Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tiny steps and $$$

Disclaimer! In talking to people about this project, I'm trying to be careful not to push any of my new directions on anyone. It's my journey and I'm very invested in it, but everyone has his/her own journey to follow which is different than mine. My only hope is that if some of my ideas resonate with you, that you'll be able to apply them to your own path. :) I'm also happy to discuss any of the research I've done if you're interested.

Moving on. The cleanse.

Today marks the first official day of December (even though I know the post is lying to you and saying it's not!), and therefore the first official day of month one. I had to take some deep breaths this morning when I thought about everything which already needs to get done this month, without adding all of these other goals. :) However, the past year has taught me that adding tiny steps to a routine allows for real change. For example, I never drank enough water growing up. Some days I don't think I drank any at all, save when brushing my teeth. Now I don't feel right if I drink less than 2 liters daily. It's all in your perspective, since drinking more water doesn't affect how much time I have, rather what I'm choosing to do with that time.

Since I love google calendars, I created a new one to help me track my resolutions. I was beginning to overwhelm myself trying to figure out how to add four new elements to my schedule all at once, so I broke it down over the month to allow myself some wiggle room. For example, I'm continuing to think solely about switching products for the next couple days. I ordered Kris Carr's book Crazy Sexy Diet, which chronicles her journey to health after finding out she had inoperable cancer. She has a mainly vegan lifestyle, which I won't do, but I'm thinking she'll have the answers to my questions about supplements and vegetables. So, while I wait for the book to arrive, I'll concentrate on these other pieces. I've decided the middle of the month will be dedicated to my virtual move, and the end of the month to my mental cleanse. Phew. Little steps.

Finding better products to use is both a goal and a resolution. My goal is to find products which won't break my budget and can make me worry less about the hazardous risks; my resolution is to continue using those products even when the alternative is more convenient and cheaper. Thus far I've been researching products from Annemarie Gianni Skin Care, Bubble & Bee Organic, Ah Shayh Natural Skin Care, and Pratima Skin Care. The biggest shock to my system was (not surprisingly) the cost: switching from my generic brand products to an organic skin care line is not cheap, especially when I'm trying to switch many things at once. I know there are salons in Philly that have organic products, but as an introduction to all of this I started by going off of personal recommendations from friends and blogs. The prices are comparable between the places I've researched and the salons here, but of course then you factor in the shipping.

Part of my experiment is seeing how long these products last, since often you need very little at each daily use. For example, I'm currently trying an organic lemon shampoo from Bubble & Bee which cost $13, plus shipping. Is it worth it to pay for shipping, when I could technically find products here in the city? Maybe or maybe not, but I also found a product which I like and which seems to be working. If it works, I'll pay the extra few $$ every few months.

Anyway, I only use a quarter-sized drop of this shampoo each day and am thinking it's going to last me a few months. Plus, the vinegar I use in my rinse costs less than $2 a bottle. My hair is detoxing like crazy and will likely be kept up for at least a week more. It's kind of exciting though to see the chemicals making their exit. I'll be interested to see if this process really does produce the healthier hair that I've read about in countless blogs - people say that they only wash their hair a few times a week without the chemical coating. We'll see! I'm also trying natural deoderant and soap from Bubble & Bee: no complaints about either yet. I do like this company though - I think so far that the extra shipping cost is worth the good reviews and the fact that I've been having a good experience so far. We'll see how I feel once they run out.

My most exciting discovery thus far is Ah Shayh's unrefined virgin coconut oil. It has a putty-like consistency and smells of course exactly like fresh coconut. As soon as you scrape some out of the container, it begins immediately to melt into an oil. It smells delicious, rubs on extremely smoothly, and from the size of the container, I think it's going to last me several months. According to the website, it says: "coconut oil when applied topically helps to form a chemical barrier on your skin. Coconut oil is nature's richest source of medium chain fatty acids. It has antimicrobial, antibacterial & antioxidant properties and can be used for your hair and skin." Right now I'm using it as a moisturizer and on the tips of my hair, so we'll see how it does over a longer period of time.

For face care I tried Annemarie Gianni products. I wanted an amazing product for the first time around since my skin is super super sensitive and reacts easily. My skin also detoxed when I stopped using chemical-based products, but it's beginning to even out. I will say that my face has never been this soft in my life, and the aloe-herb cleanser smells really nice though I'm on the market for a new brand that I can find locally. A co-worker turned me on to Pratima products (based in New York, but they sell in salons here) and so that might be my second attempt.

