Oily with a Chance of Pleasant: Aromatic Science

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Before you insist you know little to nothing about aromatherapy, and certainly don’t practice this holistic art, stop and take inventory of your home. Do you own scented candles, carefully chosen according to the spice, flower, rain, marshmallows, tropical beach, or winter lodge it was named after? Do you have a stash of incense waiting on a nightstand or in a drawer, any little cones or sticks of sandalwood, frankincense, jasmine, or maybe a temple blend? Do you sometimes stop before sprinkling the nutmeg, cinnamon, oregano, cardamom, anise, or other spices into your recipe, just to stand still and breathe in the scent once the cap is open? When you buy cut or potted flowers, don’t you sit near enough to them, or bury your face in them in passing, to get the full effect of their olfactory characteristics? Is it difficult to resist shoving your face inside the opening of the coffee canister to get the biggest whiff possible of all those natural, aromatic grounds?

You’re using your natural inclinations for aromatic science, even if you wouldn’t call it that. The sense of smell offers a particularly powerful connection between our emotions and the world.

A brief description of the process of smelling: The nasal cavities are lined by the respiratory epithelium, a protective surface for the nasal passages, and also the olfactory epithelium, a membranous lining of neurons and supporting cells that catches odor molecules and triggers the brain’s olfactory response. Once the olfactory bulb is activated, the impulses are transmitted to the gustatory center, where taste is perceived; to the amygdale, where our emotional memories are stored; and throughout others areas of the limbic system. The limbic system affects heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress production, and hormonal balance, and interacts with emotions, memory, and arousal. The olfactory sense is considered to be the more evolved of the five physical senses because olfaction skips routing through the thalamus to be processed by the olfactory bulb directly.

This highly evolved sense of smell is strongly connected to nostalgic and chemical reactions when we encounter various odors. Not only can odors elicit feelings like joy, fear, disgust, anger, serenity, sadness, love, or optimism, they also stimulate the release of hormones which affect physiological activities like the fight or flight response, digestion, respiration and heart rate.

This sensitivity can be a disadvantage, such as when we encounter anxiety. Our senses become more acute during states of anxiety, and research has shown that when we are more anxious even a neutral smell can be perceived as bothersome. But sensitive olfaction can also work to our advantage when we learn how and when to place certain scents into our environments, and let them linger as our hormonal balances and subconscious thoughts begin the process of transforming the chosen scents into positive associations we can return to as needed. I can say I really do know; I have found comfort in aromatherapy in times of stress, during migraines, in childbirth, and when calming ambiguous thoughts following an anxiety attack. Combined with routines of regular exercise, yoga, prayer and meditation, breathing exercises, and time spent with music and the visual arts, I find that infusing my environment from time to time, and even myself, with a little aromatherapy keeps my senses and my soul vibrant, appreciative, focused.

We are such complex and delicate structures, composed of the observable physical, and the more evasive spiritual, emotional and mindful immaterial; and we are always in need of balancing both components. Each is affected by the other, and every bit of our physical and emotional health relies on finding some amount of equilibrium.

Why do you like your candles, your incense, your garden or pot or vase of flowers? One of the main reasons, most likely, whether you have consciously defined it or not, is because of the feeling of calm, energy, happiness, or other pleasant effect that settles into your body and thoughts. It keeps you relaxed and positive. This is the main function of aromatherapy: relaxation and positive thoughts for less anxiety and stress.

With aromatherapy, we have an opportunity to use our evolved, sensitive perception of odor to our advantage, whether we are in need of combating some serious anxiety, or in want of creating a space of relaxation where we can briefly pause and gather our thoughts before moving on with the day. And we can benefit whether we’re into holistic techniques for practical purposes (appreciating the resulting physiological improvements) or spiritual purposes (appreciating an improved awareness of your soul and your understanding of the spiritual realm), or both.

Listed below are three blends of essential oils, what they address, and how to use them for a simple introduction to trying out oil aromatherapy techniques. Think also of your favorite scents; pick some up and experiment with your own combinations for a fusion that suits your mind and body. Check local businesses to begin building your supply of essentials—aromatherapy supplies and various oils are typically available everywhere from Walgreens to Target to holistic clinics and shops. Numerous reputable sites are also available online. There are various ways to infuse your sense of smell with the oils when you are ready: applying a few drops of the oils to your wrists or neck, applying to a damp washcloth and holding it against your forehead, soaking a cotton ball and wafting it under your nose, filling a spray bottle and spritzing your surroundings, wearing pendant diffuser jewelry, and using a diffuser or nasal inhaler. The nasal inhaler is not a method I have tried, but many find it a comfortable and convenient method, especially since you can carry with you for a sniff when you’re fairly sure it’s just going to be one of those days. Always test a small amount of the oils with a dab or a subtle sniff—some people experience irritation of the skin, lungs, nose, or eyes from oils.

And don’t forget, while aromatherapy can alleviate symptoms and contribute to beneficial physiological changes, it generally isn’t a cure that addresses a root cause; if you are using aromatherapy for relaxation and healing in conjunction with physician prescribed medications or other treatments, never replace your treatment of any condition without speaking to your physician first. Always seek medical attention immediately if you believe you are having a health emergency.

Happy concocting!

*NOTE* Oils are not to be taken orally; they can be poisonous if ingested. For another inhalation method, which can be more subtle to the respiratory tract, add the blends to 2 or 3 cups of water and boil, wafting the steam. The blends can be adjusted to your liking, increasing or decreasing the amounts suggested. If you plan to use the cotton ball or nasal inhaler method, start with smaller amounts, 1 to 3 drops of oil in each blend. If applying directly to skin, you can use a base such as 1 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil if you find the aromatic oils harsh. Any pleasant fragrance can positively affect us, and while the oils here are matched to issues they are commonly used to address, they are versatile and can be interchangeable for issues and conditions. How you relate to the scents is based upon your personality, history, and personal chemistry. Find what works for you!

