Getting Back on the Horse

I’ve been through my fair share of troubles. There was a span of time in my early thirties where I experienced many tremendous losses in quick succession. When I say I spent months hibernating except for work, I wouldn’t be exaggerating. Being asleep where I could either not feel my pain, or could reconnect with a better life through dreamland was far preferable to facing the reality that I had to rebuild my life. And yet I did wake up and slowly but surely rebuilt it. I don’t assume that my personal journey of healing is the one and only way to get back on the horse. I also know sometimes we get knocked down in smaller ways that still feel deeply impacting and strangle us from moving forward. From a personal and professional place, I’ll share some ideas about how to get your feet back under you.

Honor the Pain

In mindfulness there is the concept of neither ignoring nor clinging to thoughts, emotions, or experiences. You let them come and go as ripples in the water of your life. Sometimes this is a really difficult thing to do. You either want to completely push down your upset feelings, or you wallow in them, soaking in the tub of despair until your fingers get pruney. In the most mindful way you can muster, it is imperative to honor your pain. This may mean powerful crying jags, brutally honest journaling, speaking your truth to others, delving into artistic expression, or even allowing time alone to just sit with the sadness or anxiety or anger of your situation and notice it rise and fall again and again. It’s ok to feel bad. Allowing yourself to feel it is the only way to heal it.

Enlist Support

Whether it’s in gaining a wiser perspective of your situation, or in simply having someone to acknowledge your pain with you – enlisting support is essential. Support comes in many forms: friends, family, professionals. Choose carefully! Don’t expect that well intended but emotionally stunted sibling or friend to suddenly know how to validate and encourage you. Instead, seek the guidance of those you know to be supportive, or even from professionals, such as therapists, life coaches, or other healing artists. Allow those offering their support to do so. Accepting a dinner date with your best friend may be tremendously soothing to your bruised ego or aching soul, even if it won’t “fix” it.

Nurture Your Body and Soul

This seems obvious, but it’s often during our most difficult times that we forget the basics, such as sleep, nutritious food, moving our bodies, and engaging in spiritual practice. These basics are essential to your recovery and to making the wisest decisions about how to proceed. I’m not suggesting that you put pressure on yourself to dramatically change your diet or exercise routine in a moment of high stress – but do at least eat, clear your head on a walk around the block, and read an inspiring poem or trusted scripture. Allow yourself to be grateful for the smallest things, knowing that gratitude is not a way to discount your pain – you can hold both in your heart at the same time.

Begin Re-imagining Your Life

When you’ve had a bit of recovery time under your belt, get real about who you are and where you want to be headed. If you’re not sure about your goals and are feeling rather directionless, then check in with personal values, passions, and curiosities. Do you value community? Then begin considering ways to be helpful to others, maybe volunteer work or a change in careers. Are you passionate about decorating and crafts? Then maybe it’s time to figure out new or bigger projects to inspire you. Keep to the promises you’ve made to yourself to be healthier, more authentic, and more engaged with life. Don’t get bogged down imagining a life that can’t be (such as with someone who has broken up with you). But DO allow yourself to dream big – there’s no telling the brilliant, beautiful life you can create!

Start with Teeny Weeny Baby Steps

We’ve all heard the famous Lao-tzu quote, “A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step.” It’s true! But don’t worry so much about the miles, just take a step. A teeny weeny one. I can’t emphasize the teeny weeny enough. Whether you have a detailed life plan, or just a glimmer of something that could provide you hope, start moving in that direction. Be both structured and spontaneous. Don’t get too caught up in all the planning. This step is mostly about ACTION. Pick at least one thing to do differently, and then DO it … just one tiny little bit at a time.

I promise no matter what curve balls life has thrown you, the heartache and bitterness can fade into gratitude and vitality again, or you may even feel those things for the first time because of the important lessons you’ve learned.