Overall, I get nervous about the prices ($20 for cleanser? and it's smaller than usual?) but I'm trying to remember that instead of spending money on things which don't serve my goals, I can instead spend a little more for purchases which will contribute to my health. Also, it really is true that a little goes a long way. Further research is needed on toothpaste, laundry detergent, and makeup. Also, I'm planning on checking out Whole Foods and Trader Joes, to see about their selections. This all feels a little intimidating since there are so many products and many of them claim to be natural while they are not truly so. Anyway, there's a lot of upfront costs with this route, but it will even out over time since these products tend to last you longer. Maybe I should have a spreadsheet which tracks how long they actually DO last. Hmmm...

Monday, November 28, 2011

December: Cleanse (mind and body)

When training to become a yoga instructor, my sister passed along ten guidelines to live by which I've found so important to remember that I've kept them hanging next to my computer at work. These are the Yamas (the changes that you make) and the Niyamas (the practices which sustain the changes you make). 

  1. Ahimsa (nonharming)
  2. Satya (honesty)
  3. Asteya (nonstealing)
  4. Brahmacarya (moderation)
  5. Aparigraha (nonhoarding)
  1. Sauca (cleanliness)
  2. Santosa (contentment)
  3. Tapas (burning zeal in practice)
  4. Svadhyaya (self-study)
  5. Isvara-pranidhana (surrender to God)
Seemingly no matter where I turn to learn more about happiness and authenticity, a variation of these ethical ideals is born: to be a peaceful person is to maintain balance and moderation, to discover joy and passion, to study yourself and your mentors, and to embrace faith in any number of forms. In addition, I see these guidelines as the backbone for the initial cleanse that I'm cultivating for December.

As I've spent more and more time fixing my hip/knee and learning about how my body works, I've become enormously interested in what I'm choosing to use product-wise. Increasing research has shown that a person's genes are not the most important factor in determining whether or not disease appears. Environmental factors, our every day products and exercise habits, and the food we consume also contribute widely. While many people are well versed in this research and have been been seeking out alternative paths for years, I didn't give much thought to the potential side effects of my products growing up, as I didn't know that the regulations needed to protect us are severely lacking and that political and industry agendas often block much needed reform. Working on projects related to toxics reform and climate change at work, in addition to my recent reading of the Omnivore's Dilemma, opened my eyes quite a bit. Instead of feeling badly that I was fairly ignorant about these topics, however, I've chosen to simply begin a new chapter of my life as someone who thinks often about synthetic chemicals, processed food, my physical and mental health, and the health of our environment.

Under the broader umbrella of Cleanse (mind and body), I have four goals I'd like to explore during the month of December. From these goals I'll create action steps to make sure I'm making some progress.  Regardless, I need to remind myself to stay flexible and open, as I am a ridiculously organized person: I love lists, charts, and updating my google calendar. This month may not unfold the way I imagine, and that's okay too! Maybe I should have bumped 'embrace the process' up to the beginning of my values list. :)
  1. Continue to make the switch to all natural products: I am currently in an experimental phase with herb facial cleanser / oil, soap, lemon shampoo with added baking soda, an apple cider vinegar rinse instead of conditioner, deodorant, and unrefined coconut oil in place of moisturizer.  So far so good, but there are other things to research if I'm going to make a complete switch! Also: I don't have tons of money. Discovering the benefits of vinegar was great, as it's super cheap; the coconut oil should last a long time too even if it was $$ up front.
  2. Create some realistic healthy eating / supplement goals: I'm a relatively healthy person in that I exercise daily, drink plenty of water, and take vitamins. I don't eat tons of sugar or smoke or eat fast food. The kicker though is that I definitely need to be eating more veggies. Tons more! Also, I know very little about enzymes, probiotics, powders, etc. Should I finally take the plunge and make some green smoothies? What vegetables should I definitely be eating on a daily basis? When does the organic label really matter and when is it okay otherwise? These are the questions, friends. 
  3. Think critically about how I spend my (mental) time: Part of my cleanse involves thinking candidly about what I spend my time doing and where my mind dwells when I allow it to do so. At least a few times a day do I waste too much time on the internet? Definitely. Do I have a tendency to dwell on things or make little judgments if I don't watch myself? Sure I do. Am I a worrier? Oh god, yes. The mind is amazing though - outrageously so. Calling attention to these habits is the first step!
  4. Have a 'virtual move': I saw this idea and loved it, as I have definitely done many purges in the past. Pretend you're going to move tomorrow: what do you bring and what do you leave  behind? I'm using this opportunity to remove additional clutter from my life, to donate clothes and other items at a time of year when people might really benefit, and to simplify my physical space.
These goals speak to my primary agenda of cleansing my body and mind free of toxins, especially during a holiday month when stress and overeating can easily abound. Granted, all of these goals will need to be ongoing if they will have any effect. I'm intimidated by all of the information I don't know, but these goals are too important to keep letting them slide. I've seen others use charts to help track progress - I might find very quickly that I need something similar. Regardless, this is my first commitment of the happiness project year: increase my energy and cultivate a long-term relationship with my health!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Puzzles and Gratitude

