Archive for stress relief

Mom and Apple Pie

Mom and Apple Pie

by Susan Downing

I’ve been writing in recent posts about how using gratitude meditation can help us when worry or fear or sadness grip our mind. This practice can help us regain peace of mind and replace mental distress with gratitude and joy.  But it isn’t the only way to transform our state of mind and free ourselves from our disturbing emotions.  Some people manage to do this taking productive action to help others.  Not long ago I met someone who takes this approach, and I want to tell you about her, because I think she might be as great an inspiration for you as she is for me.

Michele Cabral of West Springfield told me that when two of her three sons decided they wanted to join the army, she was concerned, as any mom would be.  And when the first of them deployed, she felt overwhelmed with worry.  She didn’t know what to do with herself or how to best deal with her fear so that it didn’t just consume her.  I imagine she developed her own inner methods for handling that fear when it would come up, but I don’t know about those.  What I do know is that she figured that she might worry less if she could find a productive way to honor the choice that her sons and other American troops had made and to support them in a visible way, on a large scale. And so she founded Care for Our Troops – Western Massachusetts.

Care for Our Troops sends out monthly care packages to American service men and women serving abroad.  I found out about CFOT from my friend Marianne, whose family has been involved with the group.  I started attending the monthly “packing parties” last month.  How it works is this:  volunteers gather together once a month in West Springfield, armed with whatever food or health and beauty aids or reading material they’d like to donate.  They lay everything out on the tables and then fill large Priority Mail boxes with as much stuff as will fit inside them.  The boxes are pre-addressed: anyone in the area who knows someone who’s serving can submit his or her name and address, and CFOT will send them packages for as long as they’re deployed.

When I began taking part, I immediately understood how helping out with this effort immediately transforms your state of mind.  Simply going shopping for food and other items to donate is very moving to me.  Knowing that these troops are far from home, it seems so important to choose items I think they’ll enjoy. I always want to send things that will help them feel cozy and pampered.

Michele clearly feels that way, too: this is a woman who devised a way to send out mini apple pies. Volunteers donate the apples, and then she makes up the pie filling.  She puts this filling into small canning jars, topping each one with a layer of crust, and bakes them, then seals them.  She told me, “We tested them on ourselves before we ever sent any.  We made them, let them sit on the shelf for six months and then tested them to make sure they were okay.”  Michele baked enough of these tiny pies for this month’s packing party that we were able to put six of them into each box we sent!

Next month the theme for the packages is Christmas cookies. Michele collects cookies that the volunteers have baked, then she and her helpers shrink-wrap them, so that they’ll make it to their overseas destinations intact and fresh.  Michele’s thinking maybe 500 dozen will go out this year.  Unbelievable.

The mood at the packing parties is both joyous and purposeful.  Everyone seems so glad to be doing something that will make the soldiers happy, grateful to have a way to show their gratitude and appreciation, even if they don’t know any of these men and women personally.  The people packing these boxes do it carefully, mindfully, with love. At the end of the party – which only lasts about half an hour – everyone is smiling and laughing. Uplifted by this act of caring for others.

And so, as a way to avoid being overwhelmed by fear about her sons, Michele devised this marvelous, active practice.  Then shared it with all of us, so that we, too, could transform our worry or fear or sadness into a heartfelt gift that brings joy not just to those who receive the care packages, but to us, too.

Thank you, Michele.

(If you would like to make a donation to CFOT or participate in the packing parties, you can contact Michele at CFOTroops@gmail.com, or visit the group’s Facebook page.)

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I Decide to Be Grateful

I Decide To Be Grateful

by Susan Downing

One thing we mothers do is carry our children within our body, as part of us, for nine months before we go through the process of passing those sons or daughters out into the world.  Although from this point on our children are no longer part of our physical body, they never cease to be part of us, not for a moment.

It’s not surprising, then, that since my son Mike deployed to Afghanistan this past week, I’ve come face to face with a host of disturbing emotions. Worry, fear, sadness – they all come up, and they’re all connected to a circumstance I’ve never experienced before. Sure I’ve worried about Mike in the past, but never as intensely as now.  So, when I felt the first wave of disturbance roll in last weekend, after his group had headed out, it was a big, strong wave.  But it didn’t take long for me to realize: yes, this is a new situation for me, and these particular negative emotions are more intense than I’ve felt before, but they are negative emotions, and I have a method for dealing with those.  It’s a decision making process.

When I feel a knot forming in my stomach or my breathing quickens or sadness begins to seep in, I have a choice to make.  I could allow myself to be taken over by them and become so distracted that all I feel is the disturbance, so paralyzed that I can’t think of or concentrate on anything else.  I could spend my days imagining all sorts of awful scenarios and whipping myself up into an emotional frenzy.  Or I can be grateful.

This is what I choose to do: I redirect my mind from fear or worry or sadness to gratitude.  Naturally, this is easier to do at some moments than at others. Sometimes I feel a shift in my mental state immediately. Sometimes after a few minutes.  Sometimes after a few hours. But it always shifts.  And each shift feels like a little victory over the disturbance in my mind that is trying to hold my mind captive. But I don’t have time to be distracted.  Nor do I want to be.  I have responsibilities toward others and I’m dedicated to carrying them out.  My practice helps me do that.

I’ll tell you some of the thoughts I use to redirect my mind, because although you may or may not have a son or brother or husband or other family member who is currently deployed, I know that you do have times when disturbing emotions threaten to take over your mind.  You can train your mind to focus on gratitude, too.