IMG_0617All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

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Gratitude: The Cure for What Ails You

I come to the page this morning to share something that’s been on my heart and mind, a practice that is my no. 1 go-to for moments of frustration, anxiety, inertia, and even hopelessness. Even when mindfulness seems like too much energy to muster and I am stuck in a place where my mind refuses to grant me a moment’s peace, I can always count on gratitude to help me take that next step forward in a healthy direction.

I practice Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) with kids and teens, teaching the skills of mindfulness and coping on a near-daily basis to those whose brains can barely grasp much less practice the concepts, and to those whose hearts and minds have been harmed in ways unfathomable. Yet I keep teaching it, because at the heart of this behavioral treatment, there is a depth of wisdom, a philosophy even, that can powerfully change lives. One aspect of this treatment is the ability to hold two seemingly opposing concepts at the same time – “I am doing the best I can and I can do better.” As well as shifting perspective, back and forth between the forest (life goals) and trees (mindfulness). Gratitude is an excellent way to quickly shift perspective. In the midst of feeling there’s too much of this and not enough of that, you stop and recognize what already is and how absolutely perfect the present moment can be.IMG_1785

For some, taking a moment to reflect on gratitude may come quite easy. You stop and think, “My family, my job, my health.” For others, perhaps those in great pain and loneliness, it may be more difficult. Yet I am here to tell you that one doesn’t have to search far to find something or someone to be grateful for. Even with my most pained clients, all it takes is some gentle nudging to get them on their feet and smelling the roses of gratitude. It doesn’t cure a problem. It is not an ever-lasting happiness pill to pop. But in that moment, it can give you the oomph you need to take the next step toward your healthy life.

I invite you to take a few moments right now and consider at least 10 things you are grateful for in this present moment. Things that do not need to come to fruition in order for you to be grateful, but what you are grateful for right now. If you’re having a difficult time getting started, start with the basics: you have met enough of your basic needs to be here right now (food, shelter), you can read, you at least have the desire to desire more for yourself (you want to want, which is a start). As you gain in ability to open your heart in this way, consider even more specific and “simpler” things: the exact gift of the bird song outside your morning window, the freedom of feeling the earth beneath your bare feet, sipping your favorite tea from your favorite mug, and as I always say, the sweet summer perfection of strawberry rhubarb pie.

My 10 Things

1. getting to sleep late right in the middle of the bed, surrounded by pillows and the dabbling of morning light
2. looking back and seeing how I always get back on the horse, no matter how hopeless that may have seemed at times
3. fresh berries – blue, black, rasp, or straw
4. in the midst of summer, everything is gorgeous green – and the flowers!
5. these clothes that cover me, often softly
6. these feet that take me where I ask, usually without complaint
7. the Internet – seriously. So much knowledge, so many connections right at my fingertips
8. just how often I remember my dreams, the glimpses into my deeper struggles and knowing
9. human touch on a daily basis, hugs are profound
10. the cardinals, blue jays, squirrels and chipmunks who make it worth being outside despite the mosquitoes

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All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

From Do to Be: 12 Mindfulness Activities

After writing about mindfulness recently and suggesting 3 steps to create a more mindful life, it occurred to me that sometimes we need something more concrete in order to learn new skills. In this post I offer 12 simple mindfulness exercises to jump-start your mindful life!

1. Sitting at Your Desk: Take a few moments at your desk to pause and really experience the moment. How does your chair feel against your skin or fit against your bones? What smells can you detect? Is there music playing? What can you see without getting up to move? The point of this exercise is not to relax or even necessarily enjoy your surroundings (though that may be the outcome!). It’s to become aware of this place where you probably spend large amounts of time. What is this place – your desk? How does it feel to be sitting here?

2. Eating Breakfast: Instead of rushing out the door with a granola bar and a smoothie, set your alarm 10-15 minutes earlier and take time to eat breakfast before you leave for your day. Sit down with your meal, and focus your attention on the colors, tastes, and textures – even the life behind your food. Such as, this is an orange, but it is also of the sun, earth, rain, the farmers who nurtured the tree, etc. If you are able, you can experience the oneness of life and death in the eating – even for vegetarians, something had to die to nurture the soil that grows your food. And yet this food is life, sustenance.

