FIVE ESSENTIAL LIFE PRACTICES
How to cultivate daily habits that support your well-being and capacity for fully participating in life will be unique to each individual. However, the following practices based on the ancient wisdom of East Asian medicine and decades of clinical practice may offer you a beneficial framework to begin. I encourage you to always listen to your own experience to know what is right for you.
NOURISHING SELF AND OTHERS
Nourishment is about so much more than eating. Nourishment is having just enough of the right thing to satisfy the authentic need you have not only for food but for support, connection, solitude, love, purpose, movement, sleep, etc. And for optimal benefit, we need reciprocity in both giving of ourselves to address the needs of others and receiving what life offers to meet our own needs.
Begin by transitioning to a diet of whole foods to give the body the nourishment it needs and then move on to explore more ways to nourish self and others in your life.
Whole food is food that has not been tinkered with and changed. The fat has not been removed; no sugar, vitamins, chemicals, preservatives, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been added. This is food in its original state, the way nature, in her wisdom, created it. When vegetables, healthy fats, clean protein, and some whole fruit make up at least 80% of your daily diet, you are creating the foundation for health. The first meal you eat sets the metabolic stage for the day. A balanced meal of whole foods enables you to concentrate, make good decisions, be mentally alert and motivated, and maintain stable energy and mood throughout the day.
There are many excuses for not eating well. Clients tell me they are not hungry, they do not have time, or nothing appeals to them. Having an appetite is actually a sign of health! Some think not eating will help them lose weight or keep them mentally alert so they suppress appetite with caffeinated drinks. This may work short-term, but eating the right foods for the first meal is actually the best way to stimulate metabolism and support cognitive function. Those who drink coffee on an empty stomach or eat yogurt, granola, orange juice, or bagels - foods high in simple carbohydrates (in other words, sugar) - get on the blood sugar roller coaster, scrambling to offset fluctuations in mood and energy with even more simple carbs and/or caffeine, for the rest of the day.
How to begin?
Transition to a diet that includes lots of plants and veggies, some healthy fats and clean protein. Mostly cooked foods to aid digestion, some fresh and raw in warmer climates. Avoid sugar and simple carbs: white rice/bread/potatoes, and pasta, chips, cookies, bagels, etc. Include small portions of sweet potatoes or whole grains as needed. Avoid caffeine, especially on an empty stomach, and avoid after noon. For your first meal, try lentil or chicken soup, eggs with veggies or salad, cheese or hummus with celery or nuts, protein smoothie with coconut oil and berries, or avocado whole grain toast. Blend coconut oil or butter into your morning hot drink or bone broth. Eat a small amount of fat and protein or one teaspoon coconut oil in a hot drink every three hours to stabilize blood sugar, energy, mental focus, and mood.
- Our own needs and those of the Earth are interconnected. Taking care of your body by nourishing yourself with the whole foods Mother Earth provides is a way to practice gratitude for what is given and helps sustain you and our planet at the same time.
MOVING YOUR BODY
There are lots of reasons (and excuses) for why you may not be moving enough these days such as illness, injury, age, or lack of time. And yet the less you move today, the less able you are to move tomorrow. Giving the body movement, while allowing for its limitations, is a profound act of kindness toward yourself; it acknowledges the reality that for now you are in this body and it needs movement to build energy, strength, and flexibility.
Being sedentary tells the body it can slow down, decay, and die. Activity sends biochemical signals to the brain and body, telling them to continue to grow, heal, and live. Movement increases energy, tones muscles, improves mood, reverses sluggish digestion and elimination, helps release toxins through sweating, and increase oxygen flow and blood circulation.
Stress, mood swings, PMS, or menopausal symptoms? Exercise helps you feel better quickly because it optimizes the many functions of the liver, including the regulation of hormonal balance and emotional energy.
How to begin?