When worries crowd into my brain, I shift the focus of my thoughts: I think about how much I admire Mike for his courage and dedication. I focus on how proud I am that he chose to put himself at risk to help make it possible for others to live happier, more peaceful lives. I feel grateful that Mike, his fellow Marines, and others who serve in the military are serving for the sake of us at home as well as the people in the towns around them there.  I am grateful for my practice that helps sustain me and for Mike’s practice that helps sustain him.  I am grateful for the Buddha for reaching enlightenment and for giving the rest of us a path we can follow, too.  I am grateful to all who have preserved and taught and translated the dharma so that my fellow practitioners and I could have access to these life-saving teachings.  Finally, I am grateful for the circumstances in my life right now that challenge me to practice in spite of the challenges, and for the practice that enables me to make good use of those challenges to strengthen both my resolve and, in turn, my practice.

This is my practice, every day, sometimes every hour, as often as necessary: I decide to be grateful.  And I am.

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Model Home, Model Citizens

Model Home, Model Citizens

by Susan Downing

Lately I’ve been watching a recent Russian mini-series, a 22-part saga of the lives of several families living a fancy apartment building, beginning in Soviet times in 1924, and running up into the post-Soviet period.  I’d translate its literal title “The Building with the Exemplary Content” as “Model Home, Model Citizens.” This title doesn’t refer to an empty apartment potential residents can view.  Rather, it suggests that this building and those who inhabit it are exemplary role models of architecture and citizenry.  A variety of families moves in and out of these apartments, but the main family we follow is the Mirskys.  It is Dmitry – husband and father and celebrated architect – who designed this apartment building, this “model home.”

When Mirsky brings his soon-to-be wife Rosa to his apartment for the first time, in 1924, she is in awe of her much older husband’s art collection, which includes a Picasso given to him by the artist himself, as well as a Chagall and many other paintings by prominent Russian masters. These paintings play a prominent role not only in the later part of the series, when a cunning mafia band manages to steal them, but earlier, too.

Dmitry’s talents bring him to the attention of Stalin’s inner circle, and he is offered the opportunity to head up the work on Moscow’s most central architectural projects during the 1930s.  Although these projects run counter to his own creative vision, he tells Rosa that to refuse would jeopardize his future as an architect.  And so, Mirsky compromises his principles and accepts the position.  Nonetheless, he continues to be plagued by reservations, by doubts, by dissatisfaction, and by the fear that despite this compromise, everything will come crashing down around him.

He has good reason to be afraid.  We are now in the time of Stalin’s purges.  The Mirksys, along with their friends, relatives, colleagues and neighbors, are living under the very real threat that they’ll be targeted by government officials advancing their own political agendas or denounced by fellow model citizens looking to safeguard their own positions, arrested, and put in prison for a decade or two, their families left with little or no information about them.

The model home’s residents are all afraid, so afraid that, essentially, they can’t think straight.  So, they employ a variety of methods to try to both keep both fear and danger at bay. Some drink. Some inform on others.  Some steal.  Some compromise in other ways, both professionally and personally.  Others, like Dmitry, take refuge in a series of lovers.  Only Rosa (who, by the way, is just as afraid as everyone else) concentrates her energy on preserving her family, keeping her young son Borya close, and doing what she can to help others.

Manipulating others’ fear in order to advance his own career is a specialty of model home resident Gleb Ivanovich Chapaikin, who moves steadily upward in the government internal security structures, i.e., the KGB.  In the course of the series, he is directly or indirectly responsible for the arrests or deaths of more than 10 of the building’s residents and their relatives or colleagues.  And he’s friends with the Mirskys, particularly with the Mirskys’ live-in housekeeper Zina, who, in a fit of pique (over Dmitry’s rejection of her and his unborn child she’s carrying) pens a denunciation of Dmitry.

No matter that she regrets what she’s done as soon as she’s done it. She can’t undo it.  It’s 1941, and her denunciation leads to Dmitry’s arrest. When Rosa visits the prison to try to get news of him, she learns that he’s been sentenced to 10 years in prison without the right to correspondence. She returns home to her son Borya in the model apartment building (the housekeeper has fled to her home village) and begins to find a way to live, a way to sustain her family without her husband.

It’s now more important than ever for Rosa to avoid compromising herself, because with Dmitry in prison, it’s up to her to find a job and keep the family afloat. But that’s not all.  It’s wartime, and everyone in the building is affected: she and Borya have to evacuate to Tashkent; two young men in their building die fighting the Germans, one of them leaving behind a wife and baby; Chapaikin moves up the career ladder and feels pressure to enhance his status as his young family grows; the building superintendent uses a forged docuemtn to take over Rosa’s apartment and pays off some workmen with one of Mirksy’s paintings. So when Rosa and Borya return, the first thing they notice when they manage to get their apartment back is the blank spot on the wall. The painting is restored to them, but not without additional threats and heartaches and not before Dmitry’s brother is nearly sent away after making a false confession that he had stolen the painting.

In other words, Rosa, like everyone else, has been facing a long series of unthinkable challenges, and yet her devotion to her imprisoned husband and her son enables her (and thus, Borya, too) to stay afloat while those around them spin out of control in an ongoing cycle of betrayal and unhappiness.

It is now 1950. We see Rosa standing in her apartment, holding an official envelope.  She opens and finds an official letter notifying her that Dmitry’s sentence has been extended for 10 year.  Borya walks into the room.  When he sees his mother starting to cry, and asks what’s happened, she says to him,”Borya, our Papa is alive.”

We viewers realize that for 9 years, from the time Rosa and Borya found out Dmitry had been sentenced to his initial 10 years, they have had no news of or from him at all, until right now.  But for Rosa at this moment, there is no sadness.  No focus on the fact that her beloved husband’s sentence has been extended. He is simply alive, and right now, she can feel nothing but gratitude.

But that’s not all.   In the last episode, after Rosa’s own son, grandson and great-grandson all willingly sacrifice others’ welfare for their own personal or professional gain; after her great-grandson Mitya steals the prized Picasso and Chagall to pay off a debt to his fellow gangsters and is himself then killed by them to secure his silence, leaving his pregnant wife; after Chapaikin in a fit of conscience during a giant family dinner where all the remaining live relatives are in attendance, confides to Rosa that his own ambition led to Zina’s denunciation and Dmitry’s arrest and spills the beans about how Dmitry was the father of Zina’s daughter, whose own daughter and grandchildren Rosa has just taken in… After learning all of this, Rosa  simply says, happily, “I always said that I wanted a big family, and now I have one.”

