Mindfulness in the Winter Sun (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

I spent a short time in sitting meditation. I began by locating a window through which the afternoon sun was streaming. I sat cross-legged on the floor and, after closing my eyes, I centered myself on my breath. I took time to notice the pauses between each in-breath and out-breath.

My face felt warmed by the sunlight filtering through the window and I felt enlivened. I’d wrapped a warm robe around myself before starting the mediation, so “cozy” was a word that passed through my mind. There was little activity in the way of textures, noises or smells to distract me from the present. I felt drawn in by the light and wanted to rest in it.

I then brought my attention to my body, enlarging my sense of self to try to encompass as much of my physical frame as I was able to do. I felt a block when I got to my upper back, so I decided to move into a few yoga poses such as child’s pose at the end of the meditation session in order to release the tension I was experiencing in that area. I haven’t done this before but I like the idea of listening intuitively to my body during mindfulness and then responding accordingly.

Have you practiced mindfulness in various seasons and weather patterns? If so, which is your favorite? What pose might reflect what your body needs today?

One Side of the Nose Knows? (Today’s Daily Presence)

My current illness has acquainted me more intimately than I’d like to be with how my nose is functioning. Specifically, I’ve woken up every morning this week with the sensation that I could only breath out of one side of it. As I sought out information about why this was happening, I was delighted to learn about an entire aspect of biology I’d been overlooking, which is called the nasal cycle.

Tissue within our nose is able to be “erect” and to constrict on one side at a time. This means that one side is receiving more airflow than the other. Our general preference tends to mirror our handedness, so left-handed people breath more through the left-side and vice versa. I’m right-handed and the left side of my nose has been the one that’s felt closed every morning, so it tracks with this. (Note that the second study I found showed the opposite pattern).

Our autonomic nervous system, which I’ve previously discussed, is what is responsible for the shifts that occur every few hours in terms of which nostril is taking in more air. The side that we lay on affects this cycle. We switch less frequently when we are asleep than we do when we are awake. I’ve been waking up at odd times for the past several nights since I got sick, which makes me wonder if my brain is trying to change over the left side, realizing no air is coming in, and then alerting me so that I will adjust my position.

One theory as to why we have a nostril taking in a lot of air and another that is taking in less air is that we are able to notice different aspects of smells depending on how the air is flowing through our nose. I feel like I’m only picking up the “loud” notes of the few scents I can currently detect, which seems to fit with this idea. It is thought that perhaps we need these differences in scent detection to sniff out happy smells like tasty food as well as smells that portend danger such as wild animals.

The speed of our breathing also affects how our nose works. I’ve examined the benefits of slow breathing and can now add that it has an impact on our nasal cycle. Breathing more slowly is linked with having a greater difference between the left and the right nostril airflow. Shallow breathing tends to cause the airflow to be more balanced.

Before examining the research on this topic, I did not know that my nose was shifting every few hours in terms of which nostril received more air. It’s frustrating that it took a bout of a respiratory illness to lead me to slow down enough to consider how this part of my body works, but I think I will now have more appreciation for simple joys such as actually being able to smell the food I’m eating and being able to breath in deeply through my nose without feeling restricted. How is your nose functioning? Do you have any sense of breathing in through one side of it more than another? What’s the connection between the rate at which you breath and your enjoyment of pleasant smells?

Sending Calming Signals (Today’s Daily Presence)

Today was filled with stress, albeit good stress because I was challenging myself in positive ways. Even though nothing went wrong and I didn’t feel triggered per se, my body is responding as though I am in danger. My heart is racing, I feel physically numb and my time perception is warped. This is a signal to me that my PTSD reactivity is on high alert, and that I need to spend some time reconnecting to my body. The easiest and simplest way I know to send it a sign that I am safe is to regulate my breathing.

Breathwork is not limited to breathing in and out slowly. For me, it starts by noticing my breath. The act of paying attention to my breath in and of itself soothes me. When I allow my breath to happen only on an unconscious level, I tend to breath in a very shallow and quick manner that leads my body to think it is danger (and which results from the perception of threat). Next, I invite my diaphragm to contract and relax at a slower pace. Finally, I allow for pauses between my in and out-breath.

A multitude of health benefits have been linked to slow breathing. Unhurried respiration eventually lowers my pulse rate. It may also help my heart to beat more efficiently and my oxygen exchange to be fuller. Six to ten breathes per minute is apparently what has been shown to lead to the best outcomes; I haven’t timed myself but ten per minute would likely be closer to where I’m at. Have you checked in with your breathing today? How does your body respond to you noticing your breath? How does slow breathing, if you are able to practice it, affect you?