Energy Corrector The main scent in this blend is citrus; citrus scents help alleviate headaches and nausea, and offer a perk to the fatigued. Breathing in the scent of lemon, orange or grapefruit is known to sharpen concentration and improve energy. Add in a few other energy essential oils for a pleasant aroma and a second wind.

7 drops Lemon

3 drops Orange

3 drops Cypress

2 drops Ginger

1 drop Peppermint

 

Anxiety Reduction Everyone feels anxious at times, and if you live in a developed nation you may be more likely to encounter chronic anxiety: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, developed countries generally have higher prevalence estimates of anxiety disorders, including panic attacks, than developing countries. Regardless of where we live, what we have, or what we do, we all need to allow time to connect with others and with ourselves or risk stress, negative thoughts, bad memories, or personal crises occupying us until we are stifled by anxiety. Prolonged anxiety can lead to, or make worse, sleeping troubles, high blood pressure, mood changes including depression, gastrointestinal disorders, and heart disease. Usually there are many areas of an individual’s life and lifestyle that need to be addressed to improve or stop anxiety, and seeking medical advice is often the best starting point.

Throughout history, lavender has been renowned worldwide for its medicinal and calming properties; it is a fundamental in anxiety reduction and relaxation aromatherapy. Among studies done to test the use of lavender as anxiolytic, in a trial by Kritsidima & Asimakopoulou assessing anxiety in dental patients prior to an appointment anxiety levels were lower for the patients exposed to lavender scent than those in the control group. Other scents noted for effectiveness in reducing anxiety are sandalwood, vanilla, Clary sage, juniper, and orange.

10 drops Sandalwood

8 drops Clary Sage

5 drops Vanilla

2 drops Juniper

 

Calming (Soothing for insomnia and restlessness) Once again, lavender is an optimal choice when you need to calm the mind and body, throughout the day or for sleep. Spraying a light amount of straight lavender oil, or among a blend of calming oils, directly onto sheets, comforter or pajamas can soothe insomnia, helping you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer. Ylang ylang, with its sweetly flowery fragrance, is also noted for calming the mind, and is associated with helping let go of angry feelings. Add lavender  and ylang ylang to the mix when you’re feeling restless, tense, or grumpy, and begin deep breathing until you feel relaxation drifting in and unnecessary physical and mental kinks evening out.

9 drops Lavender

6 drops Ylang Ylang

5 drops Geranium

3 drops Jasmine

1 drop Marjoram

 

Study Cited:

Kritsidima M, Newton T, Asimakopoulou K. The effects of lavender scent on dental patient anxiety levels: a cluster randomised-controlled trial. Community Dent Oral Epidemiol. 2010;38(1):83-87.

Diffusers/Inhalers and Oils:

http://www.abundanthealth4u.com/Diffusers_s/2.htm

http://www.aromaticsinternational.com/Blank_Inhalers

http://www.floracopeia.com/Store/

http://www.walgreens.com/q/aromatherapy-oils

http://www.target.com/c/aromatherapy-relaxation-spa-massage-beauty/aromatherapy-oil/-/N-5xtz7Z5qs7d

http://www.gnc.com/Beauty-Care/Aromatherapy-Stress-Relief/Essential-Oils/family.jsp?categoryId=2146487

http://www.massagewarehouse.com/shop-by-department/aromatherap

Happiness Through the Nose

It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are. –Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

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Never would I have thought a puncture wound in my nostril could make me feel so good or inspire further life reflection. It all started during summer. My daughter decided to pierce her nose after a long process of considering the pros and cons of a facial piercing, including how it might affect her job; what meaning it had for her; and whether she might lose interest in it or not. She also factored in an upcoming surgery to remove an ovarian cyst—an office nurse advised the piercing itself isn’t a problem, but the jewelry would need to be removed prior should the “worst case scenario” of resuscitation become necessary. What with this new concern and its accompanying horrifying images of my daughter in distress in an operating room filling my mind, the worries I’d had about a nose infection making me hesitant to agree with the piercing were no longer so terribly looming. If you’re going to be responsible and care for it, I told her, you have my blessing.

The decision to pierce finalized, we journeyed one summer night to a reputable (always research the safety of the establishment that will be responsible for inserting sharp objects into any area of your body) tattoo and piercing shop, my daughter’s stepsister from her father’s relationship along for moral support. The woman who walked us to the room and arranged the necessary tools for the piercing ritual to commence was professional and precise, and I admired the way my daughter not only didn’t blink, but continued to sit with her elegant posture and a smile while a three inch needle popped through and then dangled briefly from her nose. The jewelry inserted, a quick dab with a napkin to remove a small droplet of blood, and we were on our way back out the door. The tiny diamond looked lovely.

My daughter had asked me to pierce my nose with her as a symbol of our bond; it would be a shared physical trait, like our body types and smiles. I’ll think about it, I had said. Nose piercings are a form of fashion/cultural/artistic expression I have long appreciated. Dainty, ornamental, and not too dissimilar to a freckle or a mole, they appear feminine and inoffensive twinkling from the face. In many belief systems throughout Indian culture, both Hindu and non-Hindu, the nose piercing is a common symbol related to marriage, in reference to the goddess of marriage, Parvati. It is worn to show a young woman is ready for marriage or worn to show a woman is married. The piercing is also considered health-related in various regions of India: piercing the nostril on a specific area is thought to alleviate pain during menstruation and childbirth according to traditions of Ayurvedic medicine. The pierced nose continues to be seen as a mark of beauty in Indian, Nepali, and African regions. Nose piercing was also widely practiced throughout Aborigine Australian, Mayan, Aztec, and New Guinea tribes, a symbol of beauty, social status and, in the males with pierced nostrils or septums, virility.

As humans, we’re into symbols. We are interested in explaining and understanding ourselves and our world in as many ways as possible, and symbols become a way to do this while offering the added advantage of unifying ourselves with others.