Maybe it seems unbelievable or unrealistic that Rosa was able to muster the strength to cultivate and nourish and maintain her habit of gratitude and decency in the face of the distraction of terror or the lure of personal gain.  But she was able to, and she did it by developing a practice of sorts for herself: she learned how to consistently redirect her mind from focusing on fear to focusing on love and gratitude.  And she used this technique to move through all the horrible events of her life with her compassion and principles and relationships intact.  Rosa, it turns out, is the most model of model citizens, and the other characters in the series recognize and admire that in her.  And the youngest generation strives to emulate her.

As we all can.

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No Experience Necessary

No Experience Necessary

by Susan Downing

This week I had the opportunity to teach a group of middle- and high school students and teachers to give themselves Reiki.  One or two of them had received Reiki in the past, but none of them had ever practiced Reiki before. And yet, by the end of our hour-long workshop, they were all sitting there doing self-Reiki.  They found it so soothing that when I first asked them to describe what they were feeling, they just looked at me blankly.  At first I thought maybe they weren’t noticing any effects.  So I asked, “Okay, maybe I shouldn’t ask you to put it into words.  Just tell me, do you feel even a tiny bit more relaxed?”  All of them nodded.  Some smiled.  And they all kept giving themselves Reiki.

Now, of course, when I teach a formal Self-Reiki class, I go into much more detail about the history of Reiki than I did with this group.  I spend more time talking with them about what Reiki can do for them, what they might expect when they begin giving themselves Reiki regularly, and how to develop a Reiki practice for themselves.  And I give people attunements, too, to help them feel the energy more strongly than they might otherwise do.

But I firmly believe that anyone can learn to give themselves Reiki and benefit from it without having an attunement.  The group I worked with this week showed that this is true. They learned how to give themselves Reiki, and we also brainstormed about times when Reiki might help them cope with stress or anxiety, and discussed how they might fit Reiki into their day.

I love being able to give people basic instructions for practicing self-Reiki in a brief workshop like this, since all of us can benefit from having a variety of stress-reduction tools at our fingertips (literally, in the case of Reiki).  In a short introduction of this type, people can give Reiki a try, gain a very basic proficiency with the technique, and then, if they want to learn more and develop this into a practice for themselves, they can take a formal class and learn how to help themselves even more using Reiki.

So, today I’m going to give you the same handout I gave this week’s group.  If you’ve never tried Reiki – or if you thought you could never learn to give yourself Reiki without a lengthy formal class – I encourage you to try this.  You can’t do anything wrong, and if you feel some relaxation or relief from stress, anxiety or pain (and Reiki is great for all of these!) so much the better!

Before I give you the actual instructions, here are a couple of preliminaries:

When to give yourself Reiki: The perfect time to give yourself Reiki is when you feel stressed out or worried or sad or mad or when you can’t sleep or can’t sit still.  Practicing Reiki regularly will help you ride out the feelings that upset you – it is a very powerful and effective too for distracting your mind and helping you avoid freaking out. Any time, day or night, is fine for Reiki!

Where to give yourself Reiki: A place where you’re not likely to be disturbed or distracted. Get into a comfortable position – either sitting or lying down is fine. (And definitely turn off your phone so you won’t be interrupted.)

How to give yourself a session:

First of all, access the energy: Close your eyes, put your hands together in front of your chest, and just think to yourself that now you’re going to do a Reiki session for yourself.  Next, imagine that healing energy is flowing into your hands (either from your heart, or from a divine source, or from the Universe, whichever feels right to you.)   That will do it!  Once you state your intention to do Reiki, the energy will flow, whether you notice it or not.

Second, decide where to put your hands: Take a couple of breaths in and out and ask yourself where you feel drawn to put your hands.  If a certain part of your body seems to be calling for attention, just rest your hands there lightly (no need to press) and let the Reiki flow. Maybe you have an ache or an upsetting thought that’s been bothering you, and it’s fine to bear that in mind as you choose a hand position.  But don’t overthink it.  Pick a spot and go with it.  If you like, you can imagine the energy flowing from your hands into that spot.

❀ Leave your hands in that spot for 1 or 5 or 20 minutes: as long as you want!  Remember, the energy will flow wherever in your body it needs to go!  But you can definitely move your hands to another spot whenever you want.  A good time to move might be when you begin to feel bored, or, if the way your hands or body feel to you changes: maybe you felt some sensations in your hand or heat in your body when you put your hands down, and then that feeling changes or dissipates.  To choose another spot, just ask yourself again what part of your body wants some Reiki.

What you might feel as you give yourself Reiki: You may feel heat, cool, tingling, or nothing in either your hands or the part of the body where your hands are.  You may feel the urge to laugh or cough or cry or sneeze.  Your stomach may rumble.  These are all perfectly normal ways the body releases tension as the energy does its work, so if you experience them, that’s a good thing!

❀  What should you do or think about while giving yourself Reiki?? A great way to approach giving yourself Reiki is to not look for any results from it, but simply to relax and welcome the energy without any intent or desired outcome.  Let the energy flow without placing expectations on yourself or the energy. That way, you are open to receiving any kind of benefit that might come along.   Working this way helps you get better at just being in the moment with whatever you are experiencing, There’s nothing you should be feeling during self-Reiki, so let go of that expectation, too!

Finally, remember: There is no wrong way to give yourself Reiki, you can’t ever get too much energy, and the energy can never harm you.  The only mistake you can make is to not do Reiki for yourself at all!  So, relax and enjoy this marvelous gift you’re giving to yourself.