Eight Mindfulness and Spirituality Practices to Start the Year Well

As we start the new year, I am more determined than ever to fully engage in the present moment as much as I can and to have that moment be held as sacred. I’ve included ideas here for myself as well as for you about how to enable this process. These practices might also be thought of as including self-reflection, sensory processing and grounding techniques.

1. Writing a poem

I am writing a series of poetry dedicated to animal encounters. This process has felt sacred to me as I draw deeply from each moment of time in which an animal and I exchange meaning. Other series I think would be interesting to try include weather patterns, plants, seasons and the sky.

2. Drawing a nature scene

I prefer my time in nature to be a slow process. What I mean by this is I am not focused on moving quickly through it by mechanical means like a jet-ski or ATV and that I let go of trying to “conquer” any aspect of it, such as completing a trail in as little time as I can. I once joined a walking group and spent so much time outside for a season, but the focus on walking fast and talking completely detracted from any mindfulness. Activities such as sketching and drawing can require tremendous patience and repetition, which enables me to pause and to be rather than do.

3. Practicing Breathwork

I shared recently that breathwork can potentially affect the brain-body connection in PTSD. Knowing this inspires me to spend time simply in awareness of my breathing. For those who do not have much free time, even a few minutes between activities can serve to help us recenter.

4. Connecting with nature through each sense

I love forest therapy and the relationship it encourages between mindfulness and nature. My favorite practice is to notice how each sense is affected by being outside. With a bit of planning, this encounter can be tailored to an individual’s sensory needs and abilities.

5. Engaging in a Body scan and movement

I sometimes find myself reacting emotionally to a situation, and, only after I get some time for self-reflection, do I realize that my physical state either contributed to or has been impacted by the encounter. Spending time checking with each body system and sending it healing energy helps me feel grounded.

In the past six months, I’ve also educated myself about ways to stretch specific parts of my body such as my toes. Doing so not only frees me of physical tension, but it also helps me expand my sense of inhabiting every aspect of who I am. Becoming embodied can be a challenge for those of us who have endured trauma, but doing so has allowed me to more fully process other aspects of my identity such as being trans.

6. Drawing a card

I believe that qualitative as well as quantitative data and information are useful, and I find that using tarot and oracle cards helps me release some of my compulsions towards liner thinking so that I can also take in “big picture” viewpoints. Experiencing insight through not only written but also through illustration is also enabled through the inclusion of various decks I have.

7. Listening inwardly

I’ve shared my process for doing inner work. I sometimes find myself wishing I could pause social encounters, check in with myself, and then reengage. I may need to find a way to do this IRL as so much of my out-of-body, out-of-time response is due to not having enough brain power to process my internal and external experiences simultaneously. When I make time for this practice, I often realize that much of the anxiety and anger to which I’d been reacting for hours was due to an inability to fully hear myself.

8. Holding Sacred Ritual

There is a good deal of overlap between the practices I’ve listed above and scared ritual in which I might engage. I have at times kept to a Pagan calendar as well as honored the full and new moons, but I did not find myself relating to these holidays any more than I relate to the ones most Americans follow. Ritual, for me, works best when it is held in anticipation or response to lived events. In particular, I want to engage in it at times where I feel scattered from myself and in need of reconnection.

Conclusion

Which of the mindfulness and spirituality practices that I’ve shared have you found to work the best for your needs? What else would you add as beneficial? What barriers, if any, might you need to overcome to allow yourself to be in the scared moment?

A Bit Unbalanced (Today’s Daily Presence)

Today’s card was an invitation to concentrate on my nervous system. I decided to reflect on the state of balance between my sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. In case you are unfamiliar with these terms, our sympathetic system is the system that responds to emergency situations and either compels us to fight against a threat or to flee from it. Our parasympathetic system can cause a collapse response but also dominates when we are relaxing. Both systems activate (although the parasympathetic response is stronger) when we have a freeze response to a threat. This article go into great detail about how each system works.

As I’ve shared previously, I am someone for whom threats seem to be everywhere. Given that I have PTSD, I scan every environment in which I find myself for possible dangers and stand ready to activate my sympathetic system at a moment’s notice. After being on T the last six months, I have observed an increase in the likelihood of a fight response, which is helpful in some ways as I do not feel as immobilized by anxiety as I did in the past. For example, I’ve started to engage in a confrontational way on a social media site, something I would have never done before and which feels as though it is channeling my general state of hostility. On the whole, whether it is to escape or confront, my sympathetic system turns on in many situations where it is not necessarily needed.