Although I like the nose piercing fundamentally for its artistic flair, I also began to think of it as a personal symbol. As someone who has a fair amount of anxiety related to health, due to anxiety related to the fairly common human fear of mortality, and an increasing avoidance of anything that might cause pain or illness, I decided facing the needle was a way to open myself up to a selected experience of pain to work through—a small situation of allowing a painful moment and then attending to the healing process afterwards. It also turned into a symbol of growth through taking on new situations in life. Almost forty-years-old and aware of how many people greet this middle age phase with hesitancy and even depression, I made a decision on my recent thirty-ninth birthday that each birthday should be acknowledged with a plan for trying something new, no matter how small or complex that something is. When forty is here, so long as I am fortunate enough to see it, I want to see it as arriving at a transformative place in life where I’m a little older and have opportunity to turn this newest phase into whatever important adventure I want it to be.

Instead of dwelling on the aging process that inevitably takes us down at some point the further we go in it, I want to gather up my years of collected experiences and wisdom, mistakes and pains, and shape a new creation out of it all.

A nose piercing has turned out to be a simple and perfect way to start. With my husband and my daughter, and her stepsister along again four months later for moral support, I sat in the same chair at the same tattoo and piercing shop as my daughter (and her stepsister, who had pierced her nose within a week of our first visit), and greeted the same woman with her familiar latex gloves and three inch needles. Ready I was to let her push one of those needles through the soft tissues of my left nostril. My daughter held out her hand for me to hold and encouragingly reminded me, “You’ve given birth before!” True, but the medical staff had to sedate me during the birthing process when I started panicking due to the labor slowing down and a nurse informing me that I might need C-section. “I just want to go home, okay?” I had replied, while trying to sit up and leave the hospital bed. It wasn’t the pain I was reacting against, but the fear of the unknown. Pain I can deal with; uncertainty, I’m sometimes sensitive to that.

“You can close your eyes,” my piercing mistress said. “Close your eyes, Mom,” my daughter ordered, her usual big, free, life-loving (and somewhat roguish) smile on her face. I closed my eyes. The needle went through. It felt the way one would imagine a needle going in one side and out the other of a bodily region might: it hurt. My eyes watered and the delicate metal settling into my flesh felt as unnatural as it is. It also felt good. With my eyes open, I smiled. I felt an encouraging sense of accomplishment and was pleased that I hadn’t walked away from this experience. The strange excitement for seeing me pierced that my daughter and her stepsister had, along with the funny look of curiosity mixed with a mild alarm from my husband as the needle was poised made the experience all the more worthwhile.

Each day I clean the diamond three times with antibacterial soap, as instructed. I check for signs of infection. So far, it’s healing well. My anxiety attacks from observing the minor and expected redness have diminished along with the redness of newly punctured skin. Not only do I like how the jewelry sparkles and satisfies my tastes for artistry, I also smile to think of having tried something new that has some meaning in my life, in my personal collection of symbols and knowledge. By the time I’m forty, such a short time from now, I plan to welcome in the new phase of aging by putting to use my years of meditation and yoga practice with a teaching certificate for meditation instruction. I will also be midway through a clinical counseling degree for licensure; moving closer to a new way to connect with and support the healing of others, and learn about healing and living from others in the process. I hope to have gone back to the Capoeira classes I started four years ago but left for other obligations in my days. Maybe I’ll be close to giving birth again, for only the second time in my life—both a fear and a dream of mine. I plan, also, to blow out forty candles and make an oath to not let age and aging be the determining factors of how I feel physically or emotionally.

I feel no different saying I’m thirty-nine than I did ten years ago saying I was twenty-nine. Back then I didn’t believe that aging means depression and losing the ability to conquer new things; why start now?

Wonderful In Wichita: A Few Highlights from a Kansan City

 

Aida's in Wichita, KS
Aida’s in Wichita, KS

Almost one year after the first time my husband and I drove to Wichita, Kansas, we were back again. What brought us is business, same as last year, specifically my husband’s duties for the Halal preparation—and by preparation I do mean slaughter—of cattle. The Halal process involves precise steps as meat is prepared for human consumption, especially for those humans who follow Islamic tradition. Halal means permissible in the Arabic language, similar to the Jewish term kosher (meaning fit; foods fit for consumption by a Jewish person), and refers to foods, objects, or activities permissible to use or engage in by Islamic standards.

In the halal method of preparing animal goods, a prayer, Bismillahi Allahu Akbar (In the name of God, God is the Greatest), is recited before the slaughter of each animal to express gratitude for sustenance and to offer a blessing upon the animal. The animal must be alive and healthy, the throat must be cut through with the single swipe of a blade, and the blood must be drained from the carcass. It is a strictly ritualistic process, and one I give my husband credit for taking on the responsibility of considering the sense of sadness he feels for the cows–and which I would imagine every farmer or slaughterer feels to some extent. Even though I admit to being omnivorous, and I grew up in the Midwest near a slaughterhouse and in the vicinity of farms raising everything from swine to bovine to fowl to meet their fates (unbeknownst to their innocent little souls) as providers of sustenance to the human race, animal slaughter isn’t something I would have the capacity for. All a cow would have to do is slip me a sideways glance and I’d happily return it to an open field, tearing up as it ran, or ambled as cows so often do, free.

Though I found myself once again starting my morning at 5AM in a hotel room in Kansas by saying my own prayer for the sweet-eyed cows I could imagine being marched one by one into the factory, I was at least fortunate enough to spend the work days away from this aspect of the journey. On the brighter side, this year we found time to take a couple of afternoons to explore Wichita in more detail. We were happy we did.

Wichita, the 49th largest city in the United States, is scenic, clean, calm, and provides comfortable spots to spend evenings and afternoons. If we could have seen more, I don’t think we would have been disappointed; as it is, the university grounds, botanical gardens and the Old Town district we visited were more than enough to go back home with a satisfied feeling of having gotten to know a new space in the world a little more, and appreciating its beauty. While people often think of the bigger, coastal hotspot U.S. cities when considering vacation adventures, the Midwestern region has an appeal of its own; the charming ambience of slower-paced living mixed with the same modern culture and glamour traditionally associated with New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, or Chicago. Wichita might not be a place you have considered for your list of must-sees, but give it a chance and it might end up on your would-love-to-see-it-again list.