That’s it! I hope you’ll give Reiki a try.  And please do let me know if you have questions, or if you’d like to know more about Reiki. I’d love to hear from you!

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Reiki With a Chance of Insight

Reiki With a Chance of Insight

by Susan Downing

In recent posts I’ve been writing about how to use Reiki to survive turmoil in your life, and about how learning to practice in this way will help reduce the intensity of the storms that swirl around you.  But that’s not the full extent of what Reiki can do for you: by carving out a quiet space and time and going more deeply into your practice, you also make it possible for profound insights to bubble up, insights you can use as the basis for making positive changes in your life.

Every time we do Reiki for ourselves or receive a Reiki session or attunement from someone else, we experience the release of tensions in our body and mind.  Knotted-up muscles can relax, and disturbing thoughts and emotions can also relax their grip on us.  We can describe this process as a letting go – if only for a short while – of patterns of thought and behavior that have caused us discomfort.  One way experiencing this helps us is obvious – we simply feel better! But it can also help us in another way.  During each Reiki sessions, our thought and behavior patterns’ negative effects on our body and mind are temporarily relieved.  We can see this as temporary liberation from habits which do not serve us well, which serve not to increase our health and well-being, but to impair it.

But when we sit up after a Reiki session feeling marvelously relaxed and happy, the last thing we’re inclined to reflect on is what habits may have led to the discomfort we’ve just released while we were lying on the table.  We’re so happy to be free for now of that pain or tension, which at that moment is good enough. And really, we don’t have to consciously go down that road.  Rather, all we need to do is be open to gaining insights, because it’s precisely in the hours or days after a Reiki session that we are likely to gain new awareness of habits that cause us pain.  Reflecting or meditating on insights can help us get even more out of Reiki than temporary respite, whether we’re practicing on ourselves or receiving Reiki from someone else, because they can lead us to make changes that will free us from the habits themselves and not just their unpleasant effects.

This process of recognizing habits and then seeking insight into them is not something you can begin by force of will.  You will gain the moment of insight only when you’re ready to address a given habit.   Here’s an example from my own experience.  All my life I have had an incredible sweet tooth.  I have long known that I was probably consuming more sugar than was good for my body and mind, but I never took any steps to change that habit.  I never saw any need to.  Or rather, I pushed aside any concerns that would occasionally surface.  But one day about a year ago, I suddenly came to the conclusion that it was time to do something about the sugar. A day or two later, I happened to read an article by a nutritional therapist acquaintance about the ways sugar negatively affects the body and mind, and, much to my own surprise, I decided to take the plunge and give up sugar.  I worked with my acquaintance to develop a plan, and within a few days I had cut sugar out of my diet, although it had been an overwhelming food addiction for me my entire life.

It just so happened that this thought popped into my head at a time when I was both giving a receiving a great deal of Reiki.  I have noticed in the past that during such periods I will often gain insight into some long-standing area of tension or conflict in my life, or that it will occur to me that there might be a new way of looking at a situation, if only I would take the time to reflect on it. This is what happened with the sugar – for decades I was not at all convinced that it could be harming my body and saw no reason whatsoever to even consider that possibility, but one day my mind simply opened up and I had a Hmm…. moment: maybe it made sense to look at this issue after all?   I accepted that challenge and was able to make a change in my life that has brought me tremendous benefit.

That is exactly the kind of opening up or shift in perspective that Reiki can facilitate within us.  Sometimes it happens after one session, sometimes after many, or after more intensive Reiki work.  I can’t explain how this works, but I know that it happens, and not just to me! Here’s one way I’ve thought of to describe it: the more frequently and fully the body and mind relax, the more often and deeply we temporarily release our harmful patterns. There eventually comes a tipping point at which we gain both clear conscious awareness of one of these patterns and also a subtle openness to the possibility of changing things.  And in my experience, that is the time at which we have the opportunity to take action in our lives to change those habits for good.  In my case, there was actually once a four-day period after I did a number of Reiki attunements three years ago, when I totally lost my taste for sweets.  But even then I did not take action to cut down on sugar permanently, not for another two years.  I was not ready.  But the opportunity presented itself again, and when it did, then I took the necessary steps to change my pattern.

It’s important to note here that while the Reiki treatments and practice help our body and mind release the effects of our habits for short periods of time, Reiki alone generally does not remove the habit itself.  But when we have reached that tipping point, Reiki can help us gain awareness of the habit so that we can take the steps that are necessary to change it, if only we pay attention to that tiny willingness within us to do so.

That’s what I was able to do with my sugar addiction: the thought occurred to me that maybe I really should look at this situation and delve deeply into trying to understand it.  In other words, I gained the awareness that my craving of sweets really was harmful.  That was the insight, the shift, the new way of seeing things – a willingness to look at the problem of eating so much sugar, instead of resisting looking at it and telling myself there was no reason to stop. And after I had the insight, it was up to me to do the conscious inquiry and take the steps to adjust my behavior.

What this means is that instead of using Reiki only to relieve the effects of my harmful patterns on a temporary basis, I was able to use it to gain insight into how to change the habit and relieve those effects long-term.

Facilitating this type of transformation is one of the most powerful ways continued Reiki practice – or receiving Reiki on an ongoing basis – can help us, and being consistent and diligent with our practice is key. The more frequently we use Reiki to get our energy moving, the more quickly we will reach the tipping points that help us release the patterns that are disturbing our body and mind.  And what I really love about this is that you never know what insights will bubble up.  Out of the blue, one day, you will find yourself taking a new look at a long-standing habit or belief or way of thinking.  When you do experience this, that’s the time to do some reflection, because that’s the time when you are finally ready to make some profound changes in your life.  By receiving (or even giving) Reiki, you can feel a question arise: you can experience a Hmm…  moment.  And then you can take that Hmm… moment and with some reflection,  turn it into an Aha! moment, one that can motivate you to work to shift the way you live in this world and take one more step on the path of healing your body and mind.

