I always slow down in the winter, partly from the lack of light but mostly because of the cold.  I do not do well in the cold; my tendency is to curl up into a ball.   This year I have felt an even greater desire than usual to be dormant.  I didn’t want to do anything more than cook and eat and read and maybe do a little knitting.  But now I can feel my sap rising, creative juices beginning to flow.

In the past I would have labeled this laziness or procrastination or some other pejorative.  Now I am feeling much easier about life.   I feel good about allowing myself to flow with the cycles of nature.  There is no real timetable and all things that we do are part of the wonder of living.   I have also been reminded recently that the people we share our days with are the most important, the most wonderful part of life.  Any task can be enjoyable if shared with congenial company.

At the New Year I did not make any resolutions.  I did choose a word for the year or perhaps it chose me.  The word is delight and I have made it a practice to ask myself during the day, what will make this more delightful?  I highly recommend this practice because it causes you to focus on pleasure and joy rather than on all the things that make your eye twitch.

Today I chose to create delight by baking this bread and making this ricotta.  I also mixed some thyme into honey where it will infuse its heady flavor.  Tomorrow I will combine all three things and that too will be delightful.


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Letting Go of Scarcity

It has become apparent to me that my scarcity consciousness runs very deep.  Here are some examples:

A couple of years ago the television set that I’d had since I was in college finally gave up the ghost.  As it was breathing its last I wandered through Best Buy and B&H Photo looking at TV’s to buy.  I was not in the market for some 60″ plasma,  a 19″ flat screen would do me just fine.  But I couldn’t get myself to do it.  Eventually I happened to mention my TV’s imminent demise to my cousin who told me she had a spare- great, I thought, I get a TV for free and I defer its arrival on the trash/recycle heap.  And so I manifested a used TV, almost as old as the one that was dying.  Now, two years later, this TV is starting to show signs of tube failure.

When I’m cooking I will sometimes go to great lengths to avoid using an extra bowl or utensil, even if it means struggling with something that is just wrong for the job.

Though I really enjoy cooking and trying things out, I only do it when I am cooking for others.  For myself I go the simplest, least effort-ful route – after all, it’s just for me.

When I buy new clothes, particularly pretty or slightly fancy pieces, I am loathe to wear them because if I do, I will wear them out sooner.

I neglect repairs around my apartment because fixing them would entail both money and effort.  I tell myself it doesn’t matter, I’m mostly the only one who sees the place.  When I do have people over, I have discomfort about this but not enough to act.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  It’s not just about financial resources, it’s also about time and effort and what I think I am worth.  This feeling of scarcity is not directly related to my actual resources.  In times when I earn a good bit more than I spend I still feel this way.  Two years ago when the TV died I could easily have afforded a new set in the size I wanted but it didn’t feel that way.

The reasons for my feeling this way are numerous and originate in my childhood.  But the reasons only matter in so far as they can help me release these thoughts and the feelings that go with them.  This is the opposite side of the coin from needing stuff to feel good, and it is just as harmful.

This also seems to be of a piece with opening up more in general, of allowing rather than trying to control of seeing life as play rather than struggle.

What to do?

  • Practice mindfulness (its so good for so many things); notice when I am thinking this way and stop.  Ask myself, why are you making this choice?  Is it really necessary?  What would happen if you made a different choice?
  • Practice self-compassion.  If I can’t quite get myself to spend (money, time, effort) know that that is okay, as long as I make the choice deliberately rather than on auto-pilot.
  • Concentrate on how I feel both emotionally and in the body.  Does a choice make me feel small?  Does it make me curl up or open out?
  • Accept help from others without shame.  Know that my worth as a human being is not dependent on material resources or the success of any venture.

Isn’t it interesting that we can feel very confident about one aspect of ourselves and yet undervalue ourselves in others?  I say to myself, and to you: Life is supposed to be enjoyable.  There are no REAL rules about how life should be lived so do it your own way.  You are enough.  There is no way for you to be anything else.

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Cynics Anonymous

Hi,  my name is Sybil and I am a recovering cynic.  It has been about 2 hours since my last cynical thought.

Here at CA we don’t count our success in days but in hours, sometimes in minutes.  I’ve been practicing cynical and negative thinking for most of my life.  It is only in the last couple of years that I have made a concerted effort to change this pattern.