Welcome!

Botanica, 701 Amidon St., Wichita’s botanical gardens. There are paths to take you through a peaceful realm of various flowers species; fountains; ponds of koi and miniature, melodic waterfalls; sitting areas perfect for a picnic (outside food allowed); the music of an occasional flutist drifting with the butterflies; squirrels, birds, and insects going about their business; a butterfly house; a working train model; and a children’s garden offering plenty of color and (climbable) sculptures.They also offer reservations for candlelight dinners on the main patio. A Fall Festival and Halloween activities are coming up.

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Shakespearean quotes on metal sculpture, lit with sunlight.
Shakespearean quotes on metal sculpture, lit with sunlight.

In the children’s garden:

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Climb up a fort, cross a suspension bridge, climb down until you find yourself inside of the smile.
Climb up a fort, cross a suspension bridge, climb down until you find yourself inside of the smile.

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A mama spider crossing the path. How could we tell she was a mother? By the babies she was backpacking along for the stroll.

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After the gardens, a trip over to Seneca Street, recommended by an employee in the Botanica gift shop after we inquired about finding lunch. There we found Wichita Fish Company, 1601 W Douglas, “Wichita’s best kept secret” according to its website. Casual, friendly, with fun sea décor inside, and a patio to make the most of a sunlit October afternoon.

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The Lotus Leaf Café, 251 North Washington Ave. We didn’t actually purchase anything, we stopped in during a search through the Old Town District to satisfy my craving for iced coffee, but an employee informed us that Lotus Leaf isn’t a coffee café and pointed us in the direction of nearby coffee shops. The interior of Lotus Leaf Café was lively–bright colors that infuse you with energy–and the menu looked worth a visit for next time.

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Aida’s Silver Jewelry 920 E 1st St N was the shop we found around a corner. It’s a sweet combination of a jewelry and accessories shop, with a café upstairs. We had an opportunity to talk with Aida, who started her business about twenty-five years ago after moving from Mexico City. Aida makes an awesome iced latte and superb raspberry tea, and she and family are super friendly. You’ll feel at home.

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The Ulrich Museum of Art 1845 Fairmount St., on the campus of Wichita State University. Admission is free, making it great for a family outing, and the campus is a  pleasant mix of bucolic and urban with its away-from-the-city-feel nature scenery and art sculptures dotted along the landscape. Like Botanica, it’s worth an afternoon of your days.

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A game of king, or queen, of the millipede awaits. Amazing sculptures.
A game of king, or queen, of the millipede awaits. Amazing sculptures.

 

May I Blog A Little Peace Into Your Day?

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I ask because I’ve found not everyone is willing, or maybe just not ready, to accept a peaceful message or gesture, a kind word, a token of love. Would you accept? My hope is that if you are reading, you’re feeling enthusiastic about the idea, maybe even saying to yourself, Well, of course you may! Who wouldn’t want a little of that? This I hope, as I curl up in the safe, diverse, friendly space of the blog universe, a place where I haven’t yet encountered a hostile comment placed on me or others. Where I can sit with my cup of warm tea in my comfortable home and feel shielded from the negative energies drifting–or even howling furiously along–outside.

Whew! It sure does feel good to step into a comfortable space and be surrounded by a respite of cheerful, positive thoughts.

The past few weeks have been an experiment and a lesson for me. I’ve been disheartened, surprised, confused, and left wondering What should I do next? What should anybody do next? I’ve discovered that while in the minority, there are a number of people in the world who have curiously hurtful thoughts against others and little reservation in using words to make them known. I’ve also learned that if you want to dedicate yourself to being among the voices to speak up for unity and social awareness, you would be better off joining a speakers bureau, organizing a community event, or writing a book. Discussions on news and public figure websites are not really the place to initiate adequate change.

So I’ve decided that after my much needed refuge in the kind little corner of the blogosphere I’ve been fortunate to find, I will continue to take my own advice and focus on more productive places to put healing intentions and energies. I will also do my best to Keep Calm and Laugh It Off, as my husband encourages me to do. Below is a brief exchange in one conversation regarding current events. It’s one I could at least muster up a humorous feeling for, and, I believe, a fine example of how not to effectively communicate each other. If anything, I hope I can be an inspiration, a reminder that time and words are precious, and that while sometimes it’s worth a try to speak up, other times it turns out to be waste of precious energy.

What we should do next is simply relax, take in a breath of the beautiful day, and offer a friendly word or two to all those we cross paths with.

And the comment that started it was:

James, you don’t have to accept Islam, you just need accept your fellow humans who are doing nothing to harm anyone. That’s the greatest thing we can all do for this world. Don’t feel sorry for me, no reason to. I sleep at night in good conscience and with happiness because I know I’ve done as much as possible each day to be respectful and kind in this world. I wish you and everyone the best regardless of your opinion of me. What you think of me isn’t important, it’s not about me, it’s about being as good as we possibly can in an existence that flies by in the blink of an eye. Why waste the time contributing to negative energy, supporting the idea that there is an entire group of people who are all evil and want to harm the world and should be treated as inhuman? Isn’t that what led to the Holocaust and the genocide of Native Americans? Words have power, be careful how you structure them into an idea.

Followed by one supportive remark, from Dalia, whoever she may be. Although her comments received no likes, it was appreciated, at least by me.

You go girl ♡

Followed up by:

sorry but the way I see it, Stephanie == Head in Sand, Rainbows and Unicorns sprouting from anus. Islam needs to be outlawed like it is in China.

about an hour ago · Like · 4

As you can see, he received 4 likes. Not too bad. And this was followed up with a comment from Graham:

whoah … what and what comin outa where? that’d be a sight indeed … lol

I liked this one. It was innocent enough, and I appreciate humor. Next, I tried my best with what I thought to be an effort at peacekeeping, but perhaps it was too sarcastic. No likes received for:

Rainbows and Unicorns? Head in the sand? Call it what you like, but I grew up in a very diverse family and have seen the beauty of coexistence and dedicate my time to supporting this idea.

