fall · fitness

My fall fitness plans, pt. 1– incorporating everyday movement into working from home

This fall, I’m working entirely from home, zooming for my classes and all manner of meetings. Who knew that the pandemic would bring with it even more meetings? Sigh.

Three things I miss about being at my workplace:

  1. seeing my students and colleagues in actual person
  2. the transition time of my drive to and from school (although I am thrilled to be temporarily shed of late-day traffic!)
  3. the everyday movement I get from walking and standing while teaching and tooling around on campus

With respect to 1, I’ve made camera use for my zoom classes optional, but told them I really like seeing their faces when they’re up for it. Many of them have cameras on various times, and some never do. But we’ve getting to know each other despite the limitations.

For 2, I’ve been meditating first thing in the morning (after coffee, of course). It’s helping me in a hundred ways, of which #46 is: provides transition between getting up and getting to work in the morning. It’ll do.

But for 3, I’ve had more trouble figuring out a plan. Standing with my laptop perched somewhere doesn’t feel comfortable for teaching. I’m sure there are lots of other options, especially with extra A/V equipment. But for now, I put my laptop on my yoga bolster (which is on top of my yoga blocks) and sit in front of it. It’s working well enough.

But that still doesn’t address the everyday movement problem.

Enter short yoga/qigong breaks. After class and in between meetings, I’ve been doing short (5–10 minute) yoga breaks, aided either by Adriene (of Yoga with Adriene fame) or Bad Yogi (another fav of mine) or my own memory of qigong classes I’ve taken (boy do I miss in-person yoga and qigong!). I also have some DVDs, obtained during a bout of late-night online shopping. Usually I do hip openers (to deal with all the sitting), but any movement feels good.

On days when I’m not teaching, I’m using a Pomodoro app to remind me to stop working and get out of my chair every 25 minutes for a 5-minute break. Tracy has used this technique and wrote about it here. Others among our bloggers like it, too.

For these breaks, it’s my choice. Sometimes I use the break to do something practical, like take out trash or recycling (which involves two sets of stairs down and then up). I’m right now thinking about other quick-ish fun exercise-y things to provide some novelty. Any suggestions would be most welcome.

One idea I had yesterday that’s coming back is incorporating the New York Times so-called 6-minute workout more often as a mini-break activity. I wrote about the skepticism and criticism around it here for the blog. But, this post also contains the list of all the exercises, in case you can’t get to the actual NY Times article. The workout takes longer than 6 minutes– more like 15 or so– but that’s still in the mini-category. I’ll report back on how smoothly it gets incorporated into the daily movement plan.

One final idea: set up my bike trainer to do short spins (10–15 minutes? Not sure). For this one, I’m not sure if I want to do this, or what I would do for a short amount of time. Ideas, anyone? Have any of you done short (say 20 minutes or less) workouts on a spin bike or trainer? I know, I can look this up. But I value your experience. Let me know if anything has worked for you.

fitness · Book Club

FIFI Book Club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, week four–Lovingkindness

Hi readers, and welcome to the sixth installment of FIFI book club’s reading of Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness: a 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation. Each week we’ll offer some reflections as we move through the chapters, and maybe do some of the exercises, too. You are invited to join us, and we’d love to read and respond to any comments you’d like to share.

Last week we blogged here about week three. we blogged here about week two. We blogged here about week one, Concentration. We blogged about Chapter 2: Why Meditate, here. You can read about the intro and chapter 1 here.

This week is week four of meditation practice techniques and exercises, called Lovingkindness: Cultivating Compassion and True Happiness. Here are our reflections.

First up is Mina:

I love the encouragement the lovingkindness meditation gives me to be my best self. And by that I don’t mean some perfectly, implausibly love-everybody, angelic version, but as Sharon Salzberg writes in this Week 4 chapter, “extending friendship to ourselves and others—not in the sense of liking everyone, or dispensing universal approval, but more as an inner knowing that our lives are all inextricably connected.” A couple paragraphs later she writes, “to look at ourselves and others with kindness instead of reflexive criticism.”

The lovingkindness she describes is gritty and takes a lot of presence. But since, as she points out in her description, the first person to whom we are extending our kindness is ourselves. When I screw up and get my kindness toward someone else wrong, I need to be kind to myself, instead of taking that easy refuge in reflexive self-criticism. Berating myself that I’m not a nice person is a lot less likely to improve my behavior than paying attention to where I went awry and reminding myself of our inextricable connectedness.

In the Ten Ways to Deepen Your Practice section, number 9 suggests we refrain from speaking ill of others. So … that is a practice that I’ve been wrestling with for a few years. Unsurprisingly, it’s a work in progress. I’ve gotten better than I used to be, but boy is it hard. All those moments of gossip, righteousness and schadenfreude that slip into conversations. Can you believe she …? I wouldn’t have done … What did she expect … ?

In my efforts, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to bring my attention to the moments I’m about to write, in an email or text, something not-so-nice about someone else. As soon as I notice, I stop. I think about how I’d feel if the person saw what I’d written. I stop writing or delete. I have noticed that some friends are frustrated if I don’t want to participate in these kinds of conversations. But they’re so fun, a friend once said to me. Are they? After paying some attention to how I feel after such exchanges, I’ve noticed that my ego might feel temporarily better (as in—I’m doing better than that person). But I’ve also noticed, when I take the time, that I feel some level of nausea, too. As if the person actually heard what I said and was hurt by it.

Of course, I only notice these responses, if I’m paying attention. Thank you, Sharon Salzberg, for reminding me how to use the lovingkindness meditation for just that!

Next up is Christine:

I enjoyed the process of reading and reflecting on this section.

I am still not doing the practices as often as I had hoped to be but I am being patient with myself as I figure out how to make meditation a regular part of my life. And, by doing that, I guess I have been practicing one part of lovingkindness.

I find lovingkindness meditations a little bit of a struggle. I don’t object to them in a philosophical way, I don’t argue with the ideas involved. I just find it hard to focus because I have trouble letting go of the idea of a list of people to think about. So that makes me aware of the possibility of forgetting someone. And I also have trouble holding the image of someone in my mind. Well, I’m sure you can see the spiral I end up falling into from all of that.

But that being said, I love the idea of changing how we pay attention to the people around us. Lovingkindness is not about learning to let people walk all over you and it’s not about learning to adore them, it’s about learning to see them and yourself differently – with more compassion.

This change in approach doesn’t necessarily affect the other person, you aren’t doing it ´for’ them, per se. It can, however, change how you see and interact with them. That definitely makes your interactions a little smoother and creates some ease for you. (That may or may not create changes in your dynamic but that’s not the point.)

So, as she has mentioned throughout the book, changing the way we pay attention affects our experiences and this one seems to have a more tangible result than some of the other practices. Meanwhile, I love how she keeps emphasizing that it doesn’t make us like difficult people and that we don’t have to try to like them, we just have to learn to understand that they too are struggling and that we can be compassionate about that.

I am very intrigued to continue my practice with meditation for quieting the inner critic. The inner critic of people with ADHD can be particularly chatty and I like to have many tools for managing that chatter. My ADHD meds have already helped a lot with that particular issue and they give me the space to make good use use of tools like the meditation she shares here.

Even though this whole chapter was interesting to me, I found the final section ´Ten Ways To Deepen Your Practice’ especially useful. Even just the first two recommendations ‘Think of kindness as a strength, not as a weakness,’ ‘Look for the good in yourself,’ bring me a kind of restful feeling, and that’s pretty good for a few lines of text.

Side note: The personal timing of this topic is interesting to me considering that I had a revelation this weekend that one of the reasons I feel tired when I open FB is that I feel like I am trying to maintain too many friendships at once – like there are extra things to remember all the time. I wonder how exploring and practicing lovingkindness meditation might help me address that feeling?

Here’s Martha:

So far this has been the hardest week for me. I’m not sure why. I think I have looked upon meditation as a way of emptying my brain or jumping off the hamster wheel. I don’t object to the concept of loving kindness. However, I don’t much enjoy focusing on people in my meditation. Perhaps it is because I already spend some time each week connecting with people purposefully in loving kindness through chats, messages, or online.

That said, I took this book as an opportunity to learn new things about meditation and I have. I’ve enjoyed exploring mindful attention not just in everyday life but as a form of practice. I realized I need to look at meditation practice as a form of kindness to self, and as such it should become one of my big rocks if I want to keep at it. I like lists so “Ten Ways to Deepen Your Practice” spoke to me in ways other parts of the chapter did not.

Here’s Tracy:

This week I fell back into doing what I know, using the weekly theme more as a guide than following the chapter in all of its detail. I know and love the loving kindness, or metta, practice. It can have a dramatic effect on my feelings towards myself and others, especially when I imagine extending my metta towards people with whom I experience difficulty.

My favourite guided version of this practice is the Metta Bhavana practice by the Buddhist teacher Bodhipaksa, which I first discovered on a CD of his that I bought about 15 years ago. That was my first encounter with the four stages of lovingkindess, where you direct it first towards yourself, then to someone you feel good about, then to someone you feel neutral about, and then to someone you have difficulty with. When coupled with the mindfulness we have been practicing over the past few weeks, I was able have keen awareness of how resistant I was to extending lovingkindess towards someone I have difficulty with. But I did it anyway. As outlined in Real Happiness, we extend loving kindness in meditation by wishing someone well with a few positive phrases. My phrases, taken from Bodhipaksa, are “May [I/you/we/they] be well; may [I/you/we/they] be happy; may I/you/we/they be free from suffering.” But you can insert “peaceful” or “safe” or “healthy” or “live with ease” or whatever resonates as well-wishing from your heart.

What this practice done consistently does for me is make me more compassionate towards myself and others. I confess that a couple of times this week I focused on myself because, what with getting back to work after a long absence and all, I found myself being hard on myself for having some difficulty staying on top of things. Introducing this loving kindness into my meditation every morning, I was able to accept that there’s nothing wrong with a slow start. Not only that, I was even able to recognize that I am feeling energized and happy to be back at my regular role.

But it also made me more able to extend a quick olive branch after I acted poorly towards a server at a restaurant that I frequent. I was snippy because our reservation for an outdoor table had not been noted, so we had to wait quite awhile. It hadn’t been noted because they hadn’t checked their voicemail. So I said, “does your voicemail say we don’t take reservations by voicemail; you have to speak to a person?” in a not-nice tone of voice. Maybe not the worst thing but the interaction left me feeling like I had been unfair and mean. So I approached her later and apologized, expressed that she didn’t deserve to be spoken to like that, and admitted that my behaviour was uncalled for and that she always does a great job (it is the only restaurant patio I go to on a regular basis since COVID). I don’t know if I can attribute my entire ability to do that to this week’s meditation theme, but part of what motivated me was a quick awareness that she must not have enjoyed that interaction any more than I did.

Next week I will continue with the loving kindness meditation, maybe doing a few more of the suggested practices from the Week Four Chapter. Since we started, I have consistently managed to meditate for at least 20 minutes every day and I feel as if this book club was just the kickstart I needed to get back on track. 

And here’s me (Catherine):

For me, this past week has been more difficult for focusing on daily meditation. My semester is in the middle of its third week, and I’m running on all cylinders all the time. I haven’t been doing meditation first thing in the morning, instead using that time for class prep and assignment grading. This is not good for me. When meditation gets pushed into some other TBA slot, I feel like it diminishes the specialness of the time spent. Meditation isn’t like throwing that last load of laundry in the dryer; I need some dedicated space around sitting for contemplation or just peace.

Enter Sharon Salzerg and lovingkindess meditation. I’ve done this meditation before, and (like Tracy), use different phrasing depending on what I’m focusing on. Like Christine, my inner critic needs a lot of attention, and offering up gentle awareness and open-heartedness toward those feelings and thoughts is always welcome in my mental universe.

One of the Ten Ways to Deepen Your Practice suggestions I really like is “include those who may feel left out”. Salzberg suggests trying this in conversation, asking quieter people what they think. Here’s a story of how suggestion played out in my life this week.

My department puts together a student curriculum committee to work with us to review and offer feedback on new and revised courses, and suggest changes for existing offerings. We were talking about who should be on the committee, and I suggested K (one of my students). In describing K, I said that they were in need of a little polishing in terms of student-faculty interactions. In a talk with K recently, they said that they thought they needed to be aggressive as they wanted “to be a lawyer, and I hear that lawyers are aggressive”. K has acted on this by being a bit annoying, I admit.

After telling my colleagues about this, they said, “well, then, why would we want K to be on this committee?” I said, “because K needs to learn how to act around faculty, and they will definitely learn from us.” My colleagues agreed, somewhat reluctantly.

I talked with K today to encourage them to join this committee. K is pleased, and I think it’s an opportunity for growth for them. It’s not going to be easy, navigating this relationship. But, I know it will give all of us (K, me, the rest of the students and faculty on the committee) a chance to practice forms of lovingkindness toward each other and ourselves. Thank you, Sharon Salzberg for putting this practice front and center at a good time!

advertising · fitness

Will 30 minutes a day of anything change my life? What about 10?

CW: mention of 30-day challenges promising weight loss and changes in body shape, strength, fitness, health– all being critiqued here.

30 is a very popular number among health and fitness writers and vendors. In 30 days, if the internet is to be believed, we can:

  • become runners– sprint, marathon, you name it;
  • revolutionize our core/quad/lat/fill-in-the-blank muscles;
  • do a jillion squats/crunches/pullups/pushups/dips– whatever your pleasure;
  • perfect our posture (that was a new one for me);
  • and the list goes on…
A veritable buffet of 30-day programs, all dedicated to change you from head to toe. Allegedly.

30 also figures prominently in self-improvement programs, as 30 minutes seems to be the magical amount of time needed per day in order for complete and total transformation from shapeless, hapless, and amoeboid to ship-shape, sharp, and sure of ourselves.

In 30 minutes a day, you can get better health, fitness, grammar, intelligence, and even reverse aging. Allegedly.

What is it about 30? Is it true that we really need to do something 30 minutes a day for 30 days in order:

  • for us to see any results?
  • for it to be worth our time/money/effort?
  • for anything to happen at all?

What if, some days, we only do 15 minutes of whatever feat we are attempting (be it plank holding or meditation or watching Russian language videos)? Or 10? or 5? Is it all for nothing?

Of course the answer is no. Every minute counts. How do I know this? Easy, I looked it up. Check out this 2017 article, cited in a Harvard Medical School online publication, that:

found that inactive older adults who added just 48 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week lowered their risk of major disability compared with sedentary people.

Wait, there’s more:

Another study, published in the January 2018 American Journal of Preventive Medicine, involved almost 140,000 older adults, average age 71, almost half of whom were men. It showed that doing moderate-intensity workouts totaling less than 150 minutes per week still was enough exercise to lower the risk of early death when compared with inactivity.

30 really isn’t a magic number. We don’t have to do something 30 days in a row for it to be meaningful, and we don’t have to spend 30 minutes a day doing it for it to count. Every day we devote to whatever activities that figure in our goals– physical, intellectual, creative, philanthropic, gastronomic, you name it– counts. And every minute counts, too.

In case you prefer a diagrammatic explanation, here’s one:

The number line. Positive numbers are all those to the right of zero. And they all count.

Readers: do you feel like you need 30 minutes a day in order to get up and running (as it were) in a new activity? Does doing a few minutes a day here and there suffice? I’d love to hear about your experiences with 30/less-than-30 programs.

Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, week three–Mindfulness and Emotions

Hi readers, and welcome to the fifth installment of FIFI book club’s reading of Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness: a 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation. Each week we’ll offer some reflections as we move through the chapters, and maybe do some of the exercises, too. You are invited to join us, and we’d love to read and respond to any comments you’d like to share.

Last week we blogged here about week two. We blogged here about week one, Concentration. We blogged about Chapter 2: Why Meditate, here. You can read about the intro and chapter 1 here.

This week is week three of meditation practice techniques and exercises, called Mindfulness and Emotions. Here are our reflections.

First up is Mina:

I love this bit in the Week Three chapter about how mindfulness works with our emotions by opening: “…the possibility of finding the gap between a trigger event and our usual conditioned response to it, and of using that pause to collect ourselves and change our response.” Even if we’re not Olympic athletes or Formula 1 race car drivers, nanoseconds can matter deeply in our lives. I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve not even paused to take a breath before my auto-response has exploded, usually incinerating my partner, possibly others in the vicinity and most definitely sparking a backdraft into me.

Forget enlightenment, finding that pause is, for me, the single biggest possibility offered by meditation. Mastering the pause is not the work of a week. More like a lifetime. Sharon Salzberg points out in this chapter that the pause has two parts. First is the pause itself. Taking that breath. Noticing. The second part is how we are in the pause. What is the quality of our noticing? This second part is where I have the most trouble. Because, as she points out, we need to notice without judgment, without blame, without casting aspersions on ourselves or others, and without giving into our discomfort, by lashing out at ourselves or someone else. That. Is. Hard. Learning to be comfortable with whatever arises can cause me enormous amounts of agita.

This past week I was supposed to be working diligently on a client project that’s due next Friday. Instead, I mooched around more than usual and told myself it was because my ankle was sprained. Also, we decamped to Montreal (from New York) for 3.5 months this week, so I was preoccupied with packing and traveling and unpacking and settling in under quarantine restrictions. Then there was the non-client, pro bono work that I love and so keep doing no matter what. And then there was my undertaking to myself (as part of this book club) to meditate for twenty minutes a day, instead of my more usual ten minutes.

As the week progressed, I got increasingly anxious about my client project, and increasingly intransigent about doing it. While meditating, I’d think to myself, “What a wastrel. You are obviously a highly unimportant person if you have this much time to meditate. Oh, and arrogant, too, thinking you’ll still be able to finish the project on time.” And so on.

But … this book was also whispering in my ear, “You are not your thoughts. What does it feel like to be ignoring your client project to the maximum like this? Be with what’s arising. No judgment.” And guess what? Instead of biting my partner’s head off when he asked me if I was stressed, I explained where I was at and how I was feeling. Same movie. New ending. This week’s chapter supported me in a moment of need, when my ability to find the pause was tenuous.

Here’s Christine:

This week’s topic really resonated with me.

As a storyteller by both trade and inclination, and as someone whose ADHD fosters emotional extremes, I am always looking for ways to notice both the internal narratives I create and the feeling that initiates them.

Years ago, when I was seeing a psychologist for situational depression, I was asked to create a mood diary to help identify some of the things that brought me down. I couldn’t do it. It was completely impossible for me backtrack from the feelings to the thoughts I had followed to get there. At the time, this added to my feelings of frustration and failure. Since my ADHD diagnosis, I know that I had multiple obstacles in my way – the spiderweb of thoughts, stories and connections that every event generates, plus the extreme emotional reactions/RSD that can come with ADHD, plus my challenges with task initiation (keeping a notebook at hand and summoning the motivation to write while already feeling bad? Tricky to say the least.)

I could probably do it now if I had to. I know lots of ways to help build habits and my medication generally gives me a little space between a given thought and my action – even internal ‘actions’ like creating a story. That doesn’t mean that I can always catch my thoughts before they drag me into feeling bad but I can usually trace them backward more easily these days.

The fact that my medication creates that space between thought and action (with varying success depending on how tired/busy/overwhelmed/awash in emotions I am) makes me curious about how more mindfulness could create a bigger space between those things.

My storytelling and coaching self was also drawn into the discussion of how we tend to mix up our thoughts (and the connecting stories) with our whole selves. Salzberg gives the example that when we strike our funny bone we don’t think of ourselves as a sore elbow but when we have a sad thought we think ‘I’m sad.’ A lot of my coaching practice involves helping people separate their stories from the facts about themselves, and I’m interested to see how meditation can be another tool in helping people develop that skill.

Before I was medicated for ADHD, I was often drawn to meditation because I felt that there was something important in there for me. And I could meditate – sometimes even for long sessions – but I couldn’t make it a habit. I remember speaking to my doctor at the time and saying that I felt like creating a meditation habit was on the other side of a river and that I wanted to try medication to see if it would help me build a bridge to the habit. (Interesting that I chose that metaphor at the time. It’s no wonder that things like this ‘Motivation Bridge’ video end up helping me so much – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM0Xv0eVGtY)

By the time I was medicated, I had a lot of family things to deal with and lost track of the plan to add more regular meditation to my life. I have come back to it multiple times since, though. I find it cool that my instincts were right – I function better when I have space between thought and action. I thought at the time that medication would help me meditate and that would be the path to finding that space. Instead, the medication gave me the space but I still think meditation will, over time, make that space larger.

Here’s me, Catherine:

This week of meditation shifts the focus to emotions, and that’s been significantly harder for me than the previous two weeks (which were about attention to the breath and then attention to the body). Why? Well, even though breathing and bodily feels are foundational, emotions can feel bigger and more dramatic, more overwhelming. Breathing in and out is soothing because it makes my emotions simmer down, recede to a distant corner, hopefully to slink away.

But that isn’t the lesson Sharon Salzberg teaches us here. She notes that we erect barriers to happiness, and facing our emotions can help us get around or over those barriers. The barriers, FYI, are:

  • desire: grasping, clinging, wanting
  • aversion: anger, fear, impatience
  • sloth: numbing out, switching off, disconnecting, becoming sluggish
  • restlessness: anxiety, fretfulness, agitation
  • doubt: inability to make a decision

The sloth one really hits me where I live. My anxiety and sadness reactions tend toward shutting down; I sometimes feel overwhelmed and very low energy. Retreating to my bed or mindlessly zoom-scrolling just exacerbates the problem, and then I blame myself for my weakness. Yuck! So what does Salzberg recommend?

The RAIN method: recognize, accept, investigate, and non-identify with the emotion. By slowing down and adopting a non-reactive reaction to a passing emotion, it just… passes.

It was hard to do the difficult emotion meditation this week; it got a bit intense for me. But, one of my meditation teachers told me that it’s always possible to back off and go back to the breath, or to acknowledge the intensity and let that feeling pass.

Meditation is a life-long contemplative self-knowledge development process. Each time I restart it, I develop a bit more resilience or a bit more depth in the contents of that meditation. Every day, every sitting is different, and I am finding that I really look forward to what is unfolding.

And here’s Tracy:

This week I actually did what the program suggested because I’ve been sort of using it as a nudge to get me back to a daily practice (which it has) but have only been loosely following it. But since I had an initial “no way” reaction to the week’s theme of “Mindfulness and Emotion,” I took that as a sign that I needed to pay attention and not avoid. So glad I did.

I also took more detailed notes after my meditations this week (I’ve been keeping a notebook where I make a little entry after each sitting). My first entry says: “Her teacher when she was 18 was Goenka! [that is the teacher whose method is taught at the Vipassana Centre]. I did the guided and learned RAIN: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, Non-identification. Worry and fear came up…”

Keeping the notes helped me recognize that worry came up a lot last week. I have just adopted two little rescue kittens and one of them was having some litter box issues. She was peeing beside the box, and then took it to other places where you really do not want a kitty to pee. Medical has sort of been ruled out. I jumped way ahead to “I’m going to have to separate these cats because she’s a nervous kitty who needs to be a solo cat and if I don’t re-home her she will be miserable and eventually I’ll have to throw out all of my furniture and this is what my life is going to be for the next 15-20 years” (she’s done it twice, and both were easy clean-ups).

It was a good opportunity for me to the same issue can seem emotionally overwhelming one day and completely manageable the next. I also learned that I tense up and stop breathing when I get worked up emotionally, and that a lot of my “negative” emotions live in my chest and throat, both of which get tight. And that consciously breathing helps me calm down.I also started the week with last week’s mindful tea-drinking exercise and I highly recommend it. It was the most pleasant cup of tea I’ve had in years.

fitness · season transitions

Sunset on summer: the beach in early fall

This weekend I’m in Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts. It’s my first trip here, and the island is lovely and verdant and oh-so Nantuckety: here’s what I mean.

The look of this place is very tightly regulated and very cohesive; all cedar shingles all the time. But the beaches are under no such ordinances, nor would they pay attention if the local town meeting passed some conventions on how beaches should comport themselves.

To me, beaches are synonymous with summer. My whole life I’ve gone with family to the South Carolina coast for swimming, walking, playing, and hanging out (including foolhardy sunbathing in my teens; glad those days are over) on the wide, hard sand coastline, with its warm water.

This year I didn’t make it to the SC coast, as I usually do, because COVID. However, this short getaway to a New England island, with its own shore beauty, is feeling like a good way to bid goodbye to summer. The weather is coolish and windy, so I’m wearing a light sweater for daytime walking and contemplation. For sunset, it’s necessary to add a hat and jacket. I’m still barefoot– I mean, it is the beach– but the toes are a little chilly in the oddly cool sand.

Each day around 6:30pm we head over to the beach at Madaket, bundled up with beach chairs in tow, to witness the colors of the early fall sunset over the water.

Setting sun, hovering over the sea.

The air and sand start to cool down. Others join us for the show.

Sun, sinking below the watery horizon.
Sun, sinking below the watery horizon.

Everything is orange in tone, just for a moment.

Last reflections of sunset in the distance.
Last reflections of sunset in the distance.

The orange glow deepens, now in contrast with dark and metallic gray sand and waves.

Evening has arrived.
Evening has arrived.

Are we ever ready for the end of summer? In warmer climates, you can try to hang on for a bit longer; but here in New England, fall makes its presence known. There are hikes and fall riding (I love fall cycling!) to look forward to, but many of our outdoor activities will have to taper off or shift substantially.

One thing I’m learning from the past 6–500 months that comprises the pandemic is, nature is out there. Sunsets are out there. Beaches are out there. Summer is passing into fall. Another season is coming. I’m going to work on making friends with it, and continuing to go to the beach seems like as good a way as any.

So farewell, summer beach, and hello, fall beach. And I’ll be here when winter beach arrives.

Readers, do you have any rituals for bidding an official farewell to summer? Do you turn around and say, where did it go? Do you take each day as it comes? I’d love to hear from you about how you’re experiencing this natural change. Thanks for reading.

fitness · meditation

Finding a sitting posture during meditation: an experimental process

I’ve been doing daily meditation since July 13. It’s something I’m really happy about– I get to experience a lot of different emotions and sensations, and also a make some space to abide with them, as it were.

Below the neck, there are also issues to deal with in meditation, namely, how to sit. The aim isn’t maximum comfort, but rather stability, alertness and sustainability. To meditate, you need to be able to sit quietly, in a still way, for anywhere from 1 minute to an hour or more at a time.

These days my sitting periods are 10–20 minutes. That’s long enough for my knee to start aching, my foot to fall asleep, or my hands to want to change position. There’s no rule that says you can’t move during meditation (well, some meditation practices do have those rules and for reasons, but that’s not what I’m talking about here). In fact, one of my meditation teachers told us during an all-day workshop that if a foot or leg starts to fall asleep, feel free to adjust subtly. Good.

But, the question remains: how should one sit for optimal meditation performance?

Woman in a full lotus pose, legs crossed and sitting on opposite thighs. Totally not required.

The image above is one of the ways to sit in meditation, but there are lots of others. I’ve tried all of them, and make use of them depending on how I’m feeling, where I am, what time of day it is, and what else I’ve done that day. Below are some positions to check out.

In a chair. Sometimes this feels better than sitting on the floor, and works when floor space is limited (or there are dogs/cats about!)
Kneeling (hero pose, which I totally can't do), with support between knees (I still can't do it, but others like it).
Kneeling (hero pose, which I totally can’t do), with support between knees (which I still can’t do, but others like it).

The next two poses are pretty standard seated poses, both of which I like:

And then there’s the lotus family. Not comfortable for me, but they are for many others.

Thanks to this website for all the nice pictures of meditation postures.

You can also lie down for meditation. I don’t do this often, mainly because I have trouble focusing (read I get too sleepy) lying down. But YMMV, and again, experimenting is good.

Lying down meditation. I use a blanket or pillow under my knees; some use a blanket under the head.

If you’re still here and reading, you may be thinking, okay. But Catherine, which pose really is the best one for meditation?

The answer is: whatever pose helps you to sit long enough to meditate: in a house; with a mouse; in a box, with a fox! Whatever works for you is the right one.

Readers who meditate or have tried meditation: what positions work for you? Which ones definitely don’t work for you? Have you meditated with a mouse or fox? We’d love to hear from you.

Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, week two–Mindfulness and the Body

Hi readers, and welcome to the fourth installment of FIFI book club’s reading of Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness: a 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation. Each week we’ll offer some reflections as we move through the chapters, and maybe do some of the exercises, too. You are invited to join us, and we’d love to read and respond to any comments you’d like to share.

Last week we blogged here about week one, Concentration. We blogged about Chapter 2: Why Meditate, here. You can read about the intro and chapter 1 here.

This week is week two of meditation practice techniques and exercises, called Mindfulness and the Body. Here are our reflections.

I’ll start today (Catherine).

This chapter is my absolute favorite, even among other meditation books I’ve read. Why? Because it evokes all kinds of sense memories I have: very painful ones (my appendix ruptured when I was 30; that’s a 9.8 on the 10-point pain scale for sure), and also ordinary ones (I noticed this week that I rush like mad through teeth-brushing, so slowed down to see what it was like; answer: more interesting).

Saltzberg is in effect giving us permission to focus on what our bodies feel like when we’re going through our day. And how do they feel? Different from moment to moment. And what does this mean? Nothing much; it’s how bodies work. But, that feels like an enormous relief to me. Experiencing and witnessing non-earthshaking change for 15–20 minutes is having the effect of opening up something, a set of possibilities I’m too timid to identify or hope for. Is the world/my world really less fragile, less endangered, less burdened that I usually (these days) think it is? Dunno. For now, I’ll just continue to sit and walk and breathe and attend to those sensations.

Here’s Mina:

Week Two of this book’s program is about mindfulness and the body. In keeping with the theme, I’ve been listening daily to one of my favourite 20-minute body scan meditations. Yes, I “should” be listening to Sharon Salzberg’s meditations, but I no longer have any way of listening to CD’s and I want what I want, my fave.

Early in the chapter, Salzberg talks about the difference between our direct experience and the add-ons we impose, which cause further suffering; what other Buddhist teachers call the second arrow. Applying that line of thinking to myself—my direct experience is that I’m not following the book’s specific meditations, but I’m avoiding the temptation to add-on, by criticizing myself for my lack of followership, or criticizing myself for not being a compliant book club member.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to my fave is that at the end the meditation teacher asks a series of questions that always intrigue and provoke me in different ways. If I am not this body, who am I? If I am not my emotions, who am I? If I am not my thoughts, who am I? She repeats the questions three times. The fact that she repeats the questions three times is something that took me a long time to realize. My mind would either have drifted before the questions started or it would begin wrestling with the questions and miss their repetition. Over time I’ve gotten more comfortable letting the questions be and noticing what bodily sensations, emotions and thoughts pass across the horizon in response. Some days I feel peaceful and loose. Other days I feel anxious and want to hang on tighter to my body, emotions and thoughts.

Then, after I’d written that paragraph above, I got a real test of the direct experience vs. add-ons. I sprained my right ankle on a run. Badly enough that I am wearing one of those big clunky surgical boots and will not be running (or doing yoga, or my skipping workout, or, or, or) anytime soon. The direct experience is a loss of mobility and freedom. The add-ons I’m struggling with are the enormous frustration of not being able to move how I like in my body and not being able to get my heart rate up in the great outdoors.

My mind’s first impulse is to catastrophize—I’ll never be fit again. I’ll dissolve into a muscle-less worm. Never mind other add-on self-talk in the category of blaming and criticizing myself for the accident.So, my practice at the end of this second week about body and mindfulness, is to notice my instinct to add-on, to be gentle with my body, so it can heal (because I know it will, despite my fears) and to be kinder to myself, because why suffer more than I need to?

Here’s Martha:

This was a curious chapter for me. I spent a fair bit of time in my 30s letting go of negative self talk so as another FIFI book blogger noted, it doesn’t always resonate when Salzberg uses those examples. I am intrigued by mindfulness as a practice as I have several friends and colleagues who use it for self-care. I did like the variety of options to approach mindfulness as the body scan is a common one (I often fall asleep before I get past my neck so I use it to fall asleep sometimes if I’m distracted).

I was challenged to think about the differences between concentration and mindfulness, and I concluded at the end of the chapter the difference is about the level of deliberation. Salzberg describes it quite well in the walking meditation. I’ll probably have to think about these two a lot more in the future as it’s still a little fuzzy for me.

Eighty pages into a 200-page book, and I have come to realize that there are things I do that could qualify as a meditation, but I don’t put myself in that space often enough to see it as a practice. Salzberg notes this in the section on every day activities as meditation, but I can’t see myself using teeth brushing as mindfulness exercise. This chapter more than anything has reminded me how little time I spend being still as I have a need to be always doing. So even though I may find binding a quilt a very mindful exercise, I’m not necessarily sitting with my thoughts in any focused way.

Here’s Tracy:

Week Two, “mindfulness and the body,” took me back to when I did the “Mindfulness Meditation for Stress Relief” course. The main thing we did in that course, for the entire 8 weeks, was a daily body scan. I didn’t see the point but I did it anyway. Now I think the body scan is a great way to learn how to pay attention.

I know I said at the beginning that I would go into the Real Happiness course with “beginner’s mind.” But I confess that I spent the whole week doing the body scan. I skipped the walking meditation (nothing against walking meditations, but I didn’t feel like it). Once I did a guided version (narrated by someone who isn’t Sharon Salzberg) that I found on the Insight Timer app (best app on my phone). The rest of the time I did my usual Vipassana meditation, which is a head to feet and feet to head body scan, paying attention to sensation.

I have wandered away from the daily Vipassana practice, so it felt good to reconnect with it even if for 20 minutes and not the recommended one hour, twice a day. I have nothing much to report about that besides the grounding feeling of doing it daily. Routine, for me, provides a foundation for my life that I definitely feel is missing when I let the structure of routine slide.

The one thing I haven’t done but that I plan still to do is Salzberg’s “everyday activity meditations.” This is where you take something you do all the time and on auto-pilot, and do it mindfully – slowly and with awareness of each part of the movement. It could be brushing your teeth, making your coffee, slicing a tomato, folding your laundry. She suggests a drinking tea meditation, in which “we try to be more fully present with every component of a single activity – drinking a cup of tea.”

I will report back on this next week, but I will admit now that my busy mind is already saying, “when am I going to fit a mindful cup of tea into my day?” I also plan to do Week Two’s “try this: do a task in slo-mo.”Overall, I’m in touch with my body and didn’t find the mindfulness of the body theme to be a bit challenge. I expect that week three, Mindfulness and Emotions, will be a different thing. I am less in tune at times with my emotions and I have lots of feelings these days.

Here’s Christine:

I haven’t meditated in a week.

Last week started off weird with a night of virtually no sleep and I didn’t sleep well for several nights after that. My fledgling self-care plan (journaling, meditation, reading, etc.) fell away bit by bit until, by the end of the week, I found myself using coping strategies (more reactive than proactive) rather than the proactive methods I had been using in the two weeks previous.

It’s not that I didn’t have pockets of time for meditation, it was that I kept thinking I would do it at a ‘better’ time, later. I felt that I had so little attention to give that once I was focused on the work I needed to do, I should keep going for as long as I could in hopes of accomplishing anything at all. (I am not stating this very well, this is not about me needing to feel ‘productive’ per se, it’s about me needing to have some tangible evidence of where my day went. It’s hard to explain.

But even though I didn’t choose meditation, I did choose the kind of self-kindness she advocates throughout everything I have read so far. I didn’t delve into any sort of unpleasant inner monologue, and I reminded myself that I had reasons for feeling so off. I wasn’t hard on myself at all about it.

I did notice, however, that it took a bit of extra effort to avoid what I call ambient anxiety (the sort that kind of floats over you without any immediately discernible origin.) Until that started floating around last week, I hadn’t realized that I had had a bit of a break from it. And, as it occurred, I kept thinking ‘meditation was keeping this away last week’ – I don’t know if that thought is true but it feels that way. It didn’t actually help me move from not meditating to meditating but it gave me some space for reflection.

I’m going to observe and see if this week’s meditation keeps that ambient anxiety at bay. Since I don’t live in a lab and I can’t control most of the factors, my observations won’t be scientific but they will be useful to me.

So, now that I have ‘confessed’ to not meditating, I will also confess to not having read this section about mindfulness until this morning so my thoughts on it will be (fairly) brief.

{By the way, I am so tired of the word mindfulness. I cringe every time I hear or see it because it has been so overused by the type of wellness gurus who thrive on encouraging people to blame themselves when the guru’s advice doesn’t work…”Well, my darling, if you had been truly mindful…” }

I am really intrigued, once again, by her discussions of attention in this section and, shockingly, I have some thoughts:

Previous to reading her discussions about the difference between feeling something in your body and getting caught up in thoughts about that sensation, I think that I believed that getting caught up in the thoughts was part of paying attention to the sensation. This wasn’t a conscious choice, it was kind of automatic – not unlike the thoughts themselves. This is odd because I regularly coach people to step away from that kind of thinking when they are writing, and I make that choice when I am writing or drawing. I’m curious about why I apparently don’t consistently apply it to physical sensations.

Her suggestions about having more meditative moments during the day sound kind of painful for me. Not physically painful, but mentally painful. I have to invest a lot of energy in keeping my attention on my work or on the tasks I have chosen for the day. So, it feels really risky to plan to sink into small tasks like making tea. I feel like I could get very off track very quickly. I’m curious about this, too. Would learning to invest more focus in those moments actually give my brain a break? Or would they lead to me wandering off track for a while after my tea is made?

Given my aversion to the word ‘mindfulness,’ I really enjoyed finding out that you can also refer to it as ‘wise attention.’ I LOVE that idea. Her discussion of how the m-word, or wise attention, helps us to separate our experiences from the thoughts we add to those experiences was really helpful for me.

I guess I am going to be a week ‘behind’ in the meditation practices since I really want to give the ones from this week a try but I won’t be hard on myself about it. I can’t change how last week went and since the overall purpose here is to develop a practice, learning to work around side quests like last week will be useful overall.I will, however, be sure to read Week Three a bit earlier than next Tuesday morning, though.

mindfulness · technology

Meditation apps: a non-systematic survey

Our lives would be very different if we didn’t have smartphones apps to occupy our time and attention. They help keep us on track with schedules of waking, working, taking breaks, moving, eating, playing games, shopping, and all the other things that comprise our daily routines.

A world inside a phone: the app.

But what about when we want to be still, stopping all those activities or distractions? Worry not, there’s an app for that, too.

Some of the many apps for meditation out there in phone-land.

I’ve added and deleted loads of meditation or chill-out/relaxation apps over the past years. Once the novelty wore off, I would move on to something else, or more likely just revert to my default non-mindfulness routine.

In July, when I restarted a daily meditation practice, I found myself looking for guidance and accountability to help me make sitting a habit. Apps can be great for this– they track your sessions over time and the time you spend each session. They also tend to offer a variety of guided meditations of different lengths and for different times of day and different purposes. Apps are nothing if not extensive in their offerings. Here are some I’ve tried and what I think about them.

  1. For many years, I’ve used old-fashioned recordings of guided meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs. I just discovered: there’s an app for that! The series is available on Google Play for $10 each–look up JKZ series 1, 2, and 3. I use series 1 often, but the others provide that variation I was talking about.
I still own the 4-CD set of these meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn. They’re the Chanel suit of guided meditations.

2. Meditation Oasis is one of the OGs of the meditation app world. It started as a podcast and expanded to apps, each focusing on a specific purpose of meditation, like sleep or stress/anxiety reduction. One crucial feature of any meditation app is the voice, and I happen to like Mary Maddux– she is calm but also sounds like a real person. You can add in sounds or music to the background, which I’ve enjoyed from time to time. There are individual apps or bundles that range in price from $3 to $12.

A bundle of apps from Meditation Oasis. Not fancy illustrations or features, but very solid content.

3. The newest app that I’ve added to my meditation routine is 10 Percent Happier, which is a book and a podcast and a blog and an app. Dan Harris is the author of the book (which I haven’t read, but hear good things about). He has brought together a group of some of the best English-language meditation teachers and created a one-stop shopping mall of secular meditations for many aspects of modern life. There’s a coronavirus section, a section for busy parents, and other areas that we care and worry about. I use this app every day– mostly before bed (I do a different meditation in the morning). However, it’s expensive– $100 for a year’s subscription. Yeah. That’s a lot. For me, it’s worth it. There are courses, lectures, and a lot of top-quality content. Can you get great content without paying $100? Oh yes, for sure. But this is an excellent resource if you don’t mind the price.

I like the simplicity of this icon. And it looks like it’s smirking.

4. On the advice of a friend who loves it, I tried Calm, which bills itself as the #1 app for meditation and sleep. Like 10 percent happier, it is very professionally done and has loads of content from a lot of meditation teachers and writers. One thing Calm has that the other apps I’ve tried don’t have is a large selection of bedtime stories. These “sleep stories” are “soothing tales that mix music, sound fx and incredible voice talent to help you drift into dreamland” says Calm. It also has meditations, body scans, video of calm nature scenes with sound, classes, and (as they say) much, much more.

So (as they say), how much would you pay for this? The regular price is $70 a year, but when I clicked on the links, it offered me $42– such a deal!

I did a 7-day free trial (10 percent happier offers a free trial, too), but ended up not buying it. The sleep stories were nice, but I found myself too interested in them to fall asleep. I was really more interested in a meditation-focused app, not a sleep or stress reduction app. But YMMV– a lot of people love Calm. And it’s certainly got all the bells and whistles you would want.

Simple icon, complex world of Calm inside.

5. Finally, there’s one of my favorite stand-by meditation apps: Buddhify. First of all, the name is awesome. Second, it’s cheap– $4.99 for the phone or tablet app. Third, it’s so pretty:

Just looking at this color wheel, opening like a fan, makes me happy.
Just looking at this color wheel, opening like a fan in the app, makes me happy.

Buddhify has the usual varied content, with different voices leading you through a guided meditation. Their approach seems very personable to me; the recordings are part meditation guidance and part therapeutic/friendly reassurance. This is my go-to app when I’m really having trouble sleeping, as I find those voices and words soothing in addition to grounding.

I just saw that Buddhify has an expanded version for $30/year. Here’s one of the features:

Karaoke and meditation together in one app? Done!
Karaoke and meditation together in one app? Done!

Wow. I never thought I’d see the words “karaoke” and “meditation” together in one sentence. But I’m liking it. Maybe not enough to buy the membership, but it’s undeniably cool.

My very unsystematic review has barely scratched the surface of meditation apps. But I hope it offers you some information if you’re looking to get started.

Dear readers: have you used any of these apps? What did you think? Do you have other recommendations? I’d love to hear about them.

Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, week one–Concentration

Hi readers, and welcome to the third installment of FIFI book club’s reading of Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness: a 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation. Each week we’ll offer some reflections as we move through the chapters, and maybe do some of the exercises, too. You are invited to join us, and we’d love to read and respond to any comments you’d like to share.

Last week we read Chapter 2: Why Meditate? You can read about it here. You can read about the intro and chapter 1 here.

This week, which is week 3 of the book club, is week one of actual meditation practice techniques and exercises, called Concentration. Here’s what we thought about it.

First up, Mina:

The first week of the 28-day program that Sharon Salzberg proposes is about concentration. Two short passages struck me in particular: “When our attention is stabilized in this way (i.e. when we concentrate) energy is restored to us” and “Not paying attention keeps us in an endless cycle of wanting. We move on to the next thing because we aren’t really taking in what we already have; inattention creates an escalating need for stimulation.”

In 2018, I took the year off shopping for any clothes, shoes and bags (yes, including workout gear). One of the things that surprised me the most was how much extra time I felt like I had. Not because I had previously been spending hours and hours a week shopping, but because it turned out that a lot of my mind space had been taken up with thinking about new things I wanted or had convinced myself I needed. I was not paying attention to all that I had and my inattention created an escalating need for the stimulus of new things.

Over the course of the year, I felt the effects of my attention stabilizing. Energy was restored to me. By imposing the concentrated discipline of not shopping on myself, I was able to notice how much attention I squandered. Plus, I fostered a whole new (and renewed) appreciation for what was already in my closet. I took extra pleasure in wearing the clothes I loved, over and over again. That year was like a concentrated meditation around my relationship with shopping and reminded me of the power of noticing, the simple act of taking note of what is.

That’s all the book asks of us in Week One. Sit. Notice. No judgment. That said, I found ways to judge myself. For example—inspired by the book, in the spirit of engaging anew with my meditation practice, I decided to increase my daily practice to 20 minutes. Yes, that’s right, my daily meditation is most often only 10 minutes (and yes, there’s one of my self-judgments in that word “only”).

Then, on Saturday (only 4 days after my new resolution), I decided I wanted to pamper myself. I tinted my eyelashes and used the 10-minute waiting period while the dye was on my lashes to meditate. Then I did another 10-minute meditation while my clay and berry face mask dried on my skin. 10 + 10 = 20 minutes. As if my life is so busy, that I need to multitask beauty regimes and meditation. Another self-judgment. So, as recommended in the book, I’m paying attention to that self-talk and releasing it. As Salzberg writes in the takeaway section, I’m being kinder to myself.

Here’s Tracy:

This week I stuck with Week One: Concentration, even though I did that last week. I like the simplicity of this sort of concentration, where I focus on the breath or on sound or on sensation and return to it whenever I notice the mind wandering.

She provides a very straightforward direction that is, to me, the essence of all meditation: “See if you can let go of any distractions and return your attention to the feeling of the breath.” That holds for whatever the focus of the meditation is (it may not be the breath).

It is also very comforting to remember that “once you’ve noticed whatever has captured your attention, you don’t have to do anything about it. Just be aware of it without adding anything to it — without tacking on a judgment…, without interpretation…, without comparisons…, and without projections into the future…” She calls it acknowledging without judging.

It’s all a really good reminder for me of how far I’ve come since I started meditating in 1992 and couldn’t sit quietly for two minutes at a time and thought that meant I was “doing it wrong.” I hear so many people get frustrated with meditation and say it’s not for them because they’re “not a good meditator.” They think a good meditator’s mind is always quiet and never wanders.

For me, over the decades, the key learning in meditation has been all about gaining awareness of the distractions and learning to ease the mind back to the intended focus of attention. That simple practice spills into the rest of my life “off the cushion.” That’s not to say I always live in awareness. But the more I meditate, the more I can carry that practice into my day to day. I am enjoying reconnecting with daily meditation as our book club reads Real Happiness.

Here’s me, Catherine:

Getting started on a new program is always exciting for me. However, a part of that excitement is anticipation and expectation about what will come out of that program, how I will be refreshed, improved, newly chilled and one with the universe. And even though I’ve started and restarted meditation practice many times in my adult life, this summer’s restart found me with the same hopes and pressures and judgments about events or states that hadn’t even occurred yet.

Here is where Sharon Salzberg’s steady and experienced voice comes in, telling us that this practice is just about breathing. And starting over. And paying attention to that cycle, without judgment. I love her recorded meditations– she offers low-key guidance and companionship throughout the 10–15 minutes that I’m sitting. I admit that I haven’t done a lot of unguided solo meditation; I tend to rely on a person or a recording for company in my silence. For right now (and maybe always), that’s just fine.

I have one recorded meditation that’s just bells ringing at the beginning, and at 5-minute intervals up to 30 minutes. Combining that with a hearing meditation (I’ll do this one on my back porch, listening to the wind through the trees) is sometimes very calming. Other times, I feel like I need a voice to remind me of what I’m doing, where I am, directing me to attend or focus on a part of my body or my environment. This week is all about the concreteness of meditation– the here, now, me sitting, me listening, me noticing. And me letting go of judgment. What a relief every time I have a non-judgmental moment!

Here’s Christine:

I’m not fully finished processing my meditation experiences from this week but I have been meditating every day. Some of the time I have been using the meditations from Salzberg’s website but I find those short meditations a little frustrating because she doesn’t really tell you to begin and she doesn’t always tell you to stop. I keep thinking that her initial comments are an introduction before the meditation so I don’t jump in right away. And since there are pauses in her meditation guidance, and since I know she doesn’t always clearly say to stop, I find myself breaking my concentration (the irony!) to see if I am still supposed to be meditating. (Of course, there is also the chance that I am just zoning out at the wrong times and missing part of the instruction, but it is frustrating, either way.)

As for the chapter, I enjoyed her discussion of how our attention gets fragmented in the current world and how meditation may help with that and I liked how she had practical advice for how to deal with common challenges that people face when developing a practice.

One of my favourites is her advice about how to deal with a thought that takes your attention away from your breath. Instead of labelling it with a judgement, she suggests noting that it is ‘not breath’ and returning to focus on the breath instead. There is something beautifully simple about that and it matches a practice I have for my most distracted days. On those hectic, distracted days, I will set a timer that has the label ‘Are you doing what you mean to be doing?’ so that question pops up on my phone screen when the timer goes off. It’s a good and gentle way for me to identify being on task versus being off task. The ‘not breath’ label has the same feeling for me.

I also appreciated her reminders that your meditation practice will include ups and downs, sleepiness, distractions, and so on. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t doing it ‘right’ or that we aren’t making any progress, those things are all part of the practice. I especially appreciated the statement that “…success in mediation is measured not in terms of what is happening to us but by how we relate to what is happening.”

One of Salzberg’s suggestions in this section is to keep a sitting journal. I really liked that idea so I created a little folding record book for myself. She had suggested keeping it this week but that didn’t happen so I am going to keep it for the week ahead instead. Her journal questions involve how you felt during the session and how your emotions are at the end of the day but I am also adding some notes on whether I felt more able to stay on task throughout the day. I’m really curious to see how meditation might influence my capacity in that way.

I have been enjoying my meditations overall – even the long ones – and I am finding relaxation benefits already. When I have done my meditations in the evenings, I find that I get a gentle ‘second wind.’ Not a revved-up, excited feeling but a small boost in well-being that lets me finish my evening in a steady, relaxed manner.

fitness · weight stigma

Once more, for the cheap seats: body weight is NOT a lifestyle

CW: discussion and critique of an article claiming complex associations between body weight (and other factors) and chronic illness. I use the phrase “body weight” or BMI instead of this term. I’ve written here about why I don’t use that term.

When you’re a teacher, you know that some lessons are harder to learn than others. When I was a student, the subjunctive tense in Italian never quite sunk in (mi dispiace!) I teach a lot of logic, and I know through long experience where the pitfalls lie (e.g. necessary vs. sufficient conditions; a not-very-clear explanation is here, and a really super-long explanation is here). We teachers do what we can, and usually the confusion clears by exam time.

I really wish the same were true with medical researchers and body weight.

Even smiley faces are sighing over this.
Even smiley faces are sighing over this.

In case you missed it, I’m referring to an article published this spring in JAMA Internal Medicine called “Association of Healthy Lifestyle with Years Lived Without Major Chronic Diseases”. The researchers were looking for a correlation between some combo of what they considered to be lifestyle factors and onset of major chronic illness in a database of 116K people, followed for 15+ years. Here are the factors they used:

Four baseline lifestyle factors (smoking, body mass index, physical activity, and alcohol consumption) were each allocated a score based on risk status: optimal (2 points), intermediate (1 point), or poor (0 points) resulting in an aggregated lifestyle score ranging from 0 (worst) to 8 (best). Sixteen lifestyle profiles were constructed from combinations of these risk factors.

Okay, so smoking and alcohol intake are standardly considered to be health-related behaviors– things we do that affect our health outcomes (e.g. what diseases we get and when). Physical activity also has been well-documented to affect health outcomes; however, calling it a lifestyle oversimplifies it, for instance ignoring the many physical and economic and other barriers to activity that are beyond people’s control.

But then we get to body mass index (BMI). BMI is listed as a lifestyle factor? Huh?

One of these things is not like the others…

Why don’t I think that BMI is a lifestyle factor? Let me turn this over to one of the several responses to the article, published just this week. Authors Kyle, Nadglowski and Stanford write the following:

Treating BMI as a lifestyle behavior obscures the complex etiologies that contribute to BMI… Perhaps more importantly, it promotes a mistaken notion that is the foundation for weight bias and stigma—that [one’s BMI] is [something] that patients choose for themselves through behaviors they elect. The resulting weight bias is well-documented to harm both health and quality of life of patients [with BMI >30].

Body mass index itself is neither a behavior nor a lifestyle, even though health behaviors and lifestyle factors can influence BMI. Many other factors are contributors. 

Yeah, what they said. There are, oh, about three zillion studies showing that body weight is largely genetic and/or heritable (55–70% in many research papers). That means it’s not a health behavior in the way that smoking, alcohol consumption, or physical activity are. Health behaviors affect body weight (just like they affect our cholesterol levels), but that doesn’t make them lifestyle factors, rather they are biological measures used for many purposes.

The original authors (Nyberg, Singh-Manoux and Kivimaki) respond, saying (I’m excerpting but it’s not out of context, I promise):

Maintenance of healthy weight [BMI <25] is indeed part of a healthy lifestyle…

No. Clearly we need to back up and start again.

Spock is in shock. He doesn’t see how they don’t get this, either.

In this commentary on the article, we get another good try at explaining the situation (this is edited to insert BMI as a term):

Such is the nature of implicit bias about [BMIs >30]. … in their hearts, even some very smart people remain certain that body size must be a matter of choice.

Yes, yes, yes. Very many very smart people (including both the study authors and the editors at JAMA Internal Medicine) still believe that body size is a matter of choice. But it’s not. The replies to this article all cite loads of articles in showing that body size is largely heritable, and if you want some refs, ask me in the comments, and I’ll reply with some standard ones.

So, one last time: body weight is not a lifestyle. But I found this website with 50 lifestyle choices to browse among, if you’re feeling like a change. I claim no responsibility for anything having to do with decisions made on the basis of looking, by the way.

I hope this clears things up.