Keeping an Open Heart

I’ve been thinking lately about how easy it can be to harden our hearts to one another and our tendency to put a wall up to separate ourselves from others can even be more apt to happen during the holidays. For example, how often have we closed ourselves off to a loved one when they…

  • did not buy us a Christmas gift or the gift we wanted?
  • were dogmatic about their political beliefs during a holiday meal?
  • spent less time with us over the season than we anticipated?
  • said something that offended us?
  • neglected to respond to an invite to a party?

Did anyone hurt our feelings over the holidays, to the point that we have closed off our hearts to them and lost some of the joy of this season? The holidays involve pressure and demands and sometimes when we place these on ourselves; it is easy to project these expectations on others. In fact, it is really easy to demonize family members and friends and to see the worst in one another. I encourage you to think of a family member who let you down during the end of year festivities, and instead of viewing this person from a place of anger, I invite to take a moment to consider the difficulties this person is facing in their life. Can we see one another with more empathetic eyes and hearts? It also may help to ask ourselves these questions:

  • Have I hardened my heart to _________ (name)?
  • How can I open my heart back up to _______ (name)?

Maybe Santa is saying to us this year, “Ho, ho, ho…let it go and keep your hearts open to one another.”

Let’s keep our hearts open,

Christy

Meditations for your mental, physical, and spiritual health

Why Touch is More Important Than Ever

Randi G. Fine remind us, “No other forms of communication is as universally understood as touch. The compassionate touch of a hand or a reassuring hug, can take away our fears, soothe our anxieties, and fill the emptiness of being lonely.” In her book, Get a Faith Lift, Nell Mahoney tells the experience of Dr. Norman Neaves, who was the pastor of a church in Oklahoma City. Dr. Neaves received a letter from a parishioner who wanted to express her  deep appreciation for one regular part of the worship service. She wrote: “I live alone…I don’t have any friends, I am without a job. I guess you would say I am very shy and not good at relating to people. You may find this difficult to believe but each Sunday when we hold hands and pray together the Lord’s prayer, it is the only time in the week when I touch someone or they touch me. I feel connected.  I hope you won’t ever stop doing that.” This story illustrates beautifully the healing power of touch.  For those of us who experience a lot of touch, we underestimate how much touch impacts our emotional health.

Whether we shake hands, give a warm hug, sympathetically pat a friend on the back, or greet a friend with a kiss on the cheek, we have developed physical love languages that can be healing for us and those we touch. But today we are often more connected to our cell phones, computers, and televisions than we are to nature, animals, ourselves, and one another. I worry that the decline in human touch is affecting our mental health.  Despite the benefits of technology, it is important to preserve human touch, in order for us to feel connected to ourselves, one another, and the world around us.

I worked for many years at nursing homes visiting patients who experienced a profound deficit of touch and when I would ask my patients if I could hold their hand, almost 100% of them would say yes and grip my hand tightly. It was evident these patients were in need of human connection and I remember one patient telling me, “Can you stay for a little while longer and just hold my hand.” Touch is the last of our senses to go when we are at the end of our lives and so if you have a loved one who is very sick or dying, it is important to touch them. It will be healing to both you and them to experience the gift of touch. A hospice doctor once explained to me how holding hands with someone can stabilize a person’s blood pressure and how when we hold hands it creates oxytocin, the feel good chemical in the brain, which increases our mood. But you don’t have to be sick or dying to reap the rewards of human touch. It will make us feel better no matter our age or stage in life!

When I think back to my childhood and youth, I remember hugs and touch being a big part of my life. But now because of both liability and our tech-saturated culture, getting a hug during the day seems more rare.  Recently, I met a lady at a conference, who has started a group called Chattanooga Hugs. Their mission is to help Chattanooga become a kinder and more loving city, and they see free hugs as a means to achieve this. And science would support their theory, because children who receive less touch early on in the lives have a greater propensity to be violent as adults, than children who were hugged often.  For more info on Chattanooga Hugs check out: http://www.chattanoogahugs.com/

I teach yoga classes and sometimes at the end or beginning of a class, I will ask permission to give a forehead massage and I have had many yoga students describe to me how healing it is and some have even said that yoga is the only place they are touched during the day. Obviously, it is very important to ask someone before we touch them or hug them, but our growing preoccupation with technology over touch, combined with the restrictions on physical contact in our schools and workplaces, may lead us to become a culture devoid of human connection and compassion.

I would encourage you to ask yourself the question, “Am I getting enough touch in my life?” These are some of the places in my life where I experience touch:

  • Massage                (Human Touch)
  • Hugs                        (Human Touch)
  • Holding Hands    (Human Touch)
  • Prayer                     (Divine Touch)
  • Gardening             (Earth Touch)
  • Hiking                      (Earth Touch)
  • Holding My Cat   (Animal Touch)
  • Hand to Heart      (Self-Touch)

Richard Louv wrote a book called, Last Child in the Woods: : Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, to highlight how detrimental it is for kids to be disconnected from nature. But currently we are not only estranged from nature, but also from ourselves and our fellow humanity. Make sure to create some spaces today to experience the healing power of touch. We can experience touch ourselves through simply putting our hands to our heart and listening to the beating drum inside of us, we can offer it to our fellow humanity through hugs, we can experience the sacred touch of the divine by taking time for meditation, we can go outside and plant a flower and experience the gift of nature, or we can touch our pet and experience the healing power of animals.  In the age of disconnection let’s try to stay connected!