And the concluding remark:

The concluding remark by, posted by someone I imagine to be an angry-looking man with and serpents for hair and a gaze that could turn me to stone in a matter of seconds, involved the word “kill,” so I thought it best to leave it at walking away perplexed by the amount of bullying that we, as adults, are capable of.

If I, or anyone, were to judge ourselves by numbers of likes on a social networking site, on insults directed at us by others attacking safely from the security of their unknown locations on the other side of a computer screen, or by other peoples’ drives to bully, we would lose the strength to stand up for ourselves and others; we might start to believe the lie.  It can get vicious out there. So keep calm, and don’t forget to laugh. Even when it doesn’t help it certainly doesn’t hurt.

The One-More-Year Project

Stop a moment and look at your days, notice your schedules, consider your goals and dreams and hopes. What are you working on, or planning to work on, that is a priority to you, either because it needs to be done or because it is close to your heart, or both?

Maybe there’s a garden or a book, painting, quilt, or some other creation you are set on nurturing into being. Maybe it’s a car you want to work on, a home that needs renovating, or a home that just needs a little interior makeover to fit your interests and design sensibilities more closely. You might want to take a dance class or learn photography, or your focus might be on health, such as an exercise or diet routine that you want to start seeing and feeling results from, or prayer or meditation you want to learn or be more devoted to.

Maybe it is something more emotional, like working through anxiety or grief or addiction, or healing your thoughts and spirit after loss of a loved one either through death (maybe even the death of a cat or dog or some other animal, which is never just a “pet,” but a friend and part of the family) or the ending of a relationship. Healing your thoughts and spirit because you aren’t where you were hoping to be yet in life, or you’re far from home and miss everything about it, or you left your job by choice or by termination and you’re uncertain what to do next. You might be coping with the emotional and physical strains of a long-term illness that may or may not go away, or coping with ups and downs in your family life that you’re at a loss for how to peaceably solve. Maybe you have felt the lagging sadness of exhaustion and depression for any of these reasons, any other reason, or for seemingly no reason at all.

There are many things that take time to work on. Some are “good things,” those things we look forward to completing due to the sense of joy and accomplishment that will settle inside of us once finished. And then there are the “bad things,” things that we know will bring joy and accomplishment once a change is made, a solution or acceptance found, but that in the meantime feel impossible to work through to reach the transformation that will bring us peace of mind.

Research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology cautions that goal-setting can be counterproductive, holding us back at times, especially when we set out to reach a goal and things change along the way, are not as perfect as we had envisioned. Giving yourself more time to get to positive change means being open to revisions in plans or to different outcomes–if you say something will be accomplished within a year and you are dedicated to it, you will see a change, yet it may happen in both predicted and surprising, unplanned ways. We can set the goals, which are important to have, but we can alter them accordingly, out of want or necessity. Are we always in control of factors life presents us with? No, we are in many ways at mercy of how life unfolds; we move with the days, they don’t move with us.

So who is in control? Sometimes us, but many times not. Pretty much always us when it pertains to what we’re thinking, to how we cope and plan. Being in control of our mind and spirit–this is where our power to improve, to create and fulfill dreams, and to appreciate our delicate existence lies. It is a genuine power, and it doesn’t work without two main ingredients: practice and patience, the roots of giving things a little more time to see a healthy, colorful growth.

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Six years ago I read a book by author Sana Krasikov called One More Year. The book is a collection of short stories; the main characters are emigrees and would-be emigrees from the collapsed Soviet Empire. The main character in “Maia in Yonkers” moves to America to earn a living following the death of her husband, and leaves her young son in the care of her sister. Maia’s son, Gogi, finally passes an Embassy interview as a teenager to visit his mother, and comments to Maia in an emotional exchange that he no longer understands why she must live in America, telling her, “Every year you say ‘It’s one more year, one more year’!”

In the context of the story, this comment isn’t a happy one, it isn’t hopeful. It holds in it the frustration of wanting things to change for the better but believing they won’t, the sadness of not knowing how to fix a family that has been separated first by death, and then by geographical distance. It shows years passing by, one after the other, without the longed for resolution. Naming the book One More Year might have been done so to imply this sort of hopeless passage of time; it might also allude to something we must all do at times and which may lead to the outcome we truly need–waiting.

A few years after reading Krasikov’s book, I found the phrase one more year drifting into my mind in the midst of difficult situations. There are two things difficult situations can do to our thoughts that create a dangerous situation for our emotional state: they can produce tunnel vision, in which we see nothing but the problem and feel impotent to plan beyond it, or they can make us want to get out of the problem so badly that all we see is the end goal, and it looks overwhelming, incomprehensible, unreachable because we can’t slow our minds down to focus on the very necessary steps (and time) it will take to get there. These are the perspectives that can lead us into depression and some of the more destructive elements that may accompany it, for some people right up to suicidal thoughts and actions. On a less drastic note, tunnel vision or overwhelming broad vision can make us give up on a goal that is important to us, causing us to tuck it away until a later day comes when we wonder what may be different in our lives had we pursued whatever dream we gave up—what it might have led to next.

One more year. The words began popping into my mind with more force, strong and vibrant, asking me to look not too far ahead, but ahead nonetheless. Be hopeful, and patient, is what they were synonymous to. At the point when it seemed my husband and I would never catch up on our finances after the astounding fees of the immigration process, while we were living in an apartment we were grateful for but also found to be within an oppressive atmosphere we were ready to move on from, and while I was working in a mental health recovery center that seemed to promote further emotional conflict rather than healing—having a contagion effect on many of the employees, myself included—a sense of life as an overwhelming burden rather than a mysterious, beautiful gift began creeping into corners of my mind, threatening to deplete energy, happiness, hopefulness.

