A green bush covered in slowly melting snow.

At the Edges, Melting (Today's Simple Pleasure)

Today’s Simple Pleasure card encouraged me to observe an edge and to record what was occurring at the transition line. The wintery mix Mother Nature provided in the last 24 hours proved an easy jumping off point for this encounter. We had snow which turned to sleet, freezing rain and then simply rain. The resulting slush has created minute transition points.

As I shoveled the “snow,” I noticed that it was melted underneath and had turned clear, so that it looked as though I was pushing a mound of congealed water. I made little progress in clearing my driveway as it weighed an astronomical amount and I didn’t have the strength to move more than the bare minimum necessary to open a few footpaths. A lesson I can take here is to consider how deceiving change can be. It may feel as though what’s come before can simply be pushed out of the way, whereas the true burden of what I’ve lived through may only become known to me in attempting to rid myself of it.

I kept getting halfway across my driveway, gliding with ease and thinking “I’ve got this” and then the physics took over and I was stopped dead in my tracks by the pile of accumulated slush. Each time, I had to pause and reconsider how best to dispose of the water ice in small batches. This image so fully captures my experience of trauma. Every time I believe I’m good to go, something trips me up and I have to unpack piece after piece of what had previously felt insignificant.

I was relieved to awake this morning and notice that the precipitation had at least spared the tree limbs and power lines, as I had feared they would be coated in an icy glaze that could knock out the electricity or bring down parts of a tree. I’ve met some borders of growth that have taken an inch by an inch to reach, whereas I’m finding other places in my life from which I’ve been unnecessarily shrinking. It is hard for me to know how intensely to assert myself, as I don’t want to respond with a whimper when I need to roar, nor do I want to knock about when small steps would suffice. Perhaps what’s required is more careful deliberation and noticing of the true state of affairs before I take action–there is no sense shaking a tree that’s already free.

Finally, I took a photograph of some of the bushes on my property. I am amazed at how much snow ice they can hold, and the ecosystem they can provide for small animals sheltering beneath them. There have been so many times I’ve been startled by a rabbit bounding out of the undergrowth or a swarm of gnats erupting skyward if I knock into it with my mower. Each bush is a sturdy, non-descript parts of the landscape, but is yet teeming with life and protection. There is a stillness of purpose here of which I am jealous. I wish I could allow life to come to me more than I do; I perceive its edges as places of destination, not as interludes that arrive to me when I’m holding steady.

In sum, nature’s message to me, when I take time to meet Her, is nearly always the following: Be here, still. And I am always grateful for the reminder and the insights She provides. What have you learned from noticing areas of transition in nature? Has snow or precipitation taught you anything? Where might you slow down to see what’s changing?

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?

Appreciating Health (Today's Daily Presence)

Well, I just typed and lost an entire post for the first time so here goes a re-write!

As I noted yesterday, I am feeling under the weather with some sort of respiratory illness. I’m coughing a lot and my voice sounds as though a frog is trapped in my larynx. I selected the teeth and jaw card from my Daily Presence deck, and was shocked to realize these areas of my body are feeling better than they normally do.

I’ve been diagnosed with both TMJ and trigeminal neuralgia. My trigeminal neuralgia has gotten better after having a tooth extracted last year, but a recent visit to the dentist showed me it is still active. She merely manipulated my jaw in her evaluation (no cleaning or dental work) and my pain starting spiking on my drive home.

Today, though, my jaw feels loose and my teeth do not hurt. Simply noticing this feels like a sign that I am living with more awareness. It has been easy for me to focus all of my attention instead on what is going wrong with my body. There are of course times where my pain becomes so severe that I cannot ignore it and during which I need to use additional resources to help myself cope. For me, living with chronic pain has been about learning to work with my body as much as I can.

As I grow to fully inhabit the landscape of my body, my attention has widen and my care for parts that are healthy has improved. This awareness has increased rather than diminished my ability to respond to what my body needs when it is ill. Which parts or body systems are working well for you today? How is your jaw and tooth health? How do you balance responding to your body’s needs alongside appreciating what is working well for it?