Let’s keep in touch :),

Christy

Meditations for your mental, physical, and spiritual health

 

The Pursuit of a Holiday Filled with Life, Liberty, and Happiness

 

I originally wrote the article below for the Mountain Mirror. http://www.mountainmirror.com/

When we read the Declaration of Independence we are told we live in a land where people have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But as we approach the holidays, we are aware this season is sometimes not very life-giving, and instead of liberty we feel burdened by a long list of things to do, and happiness ends up being quite elusive. So how do we overcome the frenetic pace of the season and experience all things merry and bright?  I believe the practice of setting boundaries, self-care, and mindfulness will help us manage our stress and keep us full of life, liberty, and happiness.  

Setting Boundaries 

I am a licensed marriage and family therapist and in my work as a counselor I often remind people of the importance of setting boundaries. Setting boundaries is learning how to cultivate the practice of saying no to those tasks that do not bring life and light to our soul, or that we can’t realistically do this year because of time constraints. In previous seasons of my life, I have enjoyed sending out Christmas cards to friends and family, but currently my life is so chock-full that I don’t have the time to do this. Part of setting boundaries also involves discarding the guilt and remembering life is to be lived and so we can’t do it all. Striving to be perfect will only leave us sick or exhausted. We also have to relinquish worry about how others will view us and know that embracing the joy of the holidays is more important. If this is your first holiday without a loved one who has died, if you have young children or aging parents with health concerns, or if you are experiencing stress in your work or personal life, it is even more imperative to slow down your pace and learn how to say no. For those of you who are hosting your family for a holiday meal this year, instead of stressing about the food prep required for a traditional feast, why not have every family coming bring a different soup or bring a pot-luck item? Consider skipping a tree or baking cookies, if the thought of doing so elicits anxiety. If there is no time to buy presents, donate to a charity in honor of your loved ones or skip presents altogether. When we are gentle with ourselves, we will ensure that we keep the light of this season shining in our heart.  

Self-Care

During this time of year we have a laundry list of things we “should” do. In this “most wonderful time of the year” we are sometimes overwhelmed by the music, parties, decorations, gifts, religious services, extended family gatherings, and many other commitments. As we burn the candle at both ends, we are often left with nothing to give to others. I know that if I don’t find ways to care for myself, I am not able to care for others and I don’t feel fully alive. I also can become resentful, anxious, and melancholy when my focus is on just making it through the season. Often during the holidays, we abandon exercise, sleep, and treasured hobbies. Even if it is only 30 minutes a day, I encourage you to keep making space for you! Self-care is the way we feed and nurture our mind, body, and spirit and is the practice of choosing activities that will restore us and fill our cup. So, how do you fill up your cup? Maybe your self-care practice is taking a walk to look at the holiday lights or maybe it is journaling, prayer, yoga, reading, dancing, talking to a friend, or enjoying a cup of hot tea. I have a practice of putting my self-care time on the calendar, because otherwise it may not happen. The Quaker theologian and author, Parker Palmer, says, “Self-care is never a selfish act-it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others.” Taking time for ourselves helps us to thrive in life so we can offer the best version of our self to the world. Not practicing self-care can eventually lead to resentment and our bitter and martyr-like behavior, ultimately serves no one, and robs us of this joyous season. To avoid becoming a Grinch, we need to tune into our own needs during the holidays. We may even find that when we practice self-care, we become kinder and more generous to others, which is definitely in keeping with the holiday spirit.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness has become quite the buzz word in our modern-day vernacular, but what does it mean? John Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” When I practice mindfulness, I am trying to tune into the present, so that I have gratitude for the moment I am experiencing. My husband and I just brought home a rescue kitten a week ago. I practice mindfulness through experiencing the joy of our new kitten as she purrs, plays, and sits in my lap. During the holidays this can mean that we mindfully show up for life as we sing seasonal religious hymns, as we shop for gifts for loved ones, as we drink egg nog, as we decorate our trees, as we watch children open presents, as we cook and eat holiday meals, and as we drive in busy mall parking lots! Another way to practice mindfulness is to be aware of the feelings we have during this season. The holidays can be painful, if we have recently experienced a divorce, death, or another form of grief.  It is important to make space for feelings and to allow for whatever emotions surface for us, rather than try to get rid of them. Mindful living also invites us to offer kindness to those people in our lives who are experiencing the holiday blues. We might offer others a hug, a prayer, a kind word, or a phone call; but whatever we do it is important to reach out to folks who are going through a difficult season.

So how does doing only the holiday activities that we feel passionate about, taking time out for ourselves, and savoring all the beautiful moments of the holiday sound to you? Of course, even when we try to set boundaries, practice self-care, and live mindfully during the holidays, this season will likely still provide moments of anxiety. But my hope is to remind us to find as much life, liberty, and happiness as possible, and this can be accomplished through realizing we can’t do it all, taking care of ourselves, and mindfully tuning into the present moment.  If we neglect to utilize these tools, instead of Grandma getting run over by a reindeer, we will be the ones who will at least metaphorically be run over by the holidays. Instead, let’s pursue a holiday filled with life, liberty, and happiness.

Enjoy this season,

Christy

Meditations for your mental, physical, and spiritual health