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Reiki-Induced Climate Change

Reiki-Induced Climate Change

by Susan Downing

In my last two posts I’ve written about how our practice – whether we’re talking about Reiki, meditation, yoga or prayer – can help us ride out life’s storms.  But that isn’t all it can do for us.  As we keep up with our practice, we’ll find that not only is it easier for us to get through storms, there will be fewer storms to get through.

When we begin practicing, it can seem as if we’re just doing damage control.  Sometimes it’s all we can do to manage to take cover from all the storms that swirl around us, whether they arise outside us or within us.  But as we keep practicing, we begin to notice that the storms don’t throw us for such a loop as they used to do. Instead of feeling that we’re permanently in the path of a series of F-5 tornados, it gradually begins to seem that the storms that bear down on us are less and less powerful.  The first time we notice this, we might be surprised and think, wow, this isn’t quite so bad as the last one that blew through.  It seems that way because we’re getting better at spotting the storm from far off and taking refuge in our practice.  All the same, we may have the impression that storms are somehow unavoidable, a simple fact of life that we have to deal with.  But this doesn’t have to be the case.

Once we’ve settled into our practice with a regular routine and are beginning to see some benefits from it – in other words, when the time comes that we no longer feel that we’re mostly in crisis mode – then we can begin putting more time and effort into another key part of our practice, which is taking more care in all our interactions with those in the world around us.

Usui Sensei, the founder of the healing system that has come down to us as Reiki, referred to Reiki as “the secret to inviting happiness.” In addition to teaching his students to practice hands-on Reiki, Usui Sensei also gave them five precepts to live by:

Just for today, do not be angry.

Just for today, do not worry.

Just for today, express gratitude.

Just for today, devote yourself diligently to your work.

Just for today, be kind to people.

It’s precisely this combination of hands-on practice and living by the precepts which brings about transformation in our body and mind, a transformation that is both subtle and profound: without even realizing it, the way we see the world begins to change, and it begins to seem to us that the world around us is changing, for the better.  Here’s one way to describe this process: as our minds become less saturated with anger, we sense less anger in those around us.  As our worries fade, less that is worrisome comes our way.  Feeling grateful for even small things in our lives, we find ourselves among others who also take care to cultivate and show gratitude.   Our hard work bears fruit, and those around us begin to seem more serious about their endeavors, too.  Meeting the world with kindness, we find more and more kindness around us.

In this way, as we not only engage in our daily Reiki practice – or other practices, such as yoga or meditation or prayer or other healing arts – but begin to take more care with how we approach those around us, by living with the precepts in mind, we are able to bring about changes in the weather patterns in our lives.

When you begin to notice these changes in your own life, and when you recognize them as the fruits of your diligent practice, you will feel even more motivated to practice and to observe the precepts.  Realizing that you are able to directly affect the conditions in your own little neighborhood is liberating, and once you realize that you have the ability to transform your world and invite happiness into your life, practicing becomes a no-brainer.  Why wouldn’t you practice?

And really, it’s good to be aware of the precepts and do your best to observe them right from day one of your practice, even if that’s a challenge, because it’s the combination of the two that brings about climate change the fastest.  If you’re new to the idea of practicing the precepts, you can check out my previous posts.  Perhaps they’ll give you some thoughts about how you can begin to make them a regular part of your practice and your life, so that F-5 tornados – and even all tornados  – can be a thing of the past.

Just for Today, Do Not Be Angry

Just For Today, Do Not Worry

Just for Today, Express Gratitude

Prairie Precept (Just for Today, Devote Yourself Diligently To Your Work)

Just for Today, Devote Yourself Diligently To Your Work)

A Pail of Sand (Just for Today, Be Kind to People)

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Storm Shelter – Part 2

Storm Shelter – Part 2

by Susan Downing

In my last post, “Storm Shelter,” I wrote about how stepping up your practice – whether that’s Reiki or yoga or meditation or another healing or contemplative practice – can help you weather life’s turmoil.  But I also noted that sitting tight as emotional tornados (whether your own or others’) swirl around you can sometimes be difficult, or unpleasant, since doing so usually involves exercising patience in the presence of psychological, emotional or physical discomfort and distress (or all three!)  So, this week, I’ll talk about how learning to go through this process benefits us, in both the short and long runs.

Let’s start by considering the premise that we all want to be able to meet whatever comes our way in life with at least a small degree of calm.  I think it’s probably accurate to say that from time to time we all find ourselves in challenging situations – times when anger or despair or desire or jealousy arise in us.  Sometimes we may even feel these emotions are threatening to overwhelm us, and we wish we could find a way to minimize their effects on us. As I detailed in my previous post, we can learn to recognize an approaching storm and use our practice elements more intensively to ride it out.

As I also mentioned last time, this process is not necessarily easy: although using your practice in this way is less painful than being helplessly tossed about by anger or any of those other powerful emotions, it is still no cake walk.  That’s because once you get yourself into the storm shelter of intensified practice, what you’re mainly doing there is sitting as patiently as you can – while meditating, doing Reiki, etc. – until the skies clear.  You’re being present with whatever distressing emotions or physical sensations you’re experiencing, without running from them or railing against them or reacting to them in some impulsive way, or distracting yourself from them.

I think that one reason this can be so difficult to do is that we simply aren’t used to responding to discomfort or distress by what seems like doing nothing.  Representatives of mainstream medicine and psychology tend to encourage us to respond to discomfort immediately by doing all we can to alleviate it, whether we’re advised to take a pill or let our anger out so that it doesn’t fester inside us.   This gives us the impression that any experience of discomfort is a bad thing and also that it won’t go away unless we actively do something to dispel it.  But as I mentioned last time, these types of storms follow a pretty predictable arc and are generally self-resolving – they’ll wear themselves out and dissipate on their own if we give them the chance.  That means that our only job is to take cover – by taking refuge in our practice – and allow the whole cycle to play itself out instead of trying to stop it or outrun it.