3. Walking Around Your Block: Some evening this week after dinner or before breakfast, take the time to mosey around your block. Do this with the purpose of really seeing your neighborhood, maybe for the first time. Again, focus on your 5 senses. What can you see in gardens, architecture, wildlife? What do you smell? Taste in the air? How does the ground crunch or remain solid beneath you? Take time to smell the roses.

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4. Lover’s Eyes: You’ll have to gain your partner’s cooperation for this one. Maybe even invite him/her to join! Take a full 3-5 minutes to stare into your lover’s eyes. No kissing, talking, or anything other than noticing the exact shapes and colors, the mix of golden and stormy hues. How do his/her eyes look in the light, in the shadows? Can you see yourself reflected in the pupils?

5. Notice Your Breath: Tried but true, when needing an immediate anchor for mindlessness, return to the breath. Focus on how it feels coming in through your nose, cold perhaps down the back of your throat, shoulders rising or belly expanding, and then hot back out, warming you up. If your mind wanders (and it will!), there is no need for judgment. Just notice the wandering and then bring your attention back to your breath. Try this for just 5 minutes at first.

6. Read Your Favorite Poem: If you have a beloved poem, passage, or even song, take a moment and read it aloud. Really feel the rhythm and the words as they take shape on your lips. Notice what emotions rise for you as you read, how your body changes in tension or relaxation, in ache or weightlessness.

7. Just Listen: Turn off the TV and iPod, and just listen. Listen to the silence. The empty space. Listen to the train passing in the distance. Your children playing in the backyard. Listen to the electric hum of lights and machines. The creak of old wood. A bird calling just outside the window. Listen to the sound of your own breathing. Open your ears … what do you hear?

8. Notice A Certain Color: This is a fun exercise for the whole day. Pick a color (any color!) and every time you see it, take a moment to be mindful of your surroundings. “There’s orange!,” for instance, and then take a breath and really notice where you are. This is a double mindfulness, because you are remaining mindful of noticing this color (I bet you’ll see it more than you think), and then the promise of further connection to the present moment when you encounter that color.

9. Play with Kids (or Animals): Kids have amazing aptitudes for mindfulness. The world has not yet taught them to be self-conscious, running a to-do list in their heads, or how to worry incessantly about the past or future. This is a mindfulness practice of participation. Can you open yourself to the moment? The sand castle, the tea party, the made up game of cops and robbers with the rules changing at every turn? Can you be fully present to the excitement and joy of imagination? Let go of your conscientiousness, your worries, your need to be in control or productive. Just play.

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10. In the Shower: This is an activity that is often done in haste and without thought. Instead of running your shower routine mindlessly,  pay attention to the feel of the water on your back and face, the smell of your shampoo and soap, the way your razor or washcloth feels over your skin. Take a moment to breathe. Take a moment to just be naked and tender and alive with yourself.

11. Dancing: The idea is to actually lose yourself in the music, and let your body express what it wants to express. If you’re a little hesitant to do this at the club or in front of others, close the door to your bedroom and crank up the volume on your favorite song. Turn off the critic, and see what your body might enjoy sharing about this specific beat or those catchy lyrics.

12. Waiting in Line: Next time you’re waiting in line at the post office or for a table at a restaurant, rather than pulling out your smart phone, take a moment to take in your surroundings. Allow yourself to really breathe, and notice the people, the chatter, the white noise, the music, the art on the walls, the smells of food. Take a moment to notice where you really are, and who you’re sharing this space with for a short time.

I cannot iterate enough that the purpose of mindfulness is not to relax or even to feel content. The purpose of mindfulness is to be alive in the present moment as it is – to notice what is and enter into what is with a purpose that focuses your attention and strengthens your anchor to vitality. The purpose of mindfulness is to slow down and experience. To be alive in the moment you have, which is always and ever, only this one. The past is gone. The future may or may not happen in any certain way, or at all. Live this moment. Don’t let it pass you by in a string of missed opportunities. There is beauty all around you. Heartache, too. It all deserves your attention.