I also struggle at times with my parasympathetic system activating after chronic stress. This leads me to withdraw from others and detach internally through dissociation. My issues with dissociation seem to have gotten better after starting T, but I am struggling mightily with engaging socially. This article explained the Polyvagal Theory, which I’d only read about previously in passing, and has left me with the impression that connecting in a calm, happy state with others involves different body-brain pathways than dissociation or fight-flight. It also postulates that PTSD is related to swinging from active systems of reacting intensely to stimuli and passive systems of shutting off.

Dysregulation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are linked with a ridiculously long list of negative health outcomes and ultimately early death. I think this knowledge only serves to increase my anger at others, both my parents whose behaviors set me down this path and the people in my current life who add to my reactivity through their inconsiderate actions. Side note: Hostility was also noted as an outcome! It feels very unpleasant to read an entire scientific journal article that lays out detail after detail to which I can perfectly relate, and to feel relatively helpless to make changes because the structure of my brain and nervous system have been so altered through my experiences.

The one positive note I found at the very bottom of the article was that mindfulness practices have been shown to have some efficacy in addressing PTSD symptoms. This has been my lived experience; the main pathway through which I’ve reduced my dissociation has been through present-moment awareness. I feel a renewed commitment to this practice after this scientifically-grounded confirmation.

The switch I seem unable to flip is that of neuroception, meaning that I unconsciously conclude nearly every place I’m in and person I’m around is unsafe. I don’t feel consciously safe either. There isn’t necessarily an internal conflict as I genuinely believe most people cannot be trusted and most physical environments hold hidden dangers. I think I will pay more attention to tracking where and when I have a sense of safety, in order to examine whether there are any consistent features of my physical or social surroundings that assist with achieving this perception.

I watched the movie “Angel Has Fallen” yesterday (spoiler alert). The last scene was a spot-on representation of PTSD. Both the son and the father experienced negative effects of fighting in wars. They wanted to work on healing together, so they went to a “Zero Gravity” treatment center where they got into sensory deprivation tanks. The scene shows each of them gently floating on their backs in their own pool of water while wearing a swimsuit. They are both starting to relax and then, unexpectedly, the lights are turned off (to increase the sensory deprivation). They both start to immediately freak out. I think that scene will stick with me for a while as it so perfectly represented the reactivity of the nervous system, even in moments of calm, for people with PTSD. If you have PTSD, what is the interaction you observe between your sympathetic and parasympathetic systems? What, if you read them, did you note in the linked articles that connects with your experience? Which environments and/or practices grant you the highest degree of a sense of safety?

The Point of Inflection (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

For today’s card, I focused on what occurs at the intersection of inhalation and exhalation of a breath. It seems to me there is a world of possibility between the moment we soak in our surroundings through our senses, and the moment we create and express the perceptions those senses have left on us. A holy pause, filled with both eagerness and sorrow, is ours.

I’ve had moments in my life where I wanted to pause time, where the laughter, music and camaraderie was so pleasant I wanted to cling to it forever. Many more breathes have been halting and shallow, wishing I could speed things up so that I would never have to experience the darkness, the pain and the disconnection I felt then and there. Every breath moves on, though, to the next, until there is no next. We only have the rhythm of our lungs and our heart to sustain us.

As I’ve learned to slow and more fully appreciate the sensory experiences the world has to offer, it has opened new spaces inside me for imagination, creativity and deeper observation. I tended to get lost in my ruminations–the same three rumbles of thunder clashing again and again, perceiving every sensation as a threat–or to rush so quickly from one breath to another that I scarce know how my lungs filled. It is only through deliberate practice that I come into the fullness of my capacity to breath; it’s not my nature but it might be our collective nature into which I’ve tapped. I’ve found in this inner universe much more grace and compassion than I anticipated, as well as a sense that time isn’t the essence of our lives but merely a companion to our journey. What is your relationship with the in-breath and the out-breath? What meets you in the inflection point in between each?

The In-Gathering

As I worked through what I need after feeling invisible, experiencing invalidation or simply having a stressful day, I realized my inner world is best honored by ritual. My spirituality is at its deepest when I follow my own natural rhythms. Whenever and wherever, I can honor each part of myself. I invite you to customize the following for your own practice.

Setting the Scene

Create a space for ritual. This can be as simple as lighting a candle, laying out a special cloth, or brewing a cup of tea. It can be creating an elaborate altar or traveling to a place in nature to which you feel called. All that matters is that it is made sacred by your intentional presence.