When I was younger, I deliberately got ready for school one body section at a time. First, I got my lower half ready: pants, shoes. Then, my torso: shirts, deodorant, body splash. Then it was time for my head: hair, teeth, face. Finally, I moved on to my stomach. There was something satisfying about parceling out my body this way. Focus and order: I was unconsciously providing myself with a series of steps which no longer merely equaled a scramble to get ready before the bus. Instead, I was puzzle piece after puzzle piece, making up the whole.

In completing my happiness project, I'd like to sneak back into my childhood mind and be a puzzle once more. Conventional wisdom would have us break down big tasks into smaller steps, making seemingly daunting projects manageable.  In addition, we understand that creating routine means starting slow, not attempting to change too many variables at once or create unnecessary pressure. For these reasons, I never make new years resolutions beyond resolving to continue the routines I already do. In some ways, I began this process 8 months ago when I began exercising every day. The pain in my knee forced me to again segment my body into sections: knee, hip, ankle. As these strengthened, my categories broadened: exercise, increased water intake, daily vitamins. Now I am ready to change my scope once again.

I'm currently reading Gretchen Rubin's book and was interested in her comment that she felt insecurity over the fact that she spent so much time analyzing and cultivating herself. Was it not a self-centered act, when there is so much else in the world which could benefit from such a level of focused attention? The decision she made, is that studying and bettering yourself is an excellent precursor to truly helping others. With peace and focus in our hearts, don't we feel more compassionate, powerful, and generous? Don't we wish to share our experiences with the hope that someone else will be inspired to change his/her life?

Yes, of course.

I don't want to sound preachy, because I certainly have not got it all figured out. I am at ground level: experimenting, reaching, studying, trying to grow. I keep this quote on on my desktop, to help remind me what's at stake:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

The structure of the happiness project will stem from the values I articulated in the last post. I'm choosing to combine a few of them so that I have 12: one for each month of the year. As they stand:

1. Breathe and cleanse (mind and body); 2. Remain present; 3. Communicate; 4. Take action; 5. Tell the truth; 6. Discover the root of the problem; 7. Forgive; 8. Value the earth; 9. Be grateful; 10. Learn; 11. Love; 12. Embrace the process 

Each month I will focus on one of these concepts, starting in December. Are there resources, events, books, conversations, thoughts, and experiences I can utilize which help me to understand how these values integrate into my daily life and subsequently the lives of others? What small action steps can I take which will expand my horizons? While I don't know exactly how this will work yet, my initial goal is to spend a month exploring each value, coming up with small experiments I can try each week. Granted, my life is enormously busy and these experiments will have to be realistic. The initial thinking is that instead of dropping the previous month's value, instead you build upon it by understanding that in order to forgive, for example, you have to discover the root of the problem and so on.

As Thanksgiving approaches and we're traditionally asked to reflect on gratitude, I know that I'm extremely grateful to be in a place in my life where striving to be a more complete person feels manageable and worthwhile. I'm grateful for the people in my life who are always supportive and allow me to support them in return. And finally, I'm grateful for everyone I've met up until this point, especially those with whom I couldn't make it work (friendship-wise or other): I have learned much from you, even if it was painful at the time, and you ultimately helped me to approach situations differently moving into the future. Thank you!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Core

The phrase 'the core' has more than one meaning to me. Physically, it's the center of the body which, when cultivated, offers us strength and balance. Emotionally it houses our values, translates to the invisible center from which kindness, generosity, intelligence, and courage freely emanate.