Make a choice to start the day with awareness. Instead of grabbing a cup of coffee and checking your phone, drink a glass of room temperature water with the juice of 1/2 lemon and go outdoors for 5-10 minutes. Take a short walk, play with the animals, feel the sun, wind, and other elements of nature as you stretch and take 10 deep breaths. When the weather prevents me from going outside, I do yoga in front of a window. Natural light and movement tell your body it is time to wake up!
30-45 minutes of movement a day will support you to gain/maintain energy, strength, and flexibility in your precious body. Begin slowly if you don’t already exercise. Walk, ride a stationary bike, swim, dance to your favorite music, join a yoga class or a soul line dancing group. Research suggests that making exercise both fun and social are keys to creating habits that stick. You want to feel uplifted and happy after exercise, maybe slightly tired but able to continue your day. If you are exhausted, irritable, or totally collapse after exercise, you are doing too much or the wrong type of exercise for your body at this time. Not too little, not too much.
- The body can be a vehicle for spiritual transformation. When energy gets stuck, weighed down, or numbed with all the sitting, worrying, consuming, and striving we do, it is time to move! Vigorous movement and/or physical work may release stagnation, tension, and calm the body and mind so natural kindness toward self and other arises, opening the channels for spirit to be more fully embodied.
What if I told you that restful sleep improves your health, helps manage weight, and makes you smarter? Consistently getting a full night’s sleep enhances your immune response and lowers the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Sleep deprivation contributes to weight gain by altering hormone levels crucial to managing weight. We also eat more refined carbs and sugar to compensate for lack of sleep, causing us to gain weight. AND while the body is in deep sleep, the brain works to sort out and organize information acquired during the day. This process makes sleep vital for learning, memory, and performance.
Experiencing joy is of course independent of having health, weight, memory, and performance all at optimal levels. And yet it sure is easier for joy to naturally arise when you are not struggling with the negative effects caused by a chronic lack of sleep. Joy is one result of tapping into the rhythms of life, and sleeping well is a fundamental requirement for most of us.
“Short sleepers” are the one percent of the population who thrive on four-six hours of sleep. You are probably not that person. The rest of us suffer adverse effects if we don’t get adequate sleep and push through our days using caffeine or other substances to stay alert. Most adults need seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Adolescents need more, from nine to 10 hours.
How to begin?
If you are eating whole foods, not drinking caffeine on an empty stomach and not too much of it, moving the body, and getting out in natural light daily, you have covered some essential bases. As the sun goes down, allow yourself to follow the rhythm of the day and start winding down. Avoid the stimulation of artificial light and noise. Cultivate self-control by not eating too late or drinking much alcohol, getting off devices and screens by 8:00 pm, watch the night sky, light candles, connect with a friend, listen to music and your own inner rhythms. Find ways to both calm yourself in the evenings and be playful to balance out the serious aspects of life. Make your room dark, quiet, and cool enough for sleep. Try using ear plugs, eye mask, and natural supplements like calcium, magnesium, Calms Forte, L-theanine, or kava to support restful sleep. (If you don't feel yourself during the autumn and winter months, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Try using the GoLITE which has been proven to help regulate sleep, energy, and mood.)
- Sleep is essential to connect us through our dreams to both the personal and collective unconscious, helping us reclaim all aspects of the self and receive valuable messages from the beyond. Get into relationship with your dreams by writing them down upon waking and then sitting with the images and feelings that arise over time. Try telling the dream out loud to yourself or a partner upon waking, listening deeply without comment or interpretation. Explore the Jungian practice of active imagination if it resonates with you.
Breathing in and out is a simple act you do automatically, without thinking. You inhale fresh air full of oxygen and vital energy; you exhale the waste products. Breathing strengthens the lungs, increases energy, reduces stress, and improves immune system function.
The transformative power of being aware of breathing is recognized in many spiritual traditions. The breath is your connection between body, mind, and spirit and helps ground you in the oneness of being. Mindful breathing ties you to the present moment, the only one that holds any potential for change. Noticing the breath helps you to stay here in this moment, neither losing yourself in remembering the past nor worrying about the future.