All content owned by Amanda Bowers

3 Steps to Mindful Living

Meditation. Zen. Mindfulness. These are now words of mainstream 21st century consciousness. Yet many don’t really know what they mean, or more importantly, how to use these concepts to enrich their lives. Some people envision monks meditating in monasteries at the tops of foreign mountains, others think of yoga practitioners twisting themselves into ever complex poses, and yet others may think of a blank slate heart where perpetual serenity whitewashes emotions off the canvas of life. In truth, all of these ideas are true. And yet they don’t have to be your truth. It is entirely possible to enjoy a more mindful life without devoting hours in meditation or yoga, and while still enjoying the stirrings of passion, hope, and what this Southern girl likes to call sweet sassy molasssy spunk.

So what is mindfulness? I’ll be the first to admit I am in no way an expert on the definition or practice of this art. The more I read about mindfulness, and the more I talk to people who value a mindful lifestyle, the more I realize that mindfulness is a subjective concept and practice. For me (and for others who share this mindset), mindfulness is more about living than reflecting. It’s more about being in the present moment than remembering that ugly altercation with a co-worker, running your to-do list over and over, and looking forward to dinner with your partner such that you don’t notice the lunch you’re eating now. (And we all know that dinner can then be filled with looking forward to dessert, to sex, to sleep … fill in the blank.) Mindfulness is a way of life that helps you slow down, enjoy the present, experience more novelty, and enhance your connection with yourself, those precious to you, and the world around you in all its beauty and strife.

So how can one become more mindful without signing on for hours of additional “work”? The easy and difficult task of it, is simply this:

1) Attention: We live in a world where our concentration is pulled in more and more directions at once. We can be bathing a child, planning tomorrow’s staff meeting, and casually glancing at work emails to which we feel we must reply as soon as possible all at the same time. We can be eating dinner, watching T.V., and remembering yesterday’s sorrows all at the same time. Mindfulness asks us for our full attention. Something we’ve probably not mustered to that extent since grade school when learning multiplication or creating a splendid holiday craft were all our minds could hold at any one time. Children and animals are exemplary models of mindfulness, yet as adults we have the ability to sustain our attention, and experience meaning from that attention in ways that a child never could. When mindful, we are in the present moment. That is all. You can be in the present moment listening to Prince, or eating a gourmet hamburger, or marveling at the exact curves and taste of your lover’s lips. You can be mindful when you’re driving to work or responding to emails or cooking dinner. Ask yourself to slow down and focus on this moment and this moment alone. Ask yourself, “How can I give this moment my full attention?”

2) Awareness: Now that you’ve slowed down enough to even realize what you’re doing or how you’re being in the moment, allow your awareness to blossom. Not sure how to do this? You can start by paying attention to your 5 senses: What do I touch, taste, hear, smell, see right now? What is this person really trying to communicate to me? What am I really trying to communicate to this person? How does my child’s hair smell right now, and now after I’ve bathed her? How many different colors are in this flower? How many different tastes in this strawberry rhubarb pie? How can I experience this moment instead of going through the motions of this moment? How is it different from all the other moments, even from other similar moments? This doesn’t mean you must get lost in all the intricacies of the particular: the early morning splash of light, the sound of an ambulance passing by, the photocopier oozing ozone into the air. But it does mean that as you remain in touch with your task, you recognize what you are doing as you are doing it, and what the world is offering back.

3) Participation: You’ve slowed down, you’ve noticed the moment, now release yourself to be in that moment. We all have our daily agendas. And agendas themselves are not to be discouraged. Yet getting from point “A” to “B,” or marking this and that off your to-do list does not mean you have to be mindless along the way. You can dance when your favorite song comes on the radio. You can compliment a co-worker’s new hair cut. You can savor the sweet sunshine you taste in your orange juice. You can notice your feelings and neither avoid or cling to them. You can merge into the moment – energetically – such that you experience flow. A flow from this to that to this. Nothing is ever the same. Each moment is always only what is. And when you’re really looking, what is, is so so much.