The tornado analogy I used last time is applicable here.  If an actual storm comes up outside, you don’t stand there shaking your first or yelling at it; you do your best to make your way to a place of safety.  And you stay there, managing your worries or fear as best you can until the winds die down, even though you might hear branches or debris flying around outside.  If you find yourself in the midst of a bad storm, you just find something as stable as possible to hold onto and bear up until the danger is past.  And that something stable to hold onto is your Reiki – or meditation, or yoga, or breathing, or prayer – practice.

Now, if you able to approach things this way and tolerate the discomfort of this process, you will see the storm wear itself and lose steam all on its own, without any active participation from you. And you will be left feeling relieved and calm or, and this is usually the case, extremely happy.   The first time you experience this, you’ll be amazed that you managed to get to a state of such happiness by not doing anything except sitting tight and engaging in your practice.

At first this outcome seems so counterintuitive as to be impossible.  But once you see for yourself that turning to your practice as soon as you sense the first signs of a storm will bring relief and joy, you’ll feel encouraged by your newfound ability to weather storms, instead of being overwhelmed by the distress and pain that can arise with them.  Once you see that tolerating a state of discomfort can bring a positive outcome, doing so becomes less of a challenge, And each time you’re able to use your practice in this way, the easier it becomes to be patient with that discomfort, more patient as you go through the cycle.  In other words, you become more confident, because you know that if you persevere in this approach, you will feel things shift to a place of calm and relief.

So, don’t be afraid of allowing yourself to experience some discomfort in situations like this.  By taking refuge in your practice and letting it help you stay calm, you’re developing skills that will enable you to move through life’s challenging situations with less and less disturbance.  You’re establishing the habit of remaining calm in the face of the most challenging situations in your life.

So, keep practicing, and although the tornado warnings will continue to sound in your life, you’ll be able to use them as a way to strengthen your practice, reduce your suffering, and invite more and more happiness into your life.

(This week’s post is adapted from a chapter from my forthcoming book, The Heart of Reiki.)

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Storm Shelter

This week’s post is adapted from a chapter from my forthcoming book, The Heart of Reiki, which my publisher has just told me will be available by the end of February.

Storm Shelter

by Susan Downing

I grew up in northern Illinois, in tornado country.  This is the way I remember my childhood summers: the sky would darken with storm clouds and the winds would come up.  We’d check the TV or radio, and if they’d announced a tornado warning, we’d take refuge in the basement and ride out the storm in that safe space, coming back out only when the danger was past and the sky had cleared.

Similarly, in the course of our daily lives, emotional storm clouds or even tornados can come upon us, either with or without advance warning.  Just as my family would ride out atmospheric disturbances by taking cover in the basement, making more intensive use of our given practice – whether that’s Reiki or meditation or another concentration- or healing-based practice – can help us make it through emotional storms.

But if our practice is going to help us in this way, we need to notice an approaching storm early enough that we can seek the safety of our practice before we’re swept away by emotions that can harm both us and others.  Each of us has our own warning signs that can clue us in to an approaching storm, but two of the most common signs that some kind of emotional upheaval is building up are that you suddenly experience either: a strong negative emotion or irritability or antsiness, often seemingly for no reason, a response so unexpectedly strong that you might even ask yourself, hey, what’s that all about?; or growing muscle tension or physical pain that seems to have come out of nowhere and can’t be attributed to any injury or unusual activity.

Although you might not feel highly distressed when you begin to experience these sensations, they often signal that a larger emotional storm could be bearing down on you.  If you hunker down with your practice now, instead of waiting until you’re feeling more upset, your discomfort might fade without escalating. I think this is the biggest challenge – recognizing the warning signs before you feel like a total basket case, when you can still have the presence of mind to take steps to help calm your body and mind.

Assuming you’ve found yourself in this pre-storm state, what can you do to help yourself move through it so that your own discomfort will be at a minimum and you can avoid drawing others into your turmoil?  The basic idea is simple: take refuge in whatever practice skills you’ve developed that help soothe and calm you.  If you know Reiki, now’s the time to step up your practice and do more Reiki for yourself than usual, even lots more than usual, as much as you need to do in order to gain some calm. The same goes for meditation or yoga or any other physical practice you engage in regularly.  You probably have an idea of what helps soothe you, so do that.  Take a long walk, take a hot bath. Call a friend for some moral support. Call your therapist. If physical pain is involved, call your doctor and ask whether you should get checked out.  Ask a friend to send you some Reiki or do some hands on.  If you go to someone for Reiki or massage or other energy healing sessions, now’s the time to make an appointment and go!  Don’t wait!  In other words, take extra good care of yourself.

Now, these are all great ways to respond when you feel a storm brewing inside you, but it’s not always easy to do.  First of all you have to remember that you have your practice – or friends and skilled practitioners – to help you.  I can’t tell you how often my Reiki friends, students and clients have been really upset about something, and when I ask whether they’ve been doing Reiki for themselves, they stop and think and say, “Oh.  No, I haven’t. I didn’t think to do that.”  So, remembering you have tools that can help you is the first step.  Actually using them is the second step.

What you’ll find when you’re able to do this is that these storms have a predictable cycle.  There’s the initial emotional or physical tension that tends to build to the point where you can feel really lousy – you may feel so angry or hurt or despairing or uncomfortable that it’s hard to believe that any of this could possibly help, because everything seems so intense that it’s hard to imagine it will ever end!  But if you trust your practice and give it the chance to help you, what you’ll find is that the feelings that are distressing you naturally rise and fall in a cycle.  Although you might worry that they would never end on their own, you’ll see, as you go through this cycle a couple of times, that the feelings generally start out mild, then get stronger and then eventually fade away.  And the more intensively we practice, the more quickly we go through the whole process.