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?

A dog's footprint embedded in a few inches of snow.

A Study of Stillness (Today's Daily Work of Art)

I recently shared a multitude of ways to practice mindfulness and a reader reminded me to also include photography as a method. As I’ve been gearing up for having to return to work, I’ve felt my creative connection diminishing, so I decided, after an unexpected snowfall, that observing stillness (and movement) through a series of photographs would be a good exercise. The simple act of walking outside for five minutes was transformed by this experience, so I need to repeat it!

A photograph of a branch on a bush with red leaves and berries holding large puffs of snow.
A branch on a bush with red leaves and berries holding large puffs of snow.
A photograph of a maze of tree branches extending from a tree off the side to the right. The branches are covered in snow.
A maze of tree branches in snow.
A photograph of a part of a metal bench with a single drop of icy water clinging to its lower ledge.
A bench with a single drop of icy water.
A photograph of a web of large tree branches coated in snow.
A web of tree branches in snow.
A photograph of the ends of tree branches holding snow.
The ends of tree branches holding snow.

I’m glad I spent a few minutes in nature today noticing where there was stillness and where there was movement. I was frustrated that I couldn’t fully capture the large clumps of snow that kept falling off the trees, perhaps I need to work on making short videos as well. Where can you notice stillness in nature today?

Bodily Filtration (Today's Daily Presence)

For today’s Daily Presence card, I chose the card focused on the lymphatic system. This is a body system I know little about in terms of how it actually functions. I’ve absorbed snippets of information, but, in investigating further, realized there is a lot I don’t fully understand. In order to pay mindful attention and honor an area of the body, I find more meaning when the biological processes involved are clear to me.

What I learned about the system is that it acts as a filtration setup for lymph, which in itself is a substance made of white blood cells that attack viruses and bacteria, as well as chyle which consists of fats from our small intestines. Lymph nodes are where the response to infections take place, so they swell when we are fighting off an infection because there are more white blood cells being produced. In addition, the lymph system helps to keep our body balanced in terms of fluids. Taken together, problems in these functions can spell trouble in terms of immune capacity as well as lymphedema (swelling) in affected areas of the body.

As I educated myself about how my lymphatic system functions, I found myself wondering how much it affects my experience of chronic pain and my general health and well-being. We can test our cardiovascular system with tools like a blood pressure cuff and pulsometer, but I am unaware of similar products to evaluate how well fluid is being drained or how well our lymph nodes are working to filter bodily invaders out. All I found in looking into this were “contrast MRI’s” and the like, although I’m sure basic bloodwork, with its white blood cell counts and all, gives some insight.

I also spent time looking into how to improve the function of my lymphatic system and was disappointed that there were few scientifically-reviewed practices available. One message I found repeated was the importance of drinking water to keep our bodies hydrated. If there are areas of poor lymph drainage, massage can be helpful but should be performed by someone certified in the process and only if a doctor recommends it based on a person’s medical status. Finally, the cardiovascular system is related to the lymphatic system, so improving cardiovascular health might help to reduce inflammation, which, in turn, may be beneficial to the lymphatic system.

All in all, I found myself both intrigued and frustrated by my exploration of the research on this topic as I do not feel as though I gained a full understanding of how it works or how to ensure I am doing what I can to improve its function. Whenever I get a professional massage, I feel queasy and odd for a few hours afterwards. I’m curious as to what my lymph systems “levels” look like after an experience like that. In thinking about my heart health, I will also consider now my immune system and how they interrelate. Finally, I find it highly relevant to how I work as a person to consider that our immune defense has a passive feel to it; to some extent, invaders are allowed to “flow” until they reach the filter, at which time all hell breaks loose and they get (hopefully) destroyed. To what extent do you bring conscious awareness to your lymphatic system? Does it represent anything on a spiritual or energetic level to you? Are there any actions you are taking to improve its function?

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?