This came up for me again just recently when I watched this TED talk.  It’s wonderful and I loved learning about these marvelous ancient beings but almost immediately I thought: now that people have heard about these beings they’re going to go see them or worse try to take them to sell to some collector and they will be lost.

Really.  That’s what I thought.  I have had this thought before when I’ve been introduced to some natural marvel.  There are those who would say that I am right to think these thoughts, that humans often disappoint.  Read any newspaper or news magazine and you will find this opinion confirmed.

I have three issues with this.  First, the news reports only a tiny fraction of what goes on in the world and they will tend to report that which makes for good copy.  Second, I know for a fact that I feel better when I think positive, kind, and compassionate thoughts – both about others and about myself.  Third, if there is even a tiny possibility that we do really create our own reality with our thoughts then there is also the possibility that constantly thinking nasty thoughts will result in our living in a nasty world and who wants that?

So how do I deal with this.  First and foremost with mindfulness.  I notice when I have this automatic reaction and I stop.  Then I do a little variation of Byron Katie’s Work.  I ask myself, is it true?  Do I know it’s true?  What is the opposite thought?  How am I affected by thinking this thought?  and How would I feel and be if I didn’t think it?

I am also helped by all the wonderful people who spread the word of amazing things that are going on out there.  Here is a sample gleaned in the last couple of days.

A celebration of Bees at Brain Pickings

A community in the UK that is creating an edible landscape.

How you can increase confidence with body posture.

How people from opposite sides of a debate can come together and both listen and speak with respect for each other.

This book.

I love this stuff.  It reminds me that I am not alone in my desire for a world where people act with kindness and compassion and care for all living things.  I believe that we accomplish the most when we keep our eyes on the prize rather than on the obstacles.  So I practice to retrain my brain so it sees that goal more often than it sees the obstacles.  I do believe I am making progress.



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Hell is Other People

A bit bleak isn’t it. I imagine this line was the result of a particularly difficult holiday dinner at the Sartre house.  My version is: Stress is other people; from your kid who doesn’t tell you about the big science project until the night before it’s due, to your co-worker who keeps taking your stapler even though he has one of his own, to the driver who cuts you off during your evening commute. You may be able to maintain serenity through your daily subway ride but five minutes into a conversation with your mother and your eye is twitching.

I must tell you, there is no easy solution.  We have to deal with people every day.  I have found that the only thing that really helps is awareness and compassion.  I actually learned some of this when I was working in retail.  Often people would come in looking for a fight.  They had a return and were anticipating problems or they expected the line to be long – whatever it is, they were itching to let go of some rage.  I realized pretty early on that this had absolutely nothing to do with me.  It was all about them.  Maybe their boss was extra demanding that day or their car got towed or they just broke up with their partner or, or, or.  There were so many possibilities.  And the only way these people knew to cope was to go out and take it out on someone else.   When I understood this, it changed everything.  Instead of feeling pissed, I felt pity.  These people were living miserable lives.  I had them in mine for a short while but they were stuck with themselves 24/7.

Of course, you’re thinking, this is all well and good for those momentary encounters on the escalator or the freeway.  But what about those people I see every day, the ones that really push my buttons.  And I say again, awareness and compassion, but this time it’s not just for them but also for yourself.

I’m a fan of Martha Beck.  She has a technique that can help with this issue.  When there is someone in your life who is making you crazy it is quite possible that the reason they are soooo annoying is that they remind you of yourself, of those parts that you would rather not have.  So what you do is, write that person a letter (you are not going to give it to them).  Write down in raw, explicit terms what it is that is making you nuts.  Lay it all out, graphically and in detail.  Then, change the salutation.  Instead of Dear You, make it Dear Me.  Is there stuff in there that you do?  I’m betting their is.  That’s why it’s so hard.  When someone does something you never do, it’s not nearly so aggravating.  You can shrug it off.  But when it reminds you of your own shadow, then it sticks.

Can you feel some compassion for that other person and for yourself as well?  Now, part two.  Think of someone you admire very much.  Write that person a letter filled with all those things that make you swoon.  When you are done, once again change the salutation from You to Me.  I know you will find things in their that are yours, things you do and are.  Just as we itch when we see our darkness in others, so too do we feel uplifted when we see our light in others.