But we rarely notice the fading part of the cycle, because we generally don’t have the patience to just sit there in the middle of discomfort.  We tend to want to run away from it or do something to get rid of it.  Medicate, self-medicate, distract ourselves with television or some other mind-numbing activity.  But by sitting quietly with your discomfort as you give yourself Reiki – or meditate or do yoga –  you’re not only allowing that discomfort to fade: you’re also beginning to form the habit of tolerating uncomfortable sensations.  (I’ll write next time on why this is a useful skill to develop.)

Now, even if you have a practice to fall back on in the midst of turmoil, it’s not always easy to move through a period of discomfort or unhappiness or anger in this way, especially if you haven’t recognized it early on and it’s gotten more intense.  If this happens, you might be so emotionally or physically uncomfortable that you feel you just have to do something to bring some kind of resolution. But what will help most at this point is hunkering down in your metaphorical storm shelter of Reiki or meditation or contemplation and doing your best to allow the discomfort to be there without trying to resolve or change anything.  Tolerating the discomfort and allowing yourself to ride out the entire cycle of rising and fading negative emotions will actually help you get to the point where you’ll feel your disturbance fade and see relief and happiness replace it.  It will happen on its own if you can just hold tight and stick to your practice.

In my next post I’ll talk about what’s to be gained by allowing yourself to go through this uncomfortable process instead of resisting it.   But for now, I hope these hints will help you begin to recognize approaching storms and think about how to weather them more easily using whatever practice skills you already have in place.

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Patience Attains the Goal

Patience Attains the Goal

by Susan Downing

I had coffee this week with an old friend.  We’ve known each other for years, since our kids were little, and both of our families have weathered various ups and downs.  Luckily, we haven’t ever gone through rough times simultaneously, which means we’ve been able to be a support for each other.  The closest we came to joint hard times was that both of our mothers died within a few months of each other three years ago. But the fact that the deaths were so close together actually helped us – we were able to be better friends for each other, I think, because we each had an idea of what the other was feeling.  And it turns out that my friend – I’ll call her Terry- is now going through another difficult time, facing a loss of a different type:  her husband recently learned that his company is downsizing and he’ll lose the job he’s worked at for nearly all of his adult life.

While of course the loss has great financial implications for the family, even though Terry has a good job, what’s happening is about more than money. When I lost my college teaching job to downsizing, how it felt to me was about a lot more than finances, and I know it is for Terry, too.  It’s about having the vision of how you imagined you’d be living your life at this age suddenly upended, so that you’re left gasping for air.  It’s about feeling that your identity and your value and worth have been called into question.  Everything that you felt was solid and secure and predictable and reliable now seems unstable and in danger of crashing.

How do you respond when you come face to face with this kind of situation?  Do you panic and fall to pieces, or do you somehow manage to hold on and move through the crisis with some degree of presence of mind or calm?  The answer to that question has everything to do with how you’ve been living your life in the days, months and years leading up to the unexpected crash.  Terry and her husband, while I don’t think they’d describe themselves as religious, both have a spiritual practice that they have engaged in with varying degrees of intensity in recent years.  They both meditate – sometimes more often, sometimes less – and both find value and solace and inspiration in reading and reflecting on spiritual writings from a variety of traditions.  Somehow they are able to find a thread that guides them in their lives.  So, I was not surprised when Terry told me that she’d started going to church again when her husband learned his job was being cut.

What did she hope to find there?  She explained that when they first found out about the downsizing, she was really, really angry.  But she didn’t go to church to ask God to get her husband his job back.  She laughed when she told me that. She knew that wouldn’t work.  ”I went,” she explained, “because I didn’t want to turn into an angry, bitter old woman.”  Going to church, listening to the homily, reflecting on its meaning, meditating more frequently – these are tools she already knew how to use, tools she knew she could use so she’d have a shot at moving through this hard time without totally freaking out and filling her own mind and heart with poison.  Her husband is using the same approach.  It was an inspiration to hear her talk about all of this. And not because she is a saint.  She will be the first to tell you that none of this comes easily to her.  She knows her own potential for being overcome by anger and bitterness. But she also knows how much these feelings can harm her and those she loves, and she made a conscious decision not to let this happen now, not to be destroyed by these emotions.  What I heard in her words was her commitment – and her husband’s, too – to using their spiritual tools so that they can weather these troubles together, as a team, rather than be torn apart by tension and anger seething beneath the surface or recklessly tossed out against each other.

And they will be able to do this – they already are – only because when life was not overwhelming, they devoted the time and effort to developing the skills that are now helping them remain focused and calmer than they’d otherwise be.  Even though they both may have originally begun meditating or reflecting because past difficulties threw them off balance and they were looking for a way to do better the next time around, the point is that now it’s the next time around, and they are ready because they have a practice already in place.  Not that it is a cake walk, but at least they both knew what to do when they got the bad news. And they’re doing it.

Not all of us will lose a job, but all of us will have the rug pulled out from under us in some way, even if it is only at the very end of a long, happy life. So we all need to develop a way to prepare ourselves to make it through whatever comes our way.   I mentioned that Terry has put time into reading and reflecting on spiritual works.  I know that one of her favorite passages is this:

Let nothing upset you;
Let nothing frighten you.
Everything is changing;
God alone is changeless.
Patience attains the goal.
Who has God lacks nothing;
God alone fills every need.

These lines were written by Saint Teresa of Avila. Now, Saint Teresa didn’t just sit and wait for things to happen.  She wrote in great detail about the role we all play in our own spiritual progress.  And she was no natural saint, either, judging from what she wrote in her autobiography about the hard work of mastering one’s emotions and calming one’s mind:

“It is my intellect and my imagination, I think, that are harming me here.  My will, I believe, is good, and well-disposed to all that is good.  But this intellect of mind is so wild that it seems like a raving lunatic. Nobody can hold it down, and I have not sufficient control over it myself to keep it quiet for a single moment. Sometimes I laugh at myself, and am aware of my wretched state. Then I observe my intellect, and let it alone, to see what it will do; and miraculously – glory be to God! – it never turns to things that are really wrong, only to indifferent matters, and casts around here, there, and everywhere, for something to think about. I then become more conscious of the very great favour that God bestows on me when he binds this madman to the chains of perfect contemplation.”