Throughout my 20s, both my physical and emotional cores were essentially crooked: yoga was hard for me because my hip was out of line; opening up was hard for me because I was afraid of judgment from others.  Recently, I came across this quote which got to me:

"The only reason we don't open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don't feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else's eyes." -Pema Chödrön


And true. If I think about the past two years, I've been on a path of discovery... trying to pinpoint the thoughts and exercises which allow me increased openness and bravery in my decisions and even in my own body. Even the act of publishing this blog where people will see it is a tiny act of courage, but one that I embrace. SO then: what's next? 

Values. To figure out what I want from my happiness project, I need to start from the very beginning. Gretchen Rubin wrote a series of happiness commandments that she used to create goals and actions, and encouraged readers to do the same. Always the devoted student, I wrote a list of happiness commandments for myself, though I think it will take more reflection to assess why these things are important, how I have or have not been able to commit to them in the past, and what they mean to me moving forward. I consider this a place to start: 

1.   Breathe and focus
2.   Tell the truth
3.   Take action now
4.   Forgive!
5.   Value yourself and value the earth
6.   Be determined 
7.   Embrace risk 
8.   Remain present
9.   Learn
10. Be grateful 
11. Embrace the process
12. Have fun!
13. Stretch your mind and body
14. Discover the root of the problem
15. Love, love, love 

So, this is the initial list. Am I living daily in concurrence with these values? That's a tall order, but I'm doing the best I can. The point of doing a happiness project, in my eyes, is not to create a recipe for ultimate happiness, but rather to provide a platform for growth.  I wonder if going through this process will generate new values which I haven't thought of, or will alter the ones I have here. I suppose there's only one way to find out! :)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A new QUEST!

Am I happy?
My easy answer is yes, of course. The complex answer is yes, but a deeper happiness is always possible. Since I absolutely love a good quest, I was excited to discover The Happiness Project. Writer Gretchen Rubin took a year of her life to explore happiness, to learn to appreciate her life on different levels, and to test the wisdom as set forth by a variety of teachers.

Love it.

She also encourages everyone to pursue their own happiness projects. Clearly I have to do this now. :) But where to begin? I need to think about this for a few days, but I know it will begin with articulating my values. If it wasn't already glaringly obvious, I've made it a lifelong mission to figure out how to be the best version of myself. I can link this mindset back to the time when I started doing yoga; every day I become more and more convinced that the source of happiness is already present in our own bodies and minds.

Moving, breathing, stretching: to connect the body to the mind in a meaningful way is one of the tenants of yoga which holds power for many people. To slow down, embrace life in its present state, to feel powerful inside your own skin - as friends of mine, I've likely suggested stretching to you often.  Not as a mindless activity before exercise, but as a potential source of happiness and connection. While yoga classes are not for everyone, I'm amazed at the transformative nature of simple stretches in the morning and night.

A few years ago while in school, I would often catch myself holding my breath. My level of exhaustion, the deadlines I imposed or which were imposed upon me, friendship and relationship stresses: I would literally stop breathing for seconds at a time. I think back on this often as my body's gentle reminder that I was in desperate need of peace. Not the relief felt after turning in a final assignment, but rather acceptance and calm so absolute that overwhelming situations become points at which to grow rather than hide, to speak and act in unity with the core.

I've been on a mission ever since.

Granted, I feel like I'm always on a quest for something. This time though, I'm searching to change the way my mind works and responds to situations. Am I noticing a difference?

Actually, yes. I am.

Nothing happens over night, of course,  and my interest in doing my own happiness project reflects my understanding that I have a lot more learning to do. However, I'm encouraged that starting small with manageable steps really can provoke change. Looks like I have some work to do, friends!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Different Path

When I was younger, I spent hours on my bed writing poetry. I have memories of aching elbows from lying propped up, the side of my left hand completely smeared with ink. I look back fondly on these memories because they have little complexity - I wanted to write poems, and so I did. There was no mental coaxing, no competing desires. To be excited enough about words to spend countless hours thinking and creating: this was enough for me that by age 12, I had the life goal of "being a writer." No concept of what that meant, of course, or if I would actually enjoy those realities as an adult.