One more year. Suddenly, much like a wise teacher, the words were there to offer the chance to recognize a new direction. I made a promise to myself in the form of The One-More-Year Project: We will see improvement in every aspect of our lives by this time next year. And that is, step by step, exactly what happened.

It does help that I’m partnered with someone with a high amount of energy and optimism, it doesn’t hurt to be inspired and supported by others; but I believe that anybody, anywhere, in any circumstances and with or without the support of others has the capability to follow their own needed steps reach their own desired goals. We are all designed with the trait of resilience—by nature, we own the rights to self-improvement.

After moving into a new home, seeking out new career options that will keep my own mental state healthier as I work toward licensure as a clinical counselor, and seeing our financial situation improve drastically with care—all while maintaining gratitude for all of the beauty in life that counters the difficulties, which is a very essential attitude for reaching dreams of any kind—I continue to keep the phrase close by. One more year. A wise teacher and an old friend. As I look at my writing projects, my homework, my business ideas, the dance classes I want to return to because the artistic motion brings me joy, volunteer efforts I would like to be further involved in, or when I encounter moments of sadness or exhaustion or perplexity that sometimes accompany life situations in a strong way, I remind myself—I’m here right now, and I can decide how much progress I hope to see by next year, and I will keep a plan in my mind or in a notebook or on a dry-erase board, wherever it stands out the most, and I will see that progress.

Give yourself a year before you give up, before you walk away from something your heart believes in but your mind has begun to doubt. Promise yourself you will see a change by that time, and then start moving there in steps, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute if you need to. Picture yourself free on a stage, enveloped in dance. Picture your garden blooming with health and radiance. Picture your car running perfect and happy because you tended to it with as much precision as a surgeon caring for a life. Picture yourself smiling, healing, and enjoying your days along with those you love, everything as well as can be, just as it should be.

A family member recently told me about her years when she used to run track; she said that imaging how many miles away the finish line was would immediately make her feel that she couldn’t get there. So she would start running while focusing only on her immediate surroundings. She would then think of finishing that first mile, but keep only that first mile in mind. Once one mile was passed, the next could be acknowledged. This gave her the energy, and patience, she needed to keep her body moving to a very distant stopping point.

If you need more than a year, or less, that’s fine. This is your project now. Just start by seeing where you’re at, focusing, and gradually looking further until you’re standing at the place you set out for. Most importantly, don’t forget to bring your patience, your gratitude, and your ability to enjoy life along the way.

Suggested (Inspirational) Reading:

The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying To Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, Gretchen Rubin. Book.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Happiness-Project-Aristotle-Generally-ebook/dp/B002VJ9HRK

The Power of Patience, Judith Orloff, M.D. Article.

“Patience is a lifelong spiritual practice as well as a way to find emotional freedom.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-orloff-md/how-to-be-patient_b_1748430.html

How To Set Goals, Will Meeks, Ph.D. Article.

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/notes-self/201308/how-set-goals

Science and Religion by Starlight and Streetlight

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Science doesn’t hate religion, just as religion doesn’t hate science. This I am confident in stating.

The sharp, irreconcilable contrast between science and religion are only as sharp and irreconcilable as we believe them to be. These two schools of thought, which we sometimes spend inordinate amounts of time and energy separating from each other, are nothing more than two natural facets of human intellect derived to bring sense, order, and purpose to existence, and they complement each other harmoniously–just as the steel and glass and concrete of our cities can blend with natural horizon and hues to enhance the beauty laced throughout an environment.

I love science but dislike how we sometimes use it with hostility, looking for every possible way that a theory or formula or function related to our material existence may disprove the reality of creation–creation as defined as a function of a thinking entity, an intelligent designer, such as God. I love religion and spirituality, but can also say I dislike when we use religious, spiritual, God-related thought to discredit scientific thought. Why do we place so much precious energy into fighting over concepts we can often neither prove nor disprove; information that stays happily dancing in the outer layers of logic and reality beyond our intellectual reach? We’ve got to admit it at some point–we just aren’t sure what in the world the world is, where it came from, where we and all other interesting creatures came from, where exactly all of our thoughts and ideas originate, what a thought is, why coffee is so divine or why bell bottoms never really go out of style. Instead of depleting our energies over trivialities, what about a more compassionate, concerted effort between us to simply drop our defenses and stop protecting the sense of superiority our personal biases and beliefs confine us to, so that we instead can enjoy and investigate the brilliant mystery of existence together? It’s just a thought, it’s just a slightly frustrated statement I feel compelled to make after reading article after article from each side of the great debate, finding few that honor the fundamental crux of the mystery–that it is, in great measure, mystery and allows for varied, imaginative, free-flowing thought and theory.

The world outside this middle of the night, this almost 2AM in summertime, is wonderful. Loosely flowing clouds, stars framed with poignant light, low rumble from a military plane drifting toward the nearby base, smell of the earlier evening’s rain still infused in soil, grass, and voluminous tree leaves. I sit on a balcony created through the art of architecture, shaped and nailed into place by human workers. I drink a warm mug (man made) of hot chocolate with ingredients made in part from cocoa beans that once grew from the earth. I see both airplanes and stars in the sky, the quiet neighborhood is lit with both streetlights and celestial light. It’s too beautiful a night to skip sitting outside and feeling the undeniable magnitude of beauty the senses were designed to pick up, the mind was designed to interpret, and something somewhat unexplainable within us is able to connect with, finding love and purpose there. I, like everyone else, am both intellectual machine and emotional being; the basic dual-purpose human design.