These things will not work every single time.  But perfection is not necessary.  You are just out to make things a bit better for yourself and others, just a bit.  There will be moments when you have to go for a brisk walk or take deep breaths while counting to ten or just go into the bathroom and scream.  That’s okay.  Be kind to yourself, it’s the only way you will manage kindness to others.

Some of you may know the author David Foster Wallace.  He gave an incredible commencement speech that really speaks to this and to how you can choose what you think and how you react.



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At the Office

You’ve made it in to work and thanks to  your new way of looking at things your eye is not twitching and you may even have a slight smile on your face that is not entirely based on coffee.  Well done.

We now come to a particularly insidious form of stress.  It’s extra trouble because it’s low grade, it doesn’t feel like stress.  You aren’t breathing more heavily, your heart is not thumping in your chest.  I’m talking about how many of us here in the modern world do our jobs,  seated at a desk, staring at a computer.

First of all, there’s the chair.  While chairs have been around for a while it’s only recently that we started sitting in them for 8-12 hours a day.  A chair is not optimal.  Most chair are flat or even tilt back a little bit.  This causes us to sit on our tails – on the base of our spine-and curl our backs.  This in turn causes our pelvis to tilt back – not the way it likes to be.  Go look at the model of a skeleton.  Its pelvis is tilted forward.  This allows the pelvic bone to properly support out internal organs and allows free movement of the hip joint.  Have you been to a yoga class lately?  How many people have tight hips, need blocks under their knees in baddha konasana?  Go to a yoga class in Japan, where they spend a lot of time seated on the floor,  and you’ll find people with open hips – even the men who are generally less flexible than women.

Then we have the desk and the computer.  They may cause you to hunch your upper back while you mouse and type.  And if you’re a woman the desk is probably at the wrong height so you have to raise your chair and then your feet don’t quite meet the ground.

So there you are, off balance and hunched up for many hours every day staring into a lit screen.  Your body is not happy.  It may be giving you signals with lower back pain, neck stiffness, and general tightness all over.  You may be getting headaches or blurry vision.

I often see people, women in particular, walking around with their shoulders hunched, a slight suggestion of a hump on their back.  This is the result of sitting in a hunched position all day.  I have to supress the urge to pull their shoulders back.  Try this.  Get up and go to a full length mirror (or a dark window).  Turn sideways.  Stand normally and then look at yourself. Are you nice and straight, shoulders over hips, a gentle curve at the neck and lower back?  No?  Take a deep breath, deep as you can and let it out.  Now, straighten up.  Take a deep breath again.  Is it deeper?  I bet it is, if only a little.  When you curve forward you not only ruin the line of that great suit you’re wearing you constrict your lungs.  Less air=less oxygen to your organs – including your brain.

What can you do?  Your job involves time on the computer.  You aren’t sufficiently high on the food chain to rate a custom desk and chair.  There are ways to help yourself out.

If you have an adjustable chair it may allow you to adjust the seat so it tilts forward, allowing your pelvis to do so too.  If does not adjust you can get a little pillow or blanket to tilt yourself forward.  If your feet don’t fully touch the ground invest in a couple of yoga blocks.  They work great as lifts for your feet – we all used them at a yoga studio where I worked for a while.

Then, don’t sit there for hours.  Get up every 30 minutes or so.  Take a little stretch, maybe even a little walk.  If you don’t have a window but can get to one, do so.  Look at the outside world.   At least rise up out of your cubicle space and look into the distance. Let your eyes focus on something far away for a bit so they can relax too.  DO NOT eat lunch at your desk.  Get out, even if only for 30 minutes.

These little adjustments will make a difference.  Try them and see.

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The Power of Distraction

In our last exciting episode we learned what stress is and why it can cause trouble.  In the next few posts we will talk about ways to deal with stress.

So what can you do about it?  Unless you are prepared to move to a desert island or a monastery you will not be able to eliminate the major causes of stress in modern life – but you can minimize the effects.