Over time poetry provided me: a college major, a work study job, a post-college fellowship, a job after college, amazing and talented friends, a dedication to working in the arts (which sticks with me now). I am so thankful for this path - completely and outrageously thankful.

And yet here I am, several years later, and I haven't written a poem in years. I've written other things: press releases, papers, reviews, marketing and sales copy, journal entries, letters, funding proposals, website copy. I read constantly. A well-written poem can still bring tears to my eyes.

And yet, and yet.

Just tonight actually, I admitted to myself that I've spent the past several years feeling guilty for letting my poetry career slide. I am consistently telling people that I'll get back into it, that soon I will begin writing again. Part of me really does want that to be true, since it was a clearly defining characteristic when people thought about me. I was always the writer of the group, the creative thinker. Without those labels, what did I become? How could I still pursue a creative, authentic life when I no longer knew the way? 

Tonight as I sit here and give my guilt a voice, I also recognize that I can forgive myself, and that there is much to value in what I've done instead over the past few years. Instead of devaluing the fact that I branched out and tried new things, I'm ready to honor my creativity in its current forms, even if my life has taken a different path than I originally imagined. The highlights:

1. Co-curating an art exhibit about a scientific topic. Not only am I discovering and working with new artists, but I get to connect the art to relevant and important issues in Philadelphia and the region. This process is both exciting and really scary, but I've found that the best lessons can be learned when you're scared.
2. Taking my body seriously. I've been doing a yoga-infused physical therapy routine every day for about 7 months now. My body is fixing itself and the pain is leaving, and I'm amazed at how much power we have to creatively shape our own experiences with our bodies.
3. Knitting. I was never confident with crafts, and felt insecure about my ability to work with my hands. Over this past year I've been experimenting, taking my comfort to a new level when co-workers and I made a baby blanket. I'm excited to push myself beyond the blanket / scarf stage and try something harder.
4. Orchestrating the 3-Day. For 4 years, nothing meant more to me than raising money and training to participate in the 3-Day walk. I wasn't able to participate this year and probably won't next year (hence the physical therapy), but motivating teammates and friends, thinking up new fundraisers, and connecting to people's stories was immensely satisfying.

I'm choosing now to give value to these experiences and passions instead of viewing my poetic side as a failure. I have no longer failed.  Rather, I have shifted paths. Maybe I will return to poetry one day and maybe I won't, but the experiences I chose to pursue in the past few years have been amazing and life-changing. Sometimes it helps to write that down, so I can't forget it. :)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Day 1: Reflection

I have been meaning to begin writing again for a long time. 

It's easy to tuck away that desire to reflect, by which I mean more than sorting through surface feelings.  I imagine my brain is layered tightly, dense and emitting tiny shards of light when inspiration hits the mark. I imagine the layers shift in response to deep breaths which change the experience of the lungs and infuse my body with those tiny lights.  Choosing to visualize and articulate the power of breath taps into thoughts I've been having for some time.   

How can I continue to become more self-aware?
What is my body telling me and how am I responding?
Am I my most authentic self?

These questions are knotty and I don't expect to have the answers right away.  What I do expect, is a commitment that I will stay faithful to a journey which allows me to explore and love the questions themselves. In some ways I have begun this journey already without providing the label.  Embracing yoga, for example, has fundamentally altered my life view. To be physically challenged and humbled, to allow for a spiritual curiosity which I've ignored for many years, to embrace meditation and deep, quiet thought.

What beginning this practice has taught me, however, is that I have only touched the surface of my authentic self.

The deep peace I feel at the end of a yoga practice is one I now search for in all areas of my life, recognizing that peace comes hand in hand with vulnerability, honesty, and truth. Difficult lessons provide us with harsh realities about ourselves, and forgiving yourself is often harder than forgiving others. I know that. Yet, I have faith in my ability to live as my truest, best self.

So, what does this mean? In articulating my thoughts I'm trying to spur further action, if for no one but myself. None of this is to say that I'm not happy in my life right now, because I am.  I feel content on a level that I've seldom experienced. Perhaps it's this base of security which gives me the courage to step further into the unknown. Can I do something each day which scares me, stretches and opens my mind, which reflects the ongoing commitment I've made to myself?

Today: I began this blog, to begin thinking creatively again. We'll see where it leads me.