As a long-term student and practitioner of psychology, I am familiar with neuroscience, anatomy, and chemical theories of behavior. As a lifelong seeker and practitioner of the spiritual elements of existence, I also know of neuroscience, anatomy, and chemical theories of behavior–the ways these affect and are affected by spiritual thoughts and actions–as well as intuition, emotional energy, and faith. What I personally have found, what I have concluded in my own way, of my own accord and path, unaffected by and not wishing to affect the paths of others, is that both sets of traits assigned to these two different schools of thought exist merged at points, blended in ways, inseparable in certain concepts. The more I study science, the more I understand creation. The more I consider creation the more easily I see it in the methodic, formulaic arrangement of earth, solar system, universe, each earthly terrain or plant or bird, and each further placed planet or galaxy. When Rene Dubos, microbiologist, experimental pathologist, environmentalist, and humanitarian, said that “each human being is unique, unprecedented, unrepeatable,” I believe it is a statement that belies intelligent design. And in the Dalai Lama’s statement, “What we do and think in our own lives, then, becomes of extreme importance as it effects everything we’re connected to,” is the reminder that we live in an interconnected, systematic world that scientific thought can help us understand.

As a usually peaceful kind of person—I admit to having my moments—I find the greater mystery of living is why we fight with such diligence to show each other how wrong it is to believe certain things, bringing significant ways of thought such as science and religion into the fight to apply as weapons instead of unifying forces of humanity. We were brought into this world without any say, and here we are, moving right along with the universe–all we really need do is enjoy and honor the fact that we are here, witnessing existence and being given a vast amount of information to explore. How each of us understands our being here is personal and should be safe from the judgments of others.

What an unusual fact it is to have wound up in this complex world of mystery upon mystery, beauty after beauty, and how any of this truly came to be is still not information we are privy to.

On perfect nights that expose the artistry of existence, including the way nature and technology coexist in incredibly harmonious fashion, it seems so crystally, star-lighty, refreshingly clear that understanding the mystery should be included among things best not to bicker about. Grab a drink, warm or cold, and a friend to talk with under the sky instead.

*******
My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit
who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive
with our frail and feeble minds.
That deeply emotional conviction of the presence
of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible Universe,
forms my idea of God.

–Albert Einstein
*******

*What if we asked each other more instead, and then listened, closely, to the answers?
*In what small ways will you share more with others and let others share with you in order to understand more?

science-v-religion

Tea With Thanatos At 3AM

“I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”—Woody Allen

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Sometimes insomnia is interesting, sitting you up in the middle of the night to visit a calmness and silence the days don’t afford. You have the illusion of life in suspension, with most human activity, including bouts of traffic, stilled for the time. The moon is so clear, the stars so vital. If a tree rustles or a window rattles, it seems intended especially for you; the breezes outside seem to want to say hello and check in on your night before they go on. The world is all yours for a short while, so instead of getting too worked up over the lack of sleep, it becomes a calm time to boil water and steep yourself a cup of Sleepytime tea until you’re ready get aligned again with your expected biological rhythm as a sleep at night, wake at day, human creature.

Sometimes insomnia means you have a little too much on your mind, say a fear or something like that. Say a phobia, maybe even thanatophobia. Thanatophobia is the phobia of death; not just a basic fear of dying, according to the description I found myself reading at 3AM, but “an intense, overwhelming fear of death.” Reading on to the causes—which I almost didn’t, because what causes the fear of death does seem fairly apparent—the roots of any phobia, including thanatophobia, are said to be based in early trauma of the phobia sufferer’s life. The symptoms of thanatophobia are described as follows: “symptoms of thanatophobia are as individual as the people coping with this phobia. Some people, when confronted with their fear of death and dying, may feel slightly uncomfortable, nauseated or simply begin to perspire. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some people are so severely affected by this phobia, that they will experience anxiety and/or panic attacks.” To meet the criteria of a phobia, there must be both emotional and physical reactions when confronted by a fearful stimulus. Some people are so affected by a fear of dying and non-existence that to be thanatophobic can bring “intense, crippling anxiety that disrupts a person’s daily life.” The panic attacks themselves worsen the situation as they often bring the physical symptoms of dry mouth, muscle tension, fear of impending disaster, feeling short of breath, heart palpitations, and feelings of losing control–physical and mental sensations that become interpreted as feelings of impending death.

On this particular 3AM, I was thankfully free of any type of crippling anxiety, heart palpitations, and urges to unnecessarily shake my husband—so peacefully sleeping in blissful unawareness—awake to beg him to tighten the blood pressure cuff from the closet around my arm “just to be sure.” Although my blood pressure runs low and I’m not under medical surveillance for anything, the mind in the middle of a phobic attack can make you doubt most anything rational, especially when having a little fear-of-death moment and your home is filled with such gems as sphygmomanometers, pulse oximeters, and stethoscopes–tools of the trade from my previous nurse assisting gigs, not the stockpile of a hypochondriac, I assure you–all begging you to obsessively check to be sure all is working well. This, however, was not one of those times of full-out, panic-stricken, irrational thoughts of doom. So I decided to make the best of it by, of all things, slowing my thoughts, taking a breath, and focusing. Sometimes we just need a quiet moment to analyze a situation until it finally snaps clearly into focus, therefore making more sense to us.

Since childhood, I’ve fit with the thanatophobes of the world; only mildly at first, but over time with a little more pronouncement. I have a few friends from childhood who interestingly enough have had the same experience throughout their lives, having what seems like a natural inclination for a close, tumultuous relationship with an acute awareness of mortality resulting in acute questioning, seeking, and at times fearing. Fear of death and questioning the reason for existence when faced with mortality are not uncommon; 68% of the American population are said to admit to necrophobia, which is fear of death but also of things related to death, such as coffins or funeral homes or dead things lying around—a bird or a squirrel stone cold in an otherwise lovely spring garden, for example. It’s perfectly natural to be human and fear that which we don’t understand, including the loss of the lives we are so accustomed to; the burden of being human tends to lie in being sentient. Why be given something so amazing, a life so full of beauty and love, and the capacity to be so fully aware of it only to have to one day be erased from it? How unfair, and uncomfortable, is that? Woody Allen said it well by saying he isn’t afraid of death, he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens. In some parallel universe, couldn’t it just be that even though we die, we really don’t, since we didn’t have to be there when it happened?

Is it any wonder these thoughts sometimes keep us up and afraid to go back to sleep at 3AM?