The first thing to understand is that you do have control over how you react to stuff.  For example, when you are standing on a platform that feels hot enough to be in one of the lower circles of hell you can get angry about it.  You can fume and mutter to yourself.  You can fan yourself aggressively, generating more heat than you are dissipating OR you can accept that it is hot but that it will not be hot forever.  A train will come and you will get on it and get where you are going.

I know, that is easier said than done.  But it can be done, it just takes a little practice.  You do not have to get upset at every obstacle you encounter.  Getting upset will not make the train come faster, it really won’t.  And while staying calm may not make the train come faster either you will spend the time far more pleasantly, you really will.

If you cannot simply let things go (and believe me, I understand that) then distract yourself.  Bring something to read or something to listen to when you know you might have to wait.  Make up stories about your fellow waiters.  Plan your meals for the week in your head.

My point here is that you can choose to stay calm in difficult situations.   This will reduce your stress and may even result in clearer thinking.  You may not be able to do it every time, but it will get easier with practice.

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Dagger of the Mind

Stress.  We’ve been told we should reduce it, manage it, avoid it.  But what exactly is it and why is it so terrible?

The first thing we have to understand is that while society and technology have been evolving faster and faster, our bodies are still pretty much the same as they were 10,000 years ago.  A few minor things have changed – for example, we’re taller on average and many of us can digest lactose.  But for the most part, we are designed to deal with a world that is gone – at least those of us here in the Modern World.

Usually when people talk about stress they say it’s the “fight or flight response”.  This conjures images of ancient man encountering a lion or wooly mammoth.  But stress came in more ways than that for our ancestors.  Stress was also negotiating hazardous terrain like bog-filled moors or high cliffs.  Stress was being caught in the open during a storm.  Stress was going out to hunt for game and then not catching anything.

In all of these cases, the body and the mind have to deal with an immediate problem that requires use of the muscles and the senses .  You might have to run fast or you might have to slow down and pay really close attention.  You might have to enter unknown territory to find your dinner.

The body’s response to a red alert is to make some changes that will give you every advantage.  The adrenals release cortisol and adrenaline.  Your heart rate and respiration increase sending lots of oxygen-rich blood to your muscles.  Your senses become acute and you are alert to every little change.  And like the Captain of the Enterprise shutting down life support on unoccupied decks, the body will slow or shut down any activity that is not necessary, digestion for example, until the ordeal is over so that maximum energy is available for action.  Once it is over, everything returns to normal and interrupted processes can resume.

For our ancestors this system worked great because it helped them survive.  But our lives are very different.  We have so many more things that cause stress.  Commuting to work is a giant source of stress.  Noise is stress.  Worrying about job security or confronting co-workers or customers is stress.   Keeping up with the Joneses is definitely stress.

While most of our stresses are not life-threatening they are constant.  They don’t stop.  This means that the body is repeatedly going through the stress response.  Imagine, if you will, being a crew member on a star ship that is almost always on red alert.  The lights are dimmed, the alarm is going off, crew people are running around, everyone is on edge, and the Captain is barking orders.   Eventually you would probably start to go a bit nuts.  You’d consider telling the Captain where he can put his orders and simply hiding out in your quarters or running through the corridors waving your rapier around.

This is how the cells and organs of your body feel if they spend most of their time under stress.  Your nervous system is overstimulated, your digestion is poor and your adrenals exhausted.   Your digestion is where you begin – you aren’t really what you eat, you are what you digest and absorb.  Poor absorption means malnutrition and weakness in all organ systems.  The adrenals are our power center and when they are exhausted you may have fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, poor concentration, PMS, and  low immune function.   To go back to our metaphor, your starship is now drifting and a sitting duck for any enemy that might show up.

Now you know why everyone is going on about stress and why should avoid it. In our next episode we will look at some ways to reduce your stress and keep your starship crew happy and healthy.

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Dream a Little Dream of Me…

I went to a workshop with Robert Moss this past weekend.  He is the Dream man.  That is, he’s written a bunch of books on working with your dreams.  I particularly liked The Secret History of Dreaming.  I had no idea that Harriet Tubman relied on her dreams to guide people safely on the Underground Railroad.  Whether you believe that dreams are messages from your subconscious or messages from the Universe or the Divine it’s worth paying attention.

I’ve been writing down my dreams on and off for several years.  Sometimes I’ll go through a dream drought where I just won’t remember anything for weeks or even months at a time.  But they always come back.