I’d imagine that all of us who set out to practice meditation or prayer or contemplation feel something akin to what Teresa writes here.  And still.  ”Patience attains the goal.”

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Just for Today, Do Not Worry

Just for Today, Do Not Worry

by Susan Downing

My last post, regarding Mikao Usui’s first Reiki precept, “Just for Today, Do Not Be Angry,” led to a wonderful discussion with one of my students.  She was wondering whether one could express the precept’s gist using a”do this” phrase, rather than “do not”.  Another student asked me about that a couple of months ago.  Both of them felt that they would feel better repeating a phrase that reinforced an intention to act positively, instead of one that exhorted them not to do something.  This is an appealing idea, especially since Usui Sensei’s last three precepts are “do” phrases.  Just to review, here are all five of the Reiki precepts:

Just for today:

Do not be angry

Do not worry

Express gratitude

Devote yourself diligently to your work

Be kind to people

It wouldn’t be hard to come up with admonishing versions of the last three precepts – “don’t be ungrateful,” etc, but restating the first two positively is a tougher task, since being angry and worrying don’t have obvious opposites. Besides, since these are two very powerful negative emotions, I imagine Usui Sensei wanted to call particular attention to them, so he mentioned them by name.  Thus, translating them in an affirmative way is a challenge. In fact, translating them at all is tricky: if you tell people not to get angry, that doesn’t strike the right tone.  The first precept has most commonly been translate as “Do not anger,” which really is not correct English.  I’d learned the precept this way and had always taught it using this wording, but when I was writing my book, one of my readers asked what was up with the awkward English wording, and that got me thinking about how best to express that precept in English.  My student’s question led me to expand that reflection to the second precept, too.

Both of the first two precepts’ Japanese wording refers to one’s state of mind, so it’s as if Usui Sensei was saying, don’t be in the state of mind where anger and worry are present.  That’s a pretty awkward way of phrasing it too, but you get the idea. But I believe that Usui Sensei meant the precepts both as guidelines for our actions, and also as descriptions of what diligently devoting ourselves to Reiki can help us experience.  So, we do our best not to be angry and not worry, and over time, we find that we are less and less in a state of mind in which worry and anger are present.  Using “do not be angry” and “do not worry” does work pretty well to express these two meanings of the precepts.

Even so, both phrases do tell us what not to do.  My student found that discouraging: she said that if she’s setting it as her goal to not be angry or worry, but does end up experiencing angry, or worrying, then she’ll feel that she’s failed at upholding the first two precepts.   As we continued our discussion, it occurred to me that a possible positive version of these first two Reiki precepts could be:  ”Just for today, allow anger to fade.  Just for today, allow worry to fade.” This can work with the multiple purpose I see the precepts fulfilling: if you engage in a consistent, diligent, sincere  Reiki practice, you will find that it will be easier for you not to be swept away by anger and worry when they do arise; that they will begin to fade more easily; and that over time, these two disturbing emotions will just not arise as often.   My only hesitation about this wording comes from the fact that it seems to assume that anger and worry will be present (unless you add a phrase like “if it should arise,” but then you’re back to really long precept wording…) whereas the “do not” phrases, for all their “nots”, do hold out the possibility of no anger arising at all, and I like that.

But if you’re working on the assumption that anger and worry might indeed come up, phrasing the precepts the new way can serve as a reminder of how to respond when anger and worry do come up: allow them to fade instead of allowing them to rule you.  Note that you’re not actively trying to prevent them from arising.  You can’t, by force of will, decide that you will not allow anger or worry to arise in your mind. But your Reiki  practice gives you powerful tools that help you allow anger or worry to fade: when you begin to feel upset, give yourself Reiki as soon as possible. Even for just five minutes. My students tell me that they love that idea, but ask what to do if they’re at work or in the middle of a conversation with someone and they start to get really angry or worried?  They don’t want to start giving themselves Reiki in the middle of a meeting!  Here’s my advice:  as soon as you can, excuse yourself and go to the bathroom.  Seriously!  It may be the only place where you have real privacy, and most people are unlikely to follow you there to continue a discussion or argument.  Give yourself Reiki for five minutes or longer.  Repeat the relevant precept silently, or in a very low voice, like a mantra.  That will help the anger or worry fade, too. Giving yourself Reiki and reciting the precepts will help you ride out these disturbing emotions without being swept away by them.

This last point is key: using Reiki will help you maintain your composure when you find yourself in a situation that really pushes your buttons.  If you’re in the grip of anger or worry, it’s very difficult to have the presence of mind to deal rationally with whatever you’re facing. You can’t think straight, and when you’re in that state you can end up saying or doing something you might regret because you’re overcome by anger or worry.  That doesn’t mean you ignore the negative circumstance at hand, or look the other way when others are out of line.  Maybe you do need to address an upsetting situation or inappropriate or unkind behavior, but you’ll do it in a kinder, more rational way if you’re calm and collected.  That’s where self-Reiki and the precepts come in. They help your anger and worry fade, so you can go back out and face whatever you need to face without causing more distress to yourself or others.

In terms of expressing the precepts, choose whichever version resonates most with you.  Do or do not. What’s most important is that you do, as Usui Sensei reminded us, “Repeat the precepts and keep them in your mind and heart.”  Keep the essence of their meaning in your mind and heart, no matter which words you use.  That, together with consistent Reiki practice, allows the disturbing emotions to fade, and gratitude and kindness to arise in their place.  So, keep practicing, both on a daily basis and when turmoil strikes.  Even if you end up spending a lot more time in the bathroom!

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