(Ideas about mindfulness influenced by Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a type of psychotherapy practice.)

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“I have lived with many Zen masters – all of them cats.” ~Eckhart Tolle

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

How To Find Your Inner Voice

You must train your intuition — you must trust the small voice inside you which tells you exactly what to say, what to decide. -Ingrid Bergman

We’ve all heard the sage advice from someone – mothers, mentors, and self-help books – about the importance of finding your inner voice. But what exactly does that mean? And why is it so important? What is an inner voice?

Your inner voice can be called many things: soul, heart, gut, wise mind, conscience, intuition, guide … some may even believe in connection to a certain energy, nature, spirit, ancestors, or as Yoda made ever-so-popular in Star Wars, a connection to “the force.” Yet however you chose to define it, your inner voice is an essential component to living a wise and vital life. Your inner voice is that deeply honest and strangely shrewd voice inside that points you in the right direction toward your goals, smells bad news and people coming from afar, and a part of yourself – your birthright even – that helps you live an authentic and even miraculous life.

When making major decisions, feeling dissonance about something and you’re not sure why, or in moments when you realize you’ve really strayed from the path or type of person you set out to be, your inner voice can offer intense comfort and insightful guidance. So how does one tap into his/her inner voice?

1. Quiet Mind – Before you can listen to your deepest self, you have to tune out all the other voices vying for your attention. Friends, family, colleagues, media, everything. Sometimes this mindless or even well-meaning chatter can make it quite difficult to tune into your own frequency. Whether you need literal silence, such as meditation, or engagement in an activity that Zen-ifies your mind, such as sports or art, a quiet mind is a good place to start when trying to tap your inner voice.

2. Expression – If quieting your mind is your connection to that deep place, expression is the process of bringing what is deep to the surface. You may choose to write whatever comes to mind, or engage in some other form of art or expression that works more naturally to you. You may choose to speak your thoughts aloud to a trusted friend or professional. You may choose to engage in a lucid dream if you are lucky enough to have that talent. Whatever you chose, it is important to block the inner-critic, editor, or otherwise naysayer from this process. This is about allowing what is there to bubble to the surface. It is about a process, not a final product.

3. Say It Out Loud – If you haven’t already expressed what your inner voice is saying in a direct manner, do so now. Say it out loud. Say, “I need to find a job that fits my skills and priorities more closely.” “I need to stop drinking so much.” “This person I’ve been dating is not right for me.” “This person I’ve been dating is worthy of my trust and love.” “I’m going to travel to the coast instead of the mountains this year.” Whatever it is – say it out loud.

4. Calm versus Fear – When in doubt about if you’ve tapped your inner voice or not, consider if you are feeling calm or crazed about what message your inner voice has communicated to you. Sometimes we let our fears guide us and call it our inner voice, such as, “I’m sure this won’t turn out good any way, so I just won’t paint tonight.” Other times our inner voice has something important to say, “You need to refill the creative well with good conversation and inspiration before returning to your craft.” These types of messages can be difficult to distinguish. Even if what your inner voice has communicated to you is a scary concept – a big move, starting a family, lifestyle change – you should also have a sense of calm guided by the wisdom and honesty of that decision. Of course you’re nervous, excited, even self-doubtful, but there is a kernel of groundedness. Think: Am I running from something or toward something? With an inner voice, there is a lack of impulsivity, and more of a vision.

5. Personal Values & Goals – If you’re still not sure what to think of your inner voice’s communication with you, consider your own personal values and goals. If you value security, honesty, and loyalty – it’s probably not your inner voice telling you to have an extramarital affair. If you value creativity and community, it’s probably not your inner voice telling you that you aren’t talented enough to share your passion with others. If your goal is to help others, it may be your inner voice pushing you to leave a retail job and go back to school or work for a non-profit. Catch my drift here? When in doubt, consider the source of the inner voice. And that source is you.