Appreciating the Winter Season (Today's Simple Pleasure)

It finally feels like the heart of winter where I live, with snow covering the grass and a cold wind blowing. I at first was displeased with having to spend time today snow shoveling, but then decided to take the opportunity to check in with each of my senses in an outdoor setting. My pup accompanied me on my journey.

I started by noticing the temperature. My face was uncovered so it was quite cold, but I soon observed how toasty my hands and upper body felt in my gloves and coat. The sensation of the wind blowing by intrigued me, as it felt as though it was sneaking past my defenses and trying to infiltrate every pore.

The smell was, for once, crisp and clean. Several of my neighbors burn wood for heat, which I hate as the smoke is highly irritating to my lungs and the odor lingers on my clothes after only a brief time outside. They’d given it a rest for once (or perhaps the wind had cleared it away) and I could detect only the scent of the snow.

I forgot to give much attention to what I was hearing, but it was in general quite quiet outside as well. There was a neighbor shoveling in the distance and a dog barked occasionally, seemingly agitated after I’d chopped up the ice on my driveway with my shovel. There were few traffic sounds.

In terms of vision, I felt bored looking at the dead, light-brown grass peeking through the thin layer of snow here and there. I then remembered my flash of insight this fall in regards to including the sky in my observations. I looked up and the most subtle, beautiful set of blues, whites and greys awaited me. The sun was hidden but the sky looked cotton-covered in a soft palette of clouds. I read in the last few months about the Cloud Appreciation Society. I am too lazy to join their ranks but I think they are on to something as I feel so rewarded whenever I remember to look up.

All in all, taking a few moments to connect to the experience of winter, rather than to simply shovel it out of the way, helped me reset my mental state. What is the weather like where you live (thoughts to those in NSW in Australia right now!)? With which sense do you most appreciate colder temperatures? If you practice mindfulness in nature, how does it affect you?

Time Enough (In the Cards)

Today’s card invited reflection of how the pace of my life is going. I decided to focus on how I hold my sense of presence and time in situations where others are present. I believe that my experiences here will guide me in finding places where I connect with a felt sense of safety.

I went out to a restaurant with a group of friends last night and noticed a moment pass where I would normally feel like time was “up,” where I’d become impatient and want to leave. After my reflection on having PTSD, I believe this surge of anxiety occurs when, as a result of either internal or external stimuli, I come to view the experience as containing threats from which I want to flee. At dinner, in the moment this would have happened, my internal system instead read “you are safe” and I was enveloped with a wonderful sensation of calm and a near-hallucination of a clock shutting off. What time it was and how much time there was left in the encounter weren’t my most pressing concerns.

In almost every other social setting, I feel as though I am in a race where the goal is to survive until time runs out. Maybe I’m trapped on a level of the simulation or my programming is broken! In all seriousness, the intensity of needing to rush through and have whatever is happening end is overwhelming. I look forward to events much more than I enjoy attending or remembering them.

I do not believe I am able to engage in mindfulness or present-moment awareness in the presence of others for any length of time. As soon as at least one other person is in the same room as me, I lose my connection to my body and my sense of time becomes at least slightly distorted. Every day when I leave my job, I find myself waiting for myself as I leave the building, crawling back into my skin and inhabiting my breath and my rhythm for the first time in hours. Who I am around others is often only a shadow-shell of my true self.

My experience of time is less affected in outdoor spaces, where the elements help me reconnect with my body and remind me of shifts outside of my own reactions to stimuli. If waiting rooms were parks and grocery stores outdoor venues, I would perhaps respond with less rage. Small, confined rooms such as medical offices are especially taxing. I recall a few moments where I felt highly connected to friends; most of them occurred in green spaces with people far and few between.

This reflection has enabled me to note a direct connection between where I am and how intact my perception of time remains. People are not the only variable; fresh air and a luxurious amount of room in which to rest or walk about also play major roles. What factors affect how you perceive time? To what extent is your connection to your body impacted by the presence of other people? In which spaces do you feel safest, where a sense of more than enough time and place are pervasive?

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?