Last night I dreamt that I was giving a party.  The apartment I was in had a roof terrace and people were out there.  However, the weather was turning out hotter than expected.  I went out on the terrace and told everyone they were welcome to take off their shoes and socks and that I had several pairs of shorts people could borrow though I didn’t know how many people would fit in them.

So- just a comment on the hot weather we are having now that it’s deep summer?   Or something else? If it was your dream what would you think it meant?

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Not Just for the Blues

St. John’s Wort

Today is St. John’s Day, the feast of St. John the Baptist.  Naturally this has me thinking of St. John’s Wort.  You’ve probably all heard of it.  It’s been studied almost as much as echinacea.  And like echinacea the poor herb has been pigeonholed, in this case as a remedy for depression.  But it is much more than that.

I’m going to resist going on here about the trouble with modern medical thinking in relation to herbs, I’ll save that for another post.  Instead, let’s just talk about this lovely yellow flower and all it can do for us.

First, the name.  The common name is probably for St. John the Baptist.  His feast is June 24th, at midsummer, and this plant blooms first in June.  The Latin name is hypericum perforatum.  The Greek was hypericon – above the icon – and this became hypericum in Latin.  Perforatum is for its leaves which when held up to the light look like they have tiny holes.  These are not holes but oil glands.   I found this great picture on an herby website that illustrates this.

During the Middle Ages St. John’s Wort was considered protective against witchcraft and other evils.  It was hung over the door when it bloomed at midsummer.  It was also associated with faeries, and the Little People, along with hawthorn and elder.

As a remedy it has been used for bed-wetting in children, for digestive disorders, catarrh and other pulmonary problems, for anxiety and depression and also for burns, wounds and injuries, especially nerve injuries.  These seem like very disparate issues.  The common denominator is tension.  St. John’s Wort relaxes.  The bladder in a child who wets the bed, the liver and gall bladder in someone with a digestive disorder, the lungs in someone with lots of unproductive coughing, the nervous system in someone who is depressed or anxious.  It does also have a bitter taste which stimulates the liver and gall bladder to release bile.  I quote the herbalist Fred Siciliano (via Matthew Wood):

“It decongests the liver and removes mild tension that accompanies this.  It harmonizes the stomach, spleen, pancreas, liver, and gall bladder, so that weak digestive organs are not pushed over by the too strong action of the liver.”

When tension is removed from the liver that relief carries through to other organs in the body.  You also get improved circulation and cardiovascular tone.

In injuries and wounds it has an anti-inflammatory (again a kind of relaxation) effect.  I use an oil for injuries that is a combination of St. John’s Wort, arnica, and chamomile infused oils.  It works very well on bruises and sprains to relieve inflammation and pain and to limit bruising.

So you see that sticking it in the hole that says “for depression” is completely inadequate.   Herbs are so much more than the sum of their chemical constituents.

Here is a different hypericum species that grows in my park (there are about 400 species in the genus).  The bees just love it.


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Brand Spankin’ New E-Course

I’m so excited I could plotz!  My new e-course, An Herbal Life, launches today!  It’s a 4 week course jam-packed with information on herbs and using them every day for your health and well being.  It starts on July 23 and I can hardly wait.  I love to share what I have learned about herbs and healing and living.  And I love to learn more from everyone I talk to so I’m really looking forward to the discussions we’re going to have as the course goes along.

Why should you take it?  Because you know – down in your bones – that alternative healing practices should not be alternative, they should be the norm.  They used to be.  My grandmother would routinely give me herbal tea when I was feeling sick when I was little.  People have been using plants and other natural means for healing since before we were homo sapiens.

Have you stood in the remedy aisle of the Whole Foods, staring at the rows and rows of bottles, boxes and jars, totally bewildered?  How do you choose?  Where do you start?  It doesn’t have to be that complicated,  not for the every day humps and bumps of life.  In An Herbal Life we are going spend our time in the produce aisle with a little side trip into the spice section.  You will learn about the healing properties of herbs that you’re probably already using – you just haven’t thought of them that way.  Come, get reacquainted with what’s in your kitchen cabinets and crisper drawer.  We’re going to have fun!

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