Practice mindful breathing while buying groceries, doing the dishes, lying in bed unable to sleep, while feeling annoyed or rushed. See the face of the cashier at the grocery store, the small flower growing out of the sidewalk, and feel the gentle breeze on your face as you participate in the moment by simply being aware of it.
How to begin?
Slowly breathe into the lower abdomen, allowing it to rise. Pause. Breathe out and let the belly deflate. Pause. Repeat many times, in a slow and relaxed way, never rushed. When you get distracted, gently bring your awareness back to the breath, in and out. If you can focus and be still for only a few minutes at a time, that’s a good start. You can also do walking practice. Walk slowly, mindfully, taking one step with the in-breath, one step with the out- breath.
Try this meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh. Say these words quietly to yourself: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.” OR: (IN) Calm, (OUT) Smile, (IN) Present moment, (OUT) Wonderful moment.
- Connecting to both the beauty and the impermanence of life by being grounded in the present moment allows inspiration to naturally arise within you. Be attentive and perhaps journal your responses to the following inquiries: What is happening now that needs my attention? What beauty inspires me in simple moments, objects, people, and the world? What awakens the deep longing within and how do I want to respond to it?
RESTING IN SPACIOUSNESS
If you are constantly booked with work, classes, projects, volunteering, and/or social engagements you may be depleting the very source of energy needed to fuel you through an entire lifetime. These may be worthwhile endeavors, but the body, mind, and spirit need space and rest throughout the day, and throughout the longer cycles of life, to replenish yourself and reconnect to the wellspring of life. Ignoring this need for rest, retreat, and spaciousness and instead pushing through to fulfill scheduled obligations when you have neither the energy nor desire to do so in the moment takes a toll over time.
Why is it difficult to acknowledge the need to allow yourself to rest, even when you are ill or tired? To pause, slow down, and allow the spaciousness of not habitually responding to the demands of the outer world for hours, or even days, at a time? Your reasons may have to do with lack of money, time, or wanting to please others by meeting their expectations. Perhaps you believe if you stop for even a short time, you might never get back up. Or that it is selfish or weak to take care of yourself. You may be able to convince yourself that what you are doing is so important that you cannot stop and that the way you are living is not having an impact on you or the people around you. You may think, things will be different when… When, exactly?
Many people are so stressed out that they remember only brief moments of spaciousness and calm in their lives. They tell me this is required to make a living and it is “just the way life is.” They also tell me they need more prescriptions, alcohol, food, TV, or sex to numb the pain of keeping up with the never ending demands. Perhaps you can live like this for a time, but at what cost? You know it is taking a toll that will have to be paid sooner or later.
How to begin?
Set aside 30 minutes each day for rest and unstructured downtime with no agenda. Remove all distractions, no phones, texts, emails, computer or TV. Start saying no to nonessential activities (and you get to decide what those are!) Create the spaciousness to respond to what calls to you in the moment and listen to what deeper parts of you may need. Take a nap, meditate, draw, listen to the birds or music, do restorative yoga, let the mind wander, feel your grief, anger, pain, fatigue, and joy. Do nothing. Simply be.
- There is more to life than work, consuming, and being busy. To be healthy and whole we must also pay attention to our inner world. As the Jungian psychologist James Hillman said, there is a relentless pressure upon each soul to create, to illuminate who one is through the act of creating. Explore and cultivate soul-making acts of creativity in your life — in the kitchen, garden, studio, or at work. Learn meditation or another contemplative practice and listen to the messages from your dreams. Find someone to support you to tap into the resources of your inner world.
The above practices are based on Mary’s book, Rhythms of Change: Reclaiming Your Health Using Ancient Wisdom And Your Own Common Sense (2014).
Using techniques grounded in 30 years as a practitioner of East Asian medicine, somatic therapy, and meditation, Mary now mentors women in both individual and group settings.
www.MarySaundersHealth.com • firstname.lastname@example.org