breathing shallowly? Notice those things with compassion. A physical or emotional response is not a sign of weakness or failure—it’s simply information, data to help you determine how to deal with this situation or person.


Allowing for acceptance of ourselves and others along with inviting in some objectivity can also help us see how we might be making situations and relationships even more difficult. And while you can’t change or control another, a change in your response will affect the dynamic and potentially alleviate stress for both of you.


Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group. Check and subscribe out her blog “All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner ChicagoNow.com.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Meditation Monday: Spring Renewal



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 meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or nancyhalltac@gmail.com

It finally happened—spring arrived in the Midwest. Most of the snow has melted and flowers are beginning to pop up. It is so exciting to see the first crocuses bloom. But as spring progresses and bigger flowers bloom, the smaller blossoms might get overlooked.

That is the subject of William Cullen Bryant’s poem “The Yellow Violet.” 
When beechen buds begin to swell,
   And woods the blue-bird’s warble know,
The yellow violet’s modest bell
   Peeps from the last year’s leaves below.

Ere russet fields their green resume,
   Sweet flower, I love, in forest bare,
To meet thee, when thy faint perfume
   Alone is in the virgin air.

Of all her train, the hands of Spring
   First plant thee in the watery mould,
And I have seen thee blossoming
   Beside the snow-bank’s edges cold.

Thy parent sun, who bade thee view
   Pale skies, and chilling moisture sip,
Has bathed thee in his own bright hue,
   And streaked with jet thy glowing lip.

Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat,
   And earthward bent thy gentle eye,
Unapt the passing view to meet
   When loftier flowers are flaunting nigh.

Oft, in the sunless April day,
   Thy early smile has stayed my walk;
But midst the gorgeous blooms of May,
   I passed thee on thy humble stalk.

So they, who climb to wealth, forget
   The friends in darker fortunes tried.
I copied them—but I regret
   That I should ape the ways of pride.

And when again the genial hour
   Awakes the painted tribes of light,
I’ll not o’erlook the modest flower
   That made the woods of April bright.
Poetry is that lovely art form that allows language to reach the parts of the brain unencumbered by logic. The experience of reading or listening to a poem is meditative in and of itself, especially when we’re able to let go of our natural tendency to want to interpret or analyze the poem.

In poetry, we can get bogged down in asking “But what does it mean?” While there is joy in discovering themes and layers of meaning, the experience of allowing the images to simply wash over us has a great deal of value.
Attending to the metaphors and language can help ground us in the present. We can orient ourselves to the sounds of the words and the colors and textures of the images. One simple phrase or stanza can take us on an unexpected meditative journey.

Poetryfoundation.org has numerous recordings of poems—many by the poets themselves. Or, pick a poem you like, record yourself reading it, and allow yourself to be transported. Don’t worry if you don’t understand most of the words or if your logic brain can’t figure out what’s going on. Just take in the sounds and rhythms of the words and let them carry you away.

Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group. Check and subscribe out her blog “All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner ChicagoNow.com.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Meditation Monday: Meet Sharon Salzberg



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 meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or nancyhalltac@gmail.com.

Noted author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg was born in New York City in 1952. She became interested in Buddhism while in college and shortly thereafter traveled to India to begin intensive meditation training. She started teaching meditation in the United States in 1974 and throughout the years has become a leading figure in incorporating meditation into Western culture.

Salzberg co-founded Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Massachusetts where retreats and meditation classes are held. She is also a New York Times best-selling author, which highlights her ability to explain in plain language the benefits of mindfulness in everyday life. She takes an abstract and potentially elusive practice and makes it accessible to everyone.

In a recent Washington Post interview, Salzberg detailed the benefits of mindfulness, emphasizing the distractions we experience in our plugged-in world. She also addressed some of the misconceptions and obstacles to meditation. 
When we realize our mind has wandered off like a monkey, it’s in that moment we have a chance to be really different, instead of reinforcing old habits. Instead of lambasting ourselves that we didn’t meditate perfectly, we let go and start over. And if your mind wanders in the next ten seconds, you let go and start over. And let go and start over. That’s strength training. We’re practicing resilience.
Frequently, clients tell me that they find meditation frustrating because they cannot “turn off” their minds. But, as Salzberg emphasizes, completely shutting down thoughts is not the goal—being aware of distractions and then reorienting to the meditation is a key component of healing and re-connecting to the world.

Meditation does not have to be time consuming and can work with any lifestyle, philosophy, or religious tradition. Learning to quiet the mind facilitates physical, emotional, and mental healing.

In Sharon Salzberg’s own words: 
Each of us has a genuine capacity for love, forgiveness, wisdom and compassion. Meditation awakens these qualities so that we can discover for ourselves the unique happiness that is our birthright.

Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group. Nancy also writes for ChicagoNow, a media partner of the Chicago Tribune. Check out and subscribe to her blog All Shapes and Sizes.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Meditation Monday: The Six Elements



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 meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or nancyhalltac@gmail.com

The Six Elements Meditation is a systematic practice that fosters connection to everything that composes us but is not from us. Clear as mud, right? Think of it this way, everything that makes up our bodies—solids, liquids, gases—actually comes from outside of us. Food, water, oxygen—we need these from the outside to stay alive. However, we aren’t just consumers. What we take in eventually comes out in some form or fashion.

The Six Element practice helps us get in touch with this process, which then enables the exploration of impermanence. Every element explored in this meditation is ever changing. So this practice is both grounding and dynamic.

Found in the Pali Canon—ancient scriptural text of the Theravadan Buddhist tradition—this reflection enables the practitioner to contemplate the following elements: 
  1. Earth: The solids within and outside the body.
  2. Water: The liquid within and outside the body.
  3. Fire: The energy within and outside the body.
  4. Air: The gases within and outside the body.
  5. Space: That which we cannot touch but surrounds all matter.
  6. Consciousness: That which allows us to contemplate the first 5 elements.

A Six Element Meditation practice typically starts with a period of relaxing breathing and perhaps time to move into a loving-kindness state. Then the practitioner works through each element.

The order is important because each one becomes less concrete or tangible.

As you contemplate each element consider: 
  • How the element comes into your body and how you then return it to the outside.
  • The ever-changing nature of the element.
  • How you experience each element.
  • That each element has its origins in the “not self.”

Allow yourself to feel grounded by this practice but also challenged to let go of the illusion of permanence—like the universe, we are always in a state of flow and always renewing. Notice how this idea makes you feel.


In the Buddhist tradition, suffering occurs when we resist accepting impermanence or when we fixate on how we wish things were, instead of accepting how they are. The Six Element Meditation challenges this resistance. What do you hold on to that hinders your growth? What do you resist acknowledging in an effort to protect yourself from pain? Perhaps this practice can help you answer these questions and more. 

Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group.