There’s nothing overtly traumatic in my childhood regarding death, but my guess is that since I also fit well with the description of a HSP, or highly sensitive person (which I think means sensitive enough to be considered “abnormal” but with the right amount of mental/emotional stability to avoid a proper DSM diagnosis), the lessons of death and dying and afterlife that began at birth were something my mind wasn’t ready to take on at early ages. Being raised in a Catholic family meant going to church weekly, starting as a bundled up infant without a care or an awareness of the deeply philosophical subject matter of religion but, nonetheless, taking the words into consciousness during all of those formative months and years of developing language and understanding its meanings. Heaven, hell, death, God, angels, resurrection, eternity. Oh my. It’s not a complaint or a regret, though, I don’t believe we should shelter young minds from learning about life, including big subjects like mortality and the mystery of both life and death–it’s a great spiritual and intellectual opportunity to be introduced to such lofty concepts at an early age. I only believe we need to be aware of why we might think in a certain way when it becomes in some way uncomfortable or destructive; we should be willing to look into our own histories and examine what it can be traced back to, if anything.

Sometimes knowing the start of an issue helps you understand why you have been holding on to negative thoughts or energy for too long; it helps you release that which hurts you, so that you may heal. Often we do develop fears or worries in childhood along with ineffective methods for dealing with them, then become emotionally controlled by our habitual methods and forget to learn how to let a fear go. Couple this with heightened sensitivity in the emotional realm and you can wind up with a phobia so developed it really does have its own entity, accompanying you through life like the evil twin you never wished you had.

What a great revelation, and sweet moment. For once, I was able to slow my mind and think these things, and let husband sleep his comfortable sleep most likely filled with life-affirming dreams (and dreams of fresh falafels, which he often misses because you just can’t access them in the Omaha area the way you can in Chicago, or back home in Palestine). For once, I developed a new method based on the idea of facing your fears: if death, for whatever reason, has stepped into my mind again in such a negative way, why not approach death not as a fear, but as a face. An entity. A person one could sit and share a cup of tea with.

Thanatophobia derives its name from Thanatose, the Greek personification of death. I figured I would start there. Next step: pulling a comfortable blanket around my shoulders, pouring more tea, and settling onto the warm, cozy couch. When you are physically comfortable anything scary or otherwise negative is often easier to deal with.

I considered pouring an extra cup of tea to set on the table (and if husband were to wake I could simply offer it to him—It’s for you, dear! I’m not sitting here talking to ghosts! Really, I’m okay!) the way people offer food and drink and other gifts to the spirits of deceased loved ones on Dia de los Muertos, the way people leave fruits and money and various objects at the altars within Hindu and Buddhist temples for beings of the transcendent realms, or light candles when praying to Jesus, Mary, or the saints. Here, Thanatose, use my favorite cup, and we’ll sit and talk like friends.

I figured the spiritual realm operates a little differently, though, so I left it to a B.Y.O.T.C. situation; even death may have his own favorite tea cup. I settled in and decided, once and for all, to stop seeing a natural, unavoidable part of existence fundamentally as a fear. It didn’t seem very possible considering I’ve been wishing to resolve this problem for decades now, with little true progress, but I realized the wishing has been part of the problem—too much passive wishing, not enough active deciding.

The way I met with Thanatos was to learn more about him, to go back to the mythology and see his origins and trace the idea people have developed of Thanatos and other ideas of death over time. What caught my attention first was the description of Thanatos; I was surprised to see he was not described simply as death, but as the god of non-violent death who has a touch that is “gentle, likened to that of his twin brother Hypnos (Sleep).” He does have “blood-craving” sisters, the Keres, whose domain is that of slaughter and disease, but Thanatos himself is more like a simple fact of mortality, a rational explanation that all things living do approach an end. All of this information was thought-provoking; I was on the right path. Is there a fear of a certain kind of death? Is nonexistence and the disappearance of this life, where I am recognized by name and physicality, a more comfortable concept when you can truly imagine it as a peaceful transition of mind and soul? Something gentle within nature that simply wants to guide you into another phase of what you are as a sentient being, made of more than observable matter, made also of energy, emotion, and intellect. Made of what we cannot see or understand by tangible means, yet it exists.

Into the next hour I read, pushing on as the familiar senses of fear, anxiety, and other discomfort billowed through mind and body. I don’t want to take this fear with me through every day; I want to learn more about life by accepting every aspect of it, including its ending. I want to form some semblance of peace that is constant, not just one that at times improves a little but then rushes back because some comment or movie or book or visit to the doctor’s got me thinking in a phobic way again. Enough is enough. I want to have peace with every aspect of life in the same way I like to get along with every person I meet. It’s just the healthiest way.

Somewhere near 5AM, somewhere between articles about various cultural beliefs and fears surrounding death, various mythological descriptions of death, and a few websites addressing methods for dealing with fears of dying, the Sleepytime tea, cozy set up in the living room, and glimmering snow visible at the balcony window had all crept into my senses to infuse a sense of calm. It was time to sleep.

Sometimes insomnia might have a purpose, rousing us at a time when we are stuck alone with our thoughts and emotions, with plenty of time to focus on them without the interruption of our waking routines. All in all, I’m happy that fear and a lack of sleep inspired an invitation extended to Thanatos, whom I had imagined as a demonic entity with solid muscles and a cruel face of icy eyes and even icier breath. Not only did Thanatos turn out to be depicted as a calm-faced, bearded man—amazingly enough looking more like my kind father than a demon—but there was a more rational characterization for him: that of a gentle, and one could suppose conscientious or compassionate, death.

Like many others, like 68% of Americans or possibly even 68% of all humans, I still have a level of discomfort with mortality and may not be at complete peace with the idea of shuffling off this mortal coil and gliding into the unknown. I do hope, though, that I have finally learned the key to accepting all aspects of existence as beautiful, integral parts of each other that are nothing to fear. That is yet to be seen for sure, but I think I’m on the right path.

Regardless of my evolution, I’m sure I will still hold an appreciation for Woody Allen quotes.