When did you Give Up?

Do you remember the exact moment you chose to be …soft? Maybe your resolve to speak up like a picket-line force of nature dwindled over the years, or maybe it was extinguished in a second watching someone you admired shrug their shoulders and sigh “Oh well, we are just the little guys, we can’t make a difference”.
Can you remember the day when your spark died out?
Were you told that “Nobody likes a complainer”, or “your tone is very unbecoming” and inevitably you squeezed your body, your thoughts, and your being into an uncomfortable new uniform that somehow you resigned to accept, even with how hard it is to breathe? I bet your gut screamed at your thoughts “This costume does not fit, this is not who you are, take it off!” Yet you forced the zipper up, and wore it hoping someday it would feel a little less stifling. I bet even today you still yank at the collar to stop it from completely choking you out.
Science class taught me at a very young age that energy never gets used up. What exactly are you doing with all those pent up feelings that well up inside you? When you watch the news, or see your country corrupt your politics, when big corporations kill our fragile ecosystems, and when the ones who we trust to be protecting us, only profit from us instead; where do you hide your true self in those moments?
How do you shove, and elbow that energy back down inside your itchy, hot, and restrictive society-accepted attire? Somehow, you do, and maybe you have done it for more years than you can remember now.
You are quiet, allowing others to gobble up everything you held near and dear to you, while you shrug in hopelessness. You have learned to swallow your opinions now, stretching the fabric tighter and tighter around you.
Seriously, who dressed you? Because you look ridiculous.
Your children will only learn from you when they see injustice, that they need to be the voice of change, or to blend into the walls. Your helpless coworkers, neighbors, friends and enemies need you too. They need you to tell them their society-imposed, opinion-muffling costumes are outrageously outdated now, just like I am telling you.
Growing up, I had the mother who loudly demanded the advertised fifty-cent discount on a loaf of bread at the checkout line, while my sisters and I hid from all of those eyes, glaring with impatience. My mother taught me that standing up for what’s right (no matter how trivial I thought it was) might be uncomfortable to others, but no one ever dared try to choose her wardrobe.
I love her so much.
But, back to you. Did my post offend you just now? Did it make you…. Feel something? Good.
Maybe you can take off that foolish ensemble, put on a pair of sweat pants and help me kick some ass, because I need you too.
Jennifer Smith

Health is more than the Absence of Disease

At some point our thinking has shifted. When defining “health” I think of the body living in a state of optimal efficiency, with the strength to repulse illness, and living energetically in harmony. It’s becoming a scary universal belief that simply living with the absence of disease is the picture of health. When did we settle? When did we give up that amazing feeling of “being alive” and accept just living, or worse surviving? We have lowered the health bar to meeting the requirement of living disease free, which leaves a pretty big void. Our health care industry (and remember it’s a profit generating big business) really thrives on disease, take a moment and think about how many commercials focus and curing disease (at the risks of sometimes even larger ailments) and how many they put out to prevent these same diseases. Even if our family is predisposed to cancer, this does not mean we have to resign ourselves to the same eventual fate. It has been proven that a diet full of whole foods, natural foods without chemicals and as close to their natural state as possible, while reducing meat, because the higher we eat within the food chain, the higher the amount of toxins that accompany it (and when choosing meat, really go for quality, the absolute best you can afford). The phytonutrients in plants stimulate and regulate our health, and we really need to get our Omega 3s. Type 2 diabetes is reversible with food alone, so why are we not guided to see the light? Unfortunately medical personnel just do not get the training required to adequately “prescribe” a healthier way of eating. There are many, many pharmaceutical salesmen out there knocking door to doctors’ door, but there is just not enough interest, or money to market nutrition against the deep pockets of the drug companies. Almost half our nation is taking at least one prescription, and one-third of us are taking two or more daily, and not enough of us put our faith in food and our bodies’ amazing ability to heal itself. There is more to being well than simply the absence of illness. We all have heard that prolonged stress can manifest physically in our bodies, but so can anger, hatred, depression, hopelessness, anxiety, jealousy, and all negative emotions that when held instead of releasing will build a hospitable environment for inflammation and disease. At our fundamental core, we need love, we need to be connected and we need to be happy to thrive. I hear in the Philippines, people with nothing are always smiling, and in fact, there are malls that play loud happy music once or twice a day, and everyone in the mall stops what they are doing and begin to dance, and sing and release the pent-up energy …they let it all go. A very powerful energetic cleanser is Pranayama, also known as breathing techniques. Even the simple act of finding a quiet space and focusing on your breathing while letting your mind calm is extremely powerful for eliminating stress, and any unrest in the body as well as creating alignment in the energy centers. It is time to question what growing old looks like because old is not synonymous with sickness, and it is time to really scrutinize this belief that our fate is completely hereditary, with no input from our choices and decisions. Health is happiness; health is living is a harmonious state. This life is ours to live, and why not make it our best life? It is never too late to be healthy.

Philosophers on Happiness

This weekend I was lucky enough to carve out some time to watch a few documentaries. In my twenties it surely wasn’t “cool” to spend a Saturday evening watching informational videos, but I am content to be in a place where “cool” no longer matters. In other words, I am officially my parents. In an effort to elevate peace and happiness for 2015, I thought I would share insights from some very influential philosophers and maybe even inspire you to embrace them into your own life. Socrates is perhaps the most well-known of all the great thinkers. He was a guy that walked the streets asking people the great questions that made them examine their lives. To do this now may raise a few eyebrows, but should it? When exactly did we stop questioning life? Or accepting common sense at face value? Socrates was on a mission to keep the general public from becoming “sheep”. A man many of us would argue we could use today. To learn from Socrates, question everything, including common sense. If we look back into the not so distant history, smoking was not only cool but beneficial to our health, and women couldn’t vote. Epicurus was not as well-known, and his books may not have been as widely read, but his philosophies on happiness are still valuable today. He believed there were 3 things needed to achieve this.

First were friends. He bought a home on a hill larger than anything he would ever need, and asked his closest friends to join him. They rose in the morning together and discussed the politics of the day. They drank wine in the evening and revelled in each other’s company. Friends are the key to life! We are the company we keep.

Freedom. Eventually Epicurus wanted to be out from under the town’s thumb. So, him and his friends moved away and started what would be known today as a commune and lived out their lives completely self-sufficient. Surely this is a hot topic today with the economy, and not only relying on the banks to hopefully help to shelter our families, but educational loans that in debt us, credit card interest which enslaves us, and mortgages which are incredibly profitable to the lenders. It’s nearly impossible to live without credit, or an identity within the governments eyes. A sometimes very stressful life.

Examine your Life. I find there are too many of us trotting through life thinking only about getting to the next pay check or even to retirement. The Buddha had said “It is better to travel well than to arrive” and finding pleasure in the journey should be the goal, not just the goal to be happy “someday”. There is an opportunity for bliss in every moment, joy in every step. Become wise to our patterns and habits can help to steer us onto our paths, instead of potentially following someone else’s.

Look at advertising and you will see the subliminal messages in the slogans and imagery swaying you to believe that purchasing a product will give you these things. Epicurus put up a wall outside the market proclaiming that true happiness cannot be purchased here. After my first Black Friday in the US, it is clear that the advertising industry has used the Epicurean principles so successfully people will go to crazy lengths to find it.

Seneca wrote extensively on overcoming anger to become happier. He believed anger was the most frenzied and hideous of emotions. He studied people from different social classes and came to a surprising conclusion. The wealthier the individual the angrier they seemed to be! He realized that the things that make us the angriest are the things that take us by surprise. The more money a person had, the more they believed they were immune to “surprises”, and became increasingly irate when the situations arose. Even today, you can see the patrons in a fine dining restaurant picking at any imperfections with increasing annoyance. Seneca had some advice on dealing with anger.

Become more Pessimistic. Every day when you get into your car, there is a good chance you may get cut off, or get into a traffic jam. Yet we get are so surprised when they happen. When you start expecting drivers to be bad, the bus to be occasionally late, and your boss to give you unrealistic demands, you might just notice that living in the world realistically keeps the anger at a controllable decibel.

Lower your expectations. Next time you are at the airport notice the differences between the First Class Line up versus the Coach customers. Doing a fair amount of travel myself, (all coach by the way), there is a noticeable difference in expected perfection by the Premium ticket holders, and inevitable disappointment throughout the flight.

Conforming your expectations to the world rather than expecting the world to conform to your expectations is the key to controlling and overcoming anger. Crucial in finding our way to Happiness. Montaigne was fascinated by one’s Self Esteem. He saw our inadequacies in three areas which seemed to be the most peculiar.

The Body. Unlike animals, we spend so much time obsessing over how we should look, how much we should weigh, our hair color, clothes and the list goes on. He suggests we learn to accept our bodies with grace and a little humour. Montaigne although wealthy, wrote books about his mundane life filled with bowel movements and masturbation. He spared no minute detail to point out that we are really all the same. All classes could relate to him on a personal level, and he was very popular in his day.

Becoming Judgemental. This was thinly guised way of propping oneself up to Montaigne. He saw the gossips and the ones so eager to point out another’s perceived flaw as a crutch in making one’s own ego larger. He felt there was a certain arrogance that came with people who thought they were the last word on what’s right in society.

Intellectual Inadequacy. Montaigne felt one could be wise with humility. Understanding the difference between wisdom versus knowledge is key here. Accepting even the greatest scholars have limitations, and knowing the far bigger dangers of becoming intellectually arrogant. Nietzsche talked at length about hardship. He wished illness to his friends and loss to his family. He hoped for these low times in the lives of the ones he cared for most, as this is the only way to get to true happiness. Difficulty is normal, and should be expected. Only through suffering can we reap the greatest joys. He likens our lives to becoming gardeners, who start with dark situations and through are perseverance can we cultivate the most beautiful of gardens. Every hardship is an opportunity to grow, to become aware our ourselves on a very deep level and nurture our true self, rather than the demanding ego in our heads.

On a personal note I have seen this first hand. Only through losing my first husband and childhood best friend, have I to have been able to see how deep sorrow can grow into an unbridled gratefulness and willingness to enjoy every last moment in life, because it is short, and if we don’t open our eyes to it, we just might miss it!

Bringing us the Schopenhauer, who was one of the very few philosophers to touch on love. He felt that love above all was the most important thing, because it alone propagates the species to reproduce. On this more scientific note, he also believed our attractions to our mates are based on cancelling out our own features to create balance in our offspring. If you are short, you may be attracted to someone tall. If you are completely logical all the time, you may fancy a mate who brings the inner child out of you. If this is true, than the next time you are rejected, think of it more as an imbalance of personalities/traits, rather than taking it too personally. Well, maybe still keep the evening of ice cream and romance movies, but in the sugar induced hangover the next morning, brush it off as nothing more that a biologically predetermined mis-match.

Have a couple of hours to spend? Watch the full documentary http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/watch-online

The Gift of Yoga

I met Jason when I was 5 years old. He was a spunky, snot-nosed neighbor kid who came over the day we moved in and asked if I wanted to come out and play. We were best friends instantly. Over the next few years we did everything together, and days with him always started out with his grand ideas of what we could do, and usually ended with us getting in some kind of trouble. He even told my dad when he was allowed to, that he was going to marry me someday. On days I had steak for dinner, he would come over and eat all the grizzly parts off my plate so I could leave the table and we could play. In fact, I can’t think of a time in my childhood that he wasn’t a part of.

My family moved away about four years later, and my mom tried to help us to see each other whenever we could. Soon after we moved again, this time to the other end of the country, which at my young age, felt like the other end of the planet. I missed my friends when I moved and eventually the feeling faded, but with Jason it never did. So I decided when it was time I would move back so we could be together again. So at 21 I did.

When I moved back to my hometown I looked for Jason for months, but all I found out was he had moved away. This was before the era of Facebook and my search options were limited. I settled back into my hometown, and slowly built my new life there. By pure coincidence seven years later Jason walked into my workplace and just like that not a minute had passed by. He had just moved back to town and we instantly picked up where we had left off so many years ago. He was into martial arts and yoga, and I was into smoking and drinking too much coffee. He was starting a business and I was a stressed out workaholic. One day he convinced me to go to a yoga class, and reluctantly I agreed. I didn’t like the class much, because it was tough, I was out of shape, and all I could think about was a cigarette. I didn’t get why he loved it so much, and we agreed to disagree on his love of yoga.

Four years had passed and we were finally married, and at our reception he toasted my father and joking announced “I told you so” while the rest of us laughed at the irony. It was one of the happiest times of my life. One week before our first wedding anniversary we were on a beautiful motorcycle ride in Montana’s Glacier Park. He was in front of me sweeping around the mountain curves when he misjudged his angle and hit an oncoming SUV. Jason was pronounced dead at the scene and I felt like my world had stopped. I was in a mind fog over the next few weeks, and I needed something that could take me from this life I was barely living. Instead of walking by my local yoga studio as I always did, I listened to Jason’s advice and I walked in to a yoga class. It was hard, but I noticed it was quiet, which was a far cry from my busy home full of people who meant well. I started going every day, and I was becoming stronger, weeping in Savasana less, and learning how to be still. I had quit smoking for some time now, adapted healthier eating, and even though I didn’t know why or how, yoga was getting me through the most painful time in my life.

A year later I signed up for a Yoga Teacher Training Intensive program and I started to understand the deep healing aspects of yoga that I had experienced firsthand. What was happening to me was finally making sense. I didn’t know it then, but Yoga saved my life. I am a completely different person. I have an established practice now, and my mind is strong and my body is healthy. I have moved forward and was even lucky enough to have found love again, and I have recently remarried. On the fourth year of his passing, I think of Jason often. If I could express anything to my childhood best friend, it would be to thank him for taking me to my first yoga class.

The Middle Way

“Take what you need and leave the rest” ~ Anon

Remember those Petri dishes in High School Biology? Perfectly round, transparent, sterile orbs of neutral ground. Imagine for a moment, we could reduce every human being on this planet into that agar ‘jelly’ and other nutrients creating that organic surface for interaction. Billions of us are together in this Petri dish living our lives, and waiting for something to happen. Now imagine this bright, artificial light of stress, beaming into our dish, all day and all night long…everyday. Chronically intense and ever-present, this stress has embedded itself into our lives and the light switch has been taped to the ‘On’ position. This means there is no option to hide from this stress, or take a break from it, because within this Petri dish there is nowhere to go. Now imagine the different ways this can change us, within our cellular make-up and the environment in which we live.

Dr. Susan Rosenberg, a professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College has proven that a single stress source alone will turn up the spontaneous mutation rates within human cells. This really got me thinking about all of the illnesses we face as a result of genetic mutations inside us. Angelina Jolie recently made headlines with her double mastectomy as a preventative surgery after finding out she carries the BRCA gene for breast cancer. One of my blogs last year was also about a woman in my yoga class who was undergoing this same surgery and it was like alarms started going off in my mind, that as a species, we were getting sicker, and only coping with, not improving our situation. It seems that high blood pressure, heart conditions, cancerous mutations and inflammation are all par for the course now.  According to Medical Qigong Therapy, once an organ or body part has been removed, there remains an energetic void within the Spatial Cavity of the person’s tissues. The energy of the organ or limb, however, still exists within the patient’s body, as a ‘Phantom Organ/Limb.’ This also means, the stress it was harboring remains in the body too, until it is dealt with.

These days the root of chronic stress seems to be most common in excessive living.  Whether it is getting the biggest, baddest house or car, we are wearing our bodies down mentally, physically, and energetically trying to keep up with these decaying, impermanent things, and missing the whole point of it all. I had many reasons for moving out of that beautiful home on the beach recently, but truthfully, the most important one was what it was doing to my stress levels and my quality of life. Every weekend spent maintaining this house, cleaning rooms we never used. Since I have left I sleep better, breathe deeper, and I really feel like I have gotten my life back. It was an important lesson learned for me, and I will not forget it. As we look for another house, it will be comfortable, not excessive, and most importantly … easy. You know that motto, everything in moderation? It is mostly true, except common sense stuff like heroin or gunshot wounds, but what about stress…is stress okay in moderation? Primal types of stress are a necessity, like the fight or flight syndrome when confronted by a lion, but the stress we create ourselves in our everyday life is not, in any measure. As I purge my excesses, and bring my life back into its own peaceful harmony, I am reminded again that bigger is not always better, and just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Namaste

The Beauty in Trees

I loved this one commentary in a documentary I watched over the weekend on America’s view on what’s beautiful. When an East African woman was asked whether or not she loved her body, she looked puzzled by the question. “Why wouldn’t I?” she said. “I have hands that can do everything for my family, strong arms to get water and carry food. My legs are so powerful they can wrap around a man and hold him there; I love my body.”. Then the East African woman asked the narrator why she would ask such a question. The narrator replies “Well, I don’t particularly like my stomach since bearing children and my arms are droopy…” to which the East African woman interrupts “It is your body, and it is amazing. Do you see that tree over there (and she points) do you think that tree is beautiful? And this one here, (she points again) is this tree beautiful? They are both different, but do you think the first tree wishes it could look more like the second tree? Women are trees. You are a tree and I am a tree, and we are beautiful.” When asking teenage boys and young men what makes a woman beautiful, they were quick to answer with celebrity names and faces, but when asked why they were beautiful, what was it about them that made them beautiful, and they weren’t able to answer. In recent years, I have come to learn how to drop my inner critic, and although I still strive to improve, it is much nicer when it comes from a place of love and tolerance rather than the result of criticism and fault-finding missions. So how do we celebrate our uniqueness when we are constantly barraged with images of waif thin women and muscular men? It may seem overwhelming to try to change an industry, but we can start by supporting the companies who fall into line with our own values. Most importantly, we have the power to change ourselves from within, and how we view each other… and once we can do that, we will see a world that is so full of true beauty.

Living Life, or Posing Life?

I am at one of my local eateries by the ocean two mornings ago, and I catch an elderly man gingerly lowering himself into one of the beach chairs on the sand. Before I could complete my thought, silently happy for him that he made it into that chair without breaking something, his daughter (I think) yells at him to turn his head back so she could get a good picture for her Facebook page and then they really need to go. I realize watching the old man straining to get back out of this low laying chair that I am staring now, so I avert my gaze to others enjoying the beach and spectacular scenery.

I look around to see girls posing for an iPhone in a “candid” shot as they pretend to be in a water fight, and immediately hop back onto the beach to continue the shoot. A mother telling her son to “do that again” this time she has her camera in hand to catch the moment that happened once already ten seconds prior. I think to myself, it’s a beach; of course there will be a lot of camera happy visitors and resume to my breakfast. I live in a “touristy” area now, and rationalize to myself that this is all a part of the package. But this thought lingers with me. I think back to my own childhood, and vacations we used to take to the beach. I remember sometimes posing for one or two family snaps and my mother would maybe take a couple more as we played. We would build gigantic turtles in the sand, taking six hours or more to complete (looking back, I think it was a clever way to keep us busy so my mother could relax and suntan), and when we were done, it never even crossed our minds to ask mom to get a photo of it. We all hopped back into the family car sacrificing our turtle back to the ocean, and it didn’t really phase us. I would like to think I was a pretty observant kid. As I search the far corners of my memories, I don’t remember seeing so many “photo shoots” happening on vacations as I saw that morning on the beach. I never posed much for pictures, unless we were at Sears for our portraits. I remember those because I was not the type of child who could stay still for that period of time, the artificial carpet seats smelt like chemicals, and I couldn’t wait for them to be over with.

Since Facebook came on the scene, taking pictures has risen to a whole new level. Photos used to be mementos, a way to remember the times in our lives. We would frame them, scrapbook them, or keep them in boxes ready and waiting for our next trip down memory lane. I can’t help but feel as I watched the fragile man in the beach chair struggle to appease his daughter that pictures are taking on a life of their own. It’s as if the picture is more important than enjoying the moment that the picture represents. Seconds after a photo is snapped we can upload it to Facebook to show all of our friends what we were lucky enough to experience five seconds ago. Don’t get me wrong, I also love uploading interesting things I see to social media sites to share with my friends and family. Living so far away from them I find it is a great way to stay connected and close. I am guilty of having 46 virtual photo albums, and significant Facebook worthy life events are always on the horizon.

Why does the old man stay in my thoughts? As I watched him struggle to get in and out of the chair, I realized that the real experience for him was to be in it. To feel the sun on his face and listen to the waves and the gulls that flew overhead. To inhale and exhale the saltwater air, and just be. Who knows if he would ever be able to come back here again? Although there is a picture to document him on the beach, it wasn’t really an accurate reflection of the moment.

Pictures are supposed to be reflections of our experiences. They are nothing more than a way to look back and smile at the times we have had. The key though, is to make sure the experiences we document are ones we took the time to enjoy, or the photos one day might be worth less to us than the paper they are printed on.