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There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel that this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
or wise man can decide
What’s right for you— just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.
-Shel Silverstein

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

Couples Are Teams: Hallmarks of Happy Ones

Whether it be raising kids, running a home, or navigating a life event like a major illness or career shift, couples are teams. In small every day ways, couples have the chance to be teammates as well: planning meals, money management, even sex! That’s one of the most powerful parts of being a member of a couple: that feeling of you’re not alone. Unfortunately the exciting tingles of falling in love and deep security of early partnership can fade over time when life together becomes routine, stress becomes overwhelming, or when you slowly shift from getting to know each other to assuming you already know all there is to know.

Being part of an effective team is a profoundly satisfying and even invigorating experience. Anyone who plays (or spectates!) sports, enjoys a supportive and successful team at work, or is a member of a choir or theater cast knows the simultaneous surge of excitement and loyalty that a team can bring: that feeling of being part of something larger than yourself.

Who better to enjoy such feelings of  excitement and satisfaction with than your partner? If you’d like to improve the quality of your team as a couple, or want to be sure and maintain the intimacy you’ve already built, take a look at these 6 Hallmarks of Happy Couple Teams:

1. Trust – This seems like a no-brainer, and that’s because trust really is the foundation of every important aspect of your relationship as a couple. If trust is something you’ve not taken as seriously as you meant to, or you’ve encountered big breaks in trust during your life as a couple, it’s time to make rebuilding that trust a top priority. You may consider seeing a professional such as a couples therapist to assist if necessary. If you’re lucky enough to have a trusting relationship, don’t take it for granted. Guard your trustworthiness with each other as the prized treasure that it is.

2. Communication – How can two separate people with two different brains, different histories, different preferences, and different ideas, feelings, plans, and problems possibly work well together as a team without communication? The short answer is they can’t. Being able to share your ideas with your partner is essential to a strong and happy team together. Equally if not more important is the ability to truly listen to your partner’s ideas. This means focusing your mind only on what he/she is saying – not developing a defense or waiting for a chance to talk again. Good communication such as this may be slow in the beginning, or when discussing difficult topics – but it will pay off in terms of highly effective communication in the lifetime of your team.

3. Don’t Take Things Personally – Have you ever heard the saying that how a person reacts to you says more about him/her than you? Well, it’s true. Outside of those heart-to-heart occurrences where your partner may be sharing something important about how you affect him/her, most jokes, snide remarks, and misguided feedback really isn’t personal. It’s just not. Accepting this and avoiding easily bruised feelings will not only change your happiness in your partnership, it will change your life.

4. Self-Soothing – Not taking things personally is much easier if you have the capacity to self-soothe. By self-soothe, I mean the ability to calm yourself down when you have perceived (perhaps falsely, perhaps not) that your partner has slighted you in some way. This does not mean that after you’re calm that you shouldn’t talk about what happened. But don’t rely on your partner to always soothe you with his/her proclamations of love, affection, compliments, etc. Sometime you have to be able to take some deep breaths and remind yourself of your good qualities and worthiness without your partner’s help. The ability to do this will transform your relationship in ways you cannot imagine.

5. Avoid Perfectionism – No one is perfect. We do the best we can, and then have to let the rest go – in each other and in ourselves. I was kayaking with my partner a few weekends ago in a tandem kayak – an endeavor we’d neither done before independently or together. If we’d decided we were going to “perfectly” navigate this unknown river, in this new-to-us flotation device, it would have been a miserable day! Instead we communicated the best we could, problem-solved mistakes such as getting caught on rocks (or yes, there was this one time I fell out of the kayak!), and laughed off the rest. This is a good metaphor for life. Perfectionism isn’t possible, but learning together is.

6. Seek Humor – Along with avoiding perfectionism, the ability to seek humor in situations is key. Couples who can tell a joke, crack a smile, and overall bring levity to life situations have a far greater chance of staying together for the long haul and enjoying themselves along the way. Your brain may be telling you: this is awful, scary, angering. And it may be! Also allow room for the part of the situation that is playful, silly, and adventurous. Enjoy!

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.