Begin by centering yourself on your breath. Invite your senses in, one-by-one. If you having trouble focusing, play calming music or listen to nature sounds.

A Safe Place for All

In turn, welcome* each part of self. Some I chose to honor are the vulnerable, the eager, the nurturing, the brave and the wise. You may have other parts that need representation. Allow each to share with you whatever they want to share, without judgement. Ask the other parts to sit back and grant space while each one shares. Parts may make a request of others, which should be held with care.

Body, Heart, Mind and Spirit

After each part has shared, concentrate again on your breath. Inhabit every corner of your body. Listen to your body as a whole and through its systems, observing what it needs. Focus on what it may want to reveal or release.

Allow your emotions to channel and course through your body. Meet each one with a loving embrace. Notice them shift and dance.

Attend to your mental state. Notice the pattern and pace of your thoughts. Observe them come and go.

Finally, turn to your Spirit. Allow it to reveal itself to you through your senses. Touch the moon and sun cycles, the sky, earth, rain and fire and the season. Let nature guide you deeper into your soul.

Symbols of Love

Breath again, and ask of yourself, all of yourself present, what love looks like here and now. To the best of your ability, provide this love to yourself. Note any hesitancy, and then move through it with care. Embrace yourself.

A Closing Prayer

Finalize your ritual by spending time in quiet meditation, honoring yourself for making time to gather yourself whole and to recognize your worth. Incorporate whatever words and movements feel holy in this moment. Be the prayer your soul needs to feel.

*If you are new to inner/self-work and you hold a trauma history, this practice could be destabilizing. I encourage you to first work with a trusted therapist before engaging in this ritual and to take as slow of a pace as needed. Self-care practices such as spending time in nature, running a gentle bath or settling into your breath may be safe places to start to connect with parts of self.

Healing Presence (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

Living in the present moment has enabled me to gain perspective in regards to my trauma history. If I’m grounded, I’m less likely to get lost in a sea of negative thoughts or to make irrational decisions based on negative emotions. My dog, my meditation practice and my time in nature are my most reliable conduits into present moment awareness.

Dogs live for the moment. My dog can occasionally show signs of holding a memory or anticipating the future (for example, if I mention a bath or going to the store), but he spends most of his time anchored in the here and now. When I find myself lost in panic, he will sit with me or demand a snuggle, and I can detach slightly from the pull of before and after.

I am not the most regular in my practice of mindfulness, but I do return to breath-work whenever it enters my mind. Finding my center, especially in noticing the gaps between each out and in-breath, reorients me into my body which allows me to come present. Giving my full awareness to simple actions like sitting or walking with intention serves as an additional current-moment touch-point.

Finally, immersing myself in nature helps me focus on the present. I especially appreciate the beauty of trees and love the texture their bark provides underneath my fingertips. The sounds of leaves crinkling in the wind and the warmth of the sunlight on my skin make every moment special. If my present is captured outside with my dog while I open my field of awareness to all of my senses, I am not only here for it, I’m joyful. What helps you ground and center? What best connects you to the present?

Practicing Deep Breathing (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

When I first started practicing mindfulness meditation at a Buddhist center years ago, I was confused when the person leading the session mentioned the pauses between breaths. It had never occurred to me that there could be a break between an in-breath and an out-breath! My vision for this year has included spending time in awareness of the space between the out-breath and the in-breath, as I think that it is the expansive moment of inflection I most need to allow into my life.

For today’s simple pleasure, I took time to count my breaths. I started with a count of four in, hold, out, hold but quickly became light-headed, so I shifted to four in, hold two, out four, hold two which I found relaxing and calming. I can breathe in and hold my breath for much longer than I can breath out and wait before inhaling. This matches my personality exactly, as I am more on the side of rigidity and withdrawing into myself than I am on loosing and engaging, especially when I am stressed. Breathing is the pace of our life; I desire for my pacing to become more balanced and rounded instead of sharp and drawn. What is your relationship with your breath?

Meditating with Sacred Beads (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

Today I meditated using a string of sandlewood beads. I integrated my touch of each bead into a pattern of breathing in and out. The tactile nature of the task, combined with the wonderful aroma that the string carries, helped to ground and center me. I also liked that they were made of wood, as versions I’ve tried that were made from stone have felt colder and less connecting.

I found myself curious about how this type of meditation might function in situations that I find stressful that require sitting and waiting for something to happen, such as certain kinds of appointments. Other options I could explore include bringing to mind imagery or language with each turn of the bead. Have you used sacred/prayer beads, and, if so, how have you included them in your meditation practice?