G is for Gratitude

Aug 13
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

G is for Gratitude

You saw that coming, right?

Recently I was listening to an interview by Dan Buettner who has spent many years researching the Blue Zones, those handful of places on earth where big percentages of the population live over 100 years. He made a statement that surprised me. He said that there is no evidence that practices of gratitude make people live longer or that they significantly improve a person’s level of happiness. That’s interesting, I thought, because I’ve felt chagrined for years struggling with the idea of “gratitude.” Maybe I could let myself off the hook.

Let me clarify. I’ve always found it easy to be grateful TO specific people in my life for the gifts they’ve offered me—in time and material—but a greater understanding of gratitude has often baffled me.

There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you…” Seems like advice you might hear from any number of positive thinking gurus. Almost every self-help author I read encourages us to keep a gratitude journal. But the very idea of gratitude denotes that there is someone to say thank you to. Who? And what about when times are hard? Is it not ludicrous to be grateful for EVERYTHING—even experiences of abuse or injustice as the Bible verse seems to suggest? That’s just denial, right?

Last week, the issue of gratitude came up in my own therapy. My therapist said she sometimes simply feels an overwhelming sense of joyful appreciation, and she thinks of that as gratitude. A light bulb went on for me. “Joyful appreciation!” Now, that makes sense. Joyful appreciation is something I can easily cultivate.

  • For the beauty of this place I live.
  • For my friendships, many of which span decades and have seen me through hard times.
  • For the opportunities life has afforded me.
  • For the chance to contribