Saturday, September 24, 2016

Listening to the Body

Image result for listening to the body quote

I have not done any running this week. In my last post, I suggested that my body should not be listening to what my mind says.  It is, however, true that the mind should usually listen to what the body says.  The start of the school year typically brings new viruses into the house, and Jasper brought home a potent one that he so generously shared with me. My body has been fighting this virus for a few days, and it does not really want to run right now, so I've been keeping the exercise to walking, a few planks, and some light yoga.

Our bodies tell us things all the time.  How often do we listen?  I know I am guilty of ignoring what it is saying to me.  When I have aches, pains, coughs, discomforts, I usually shrug them off, convinced that they will go away soon. If I am really, really tired, do I go to bed earlier? Usually not. If I am feeling a little under the weather, do I go to work? Yep! I usually do. If my cough isn't going away, do I go in to the doctor right away? Um. No, not so much. Perhaps if I had been listening a little better to my body I would have realized that I was not just out of shape last year. Perhaps if I had not been truly paying attention, I would have felt the slow decline of my stamina and realized something was up much sooner.

As a practicing yogi, I always thought I was pretty in tune with my body. I can tell when I"m getting stressed, and I can find a breathing pattern that helps me to remain calm. I can see when I should back off of a challenging pose that my muscles are not ready for.  It's been a long time since I've injured myself in my practice because I do pay attention when I'm on my yoga mat.  But as I reflect on the past year, I can see that I wasn't following the same practice off the mat.  My body was hollering at me that things were not right, and I just refused to listen. As I find myself coughing from this cold virus, I am reminded of how many weeks I was coughing last fall, and how I kept telling myself that the cough was nothing serious.  And we all know how that turned out.

I'm feeling pretty good these days. I feel strong. I feel pretty healthy. On Monday I go in for my quarterly CT scan and bone scan and we will see, visually, if things match up with how I feel.  I like to think I've gotten better at paying attention to my body. I'm trying to eat the right things, and make all the right moves. I am trying to take a few minutes each day to sit and simply notice where I am holding stress, to notice where I am feeling not quite 100%. I'm trying to listen to the subtle hints and whispers that say move, rest, eat, drink, sleep.

The body will eventually get your attention, one way or another. I'm learning not to make it yell.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Peeling off the Labels

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I am not a runner.  At least that's what I've always thought about myself. I am not athletic. The only "sport" I ever really was decent at was water-skiing, but if you don't live on a lake and own a ski boat, it's not exactly an activity that you can do every day.  I walk and do the yoga thing. I bike a little bit, but I wanted to up my cardiovascular activity, and running seemed like the quickest way to improve my fitness level and also to quickly get those steps in each day that my FitBit tracks for me.  So I decided to try running a little every day. I figured it would probably take me a few weeks of trying before I could even run a mile. After all, I'm a little bit broken, right? For heavens sake, I'm in cancer treatment. How could I possibly run a mile yet?

I started by running a block and then walking a block and just alternating back and forth a few times.  I did that for a couple of days. And then, on the third day, I wasn't really paying that much attention, and I realized I was still running into the second block. And when I finished those two blocks, I realized I was working hard, but not so hard that I needed to stop. And then I just kept going until I found I had reached that one mile mark. Once I stopped listening to the voice in my head that was telling me how hard it would be to run a mile, I found I could actually do that mile without too much difficulty. By disregarding that label of "broken" that I had given myself, I found that the label was false. All those other labels, that I am not a runner, that I am not athletic, they are false too.  When my mind stopped telling my body what it couldn't do, it did just fine.

We assign labels to ourselves and to others all the time.  We define ourselves by our jobs, by our friends, by our beliefs, and by so many other ways.  I am a mother. I am a bad cook. I'm an extrovert. I am smart. I am not that smart. I'm great at math. I'm terrible with numbers. I am fat. I am not lucky. I am a liberal. I am a conservative. I am a cat person. I am a dog person. I am this. I am not that.  But when we start to label ourselves, we start to believe that is who we are.  We start to give the label more power than it deserves. In fact, if someone tries to take that label away from us or assigns us one that we don't like, we can even feel like we are worthless or that we have failed in some way.

I think we all know we should never read online comments, but sometimes curiosity takes over. It can be so discouraging, can't it? There is so much anger and judgement of each other. So many labels are being assigned. People do it in person, of course, but it seems to be even more prevalent with the relative anonymity of the internet.  Total strangers call one another fools, morons, evil, idiots, bitches, and much worse. It doesn't seem to matter if it's politics or if it's a book review or even a recipe suggestion. We don't understand why this stupid person who believes something different can't see how stupid they are being. And it gets us nowhere. We just end up feeling upset. We feel fear and anger over the things being said. And we don't just feel it in the mind. We can feel it in our bodies as we tense up and feel the emotion rippling through. Our bodies are always listening. Even if we don't believe we are stupid, having somebody label us as stupid gets under our skin.

Of course, none of those labels are really who we are. Labels are transient things. We can change our names. We could change jobs. I can change my hair color or my weight. I can change my religion or my political persuasion. I can change my opinion. I can change my mind. I will still be the same person. I am not really any of those labels.

What it we all stopped labeling ourselves?  What if we all stopped labeling each other?  How much more peace would we all have? We have so much unhappiness because of labels, because of our thoughts. But thoughts aren't true. They are just thoughts. Labels aren't true. They are just labels. Just words. We endow the thought with the power of reality, but a thought is not real. It's just a bunch of electric chemical impulses that happen in our brain. We lie awake at night because of thoughts. We yell at each other because of thoughts. We suffer because of thoughts.

Our bodies hear all of these thoughts and respond.  I am old. I am ugly. I am weak. I am lazy. I am fat. I am angry. I am tired. I am sick. We use these words, these labels, against ourselves, and our bodies listen and respond accordingly.

I have labeled myself as a cancer patient. I have given this label a lot of power, and I know I have let it take over my thoughts frequently. What if I stopped thinking of myself as a cancer patient? What if I stop thinking about what might happen and just live in the moment? What if I peel off the cancer label. How will my body respond?

Have you ever seen a flower that you didn't know the name of? You didn't need to know it's name to appreciate it's beauty. You could just appreciate that it was there. When we see beyond those labels, beyond the symbols we assign to things, we can discover the beautiful presence that is simply there. We are not labels. We are not thoughts. We are simply here, and we are beautiful.

What if we all peel away all the labels that we use to define ourselves? Who is underneath those labels? That's who we really are.

Let's peel off those labels.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Taking the Long View

Victory Memorial Parkway. Photo from Minneapolis Parks.
Last night, my son, Jasper, and I went for a walk.  We live near a very special park called Victory Memorial Parkway.  It's a 3 mile stretch of road bordered by green space that pays tribute to the 568 men from Hennepin County who lost their lives in World War I. Five-hundred and sixty-eight trees, evenly spaced, line the parkway, each with a plaque on the ground beneath bearing the name of a lost soldier. It's easy to take for granted this open space, but when you take a moment to ponder what this space represents, it's really an impressive thing.

It is especially impressive to think about the people who dreamed up this monument. It probably took several years to plan and bring to fruition. Charles M. Loring was known as the "Father of Parks" in Minneapolis, and he was the driving force behind the parkway (as well as most of the other parks in the city - you can read more about him here). The memorial was dedicated in 1921, and he died in 1922. He never got to see the parkway as he had envisioned it, with a canopy of full-grown stately elm trees lining its length. Trees grow far too slowly. But he gave more than $50,000 of his own money to make sure the trees of the parkway would continue to be cared for, even though he was never going to see them in their glory. This was someone who did not do things for instant gratification. He took the long view.  He did them because it was the right thing to do.

I am not so good at taking the long view.  I'm guessing most of us aren't. We like things to happen, and we like them to happen right now, thank you very much. We don't like to delay gratification. We want the bowl of ice cream tonight, even if we know the calories might add to our waistlines.  We know we should go to bed early to make getting up easier, but we stay up late to watch one more episode of "Stranger Things" on Netflix.  We know we should exercise, but it's hard, and sweaty, and this chair is pretty comfy and there's something new on Facebook that I haven't seen yet.

It often takes a lot of time to see results too, so the motivation has to be pretty strong to make yourself do things you don't really want to do. Exercise is one of those things we don't necessarily want to do. Yet research shows that vigorous exercise of 30 minutes or more at least five times a week is crucial for helping to keep cancer at bay. It changes the way that hormones are produced in the body and, it doesn't matter what kind of cancer you have. It's protective against almost all of them. We aren't talking about taking a 30 minute stroll. It has to be vigorous enough to make you feel almost like you are jogging - about 3.8 miles per hour, and you have to do this more than once or twice week. You can't just do a long, hard day on the weekend and expect it to count. It has to be more days than not. Anything less is just not effective. Isn't that annoying?

Of course, I've known for years that exercise is important. I've flirted with biking, walking, stair climbing, jogging, and such on and off over the years, but I've never developed a steady, long-term habit. You'd think the potential to die from cancer would be a strong motivating force for me to keep at it, but that just doesn't seem to be enough.

Today is my birthday. I've never been a big "celebrate my birthday" kind of person, but the reminder that birthdays are not foregone conclusions makes a person rethink things. So, I'm going to celebrate this birthday by setting some goals. I want to be able to run a mile without needing to stop.  I want to be more generous. I want to find ways to make people smile.  I want to be able to do at least 15 push ups (full Russian style). I want to give more than I get.  I want to write more songs.  I want to have another birthday. And then another. And then how about a few more?

I bought a Fit Bit as an early birthday present. Goals are good motivators, but it turns out that instant gratification is pretty powerful. It's a little silly that it takes a plastic band around my wrist telling me how many steps I have gone and how many "active" minutes I have completed today to get me out the door and moving, but it seems to work where fear of potential death does not. Crazy, huh?  I have been out walking, briskly, almost every day since I got it. Apparently, a little Huzzah! vibration on my wrist when I meet my step and activity goal is just what the doctor ordered. I guess we all just need someone to remind us of our goals and to tell us, occasionally, that we are doing a good job.

I'm trying to take the long view. I'm trying to set into motion the things that will make me healthier and life even better. I'm trying to take a page from Charles Loring's playbook and think about how to make this world a more beautiful place. Set enough aside to share with others. Pick up that piece of trash in the street, plant flowers, walk in the community every day and get to know my neighbors. Each little thing contributes to making life a little better.  Little things, done every day, add up to big things down the road.

Whatever we are doing that is hard, be it wanting to run a marathon or walk a block, or maybe even just wanting to get through to the next week, look at today. Look at what you can do today. Know that your effort today will pay off in some way. We may never even see the results for a long time, but we know that some good will have been done along the way.

And by the way, you are doing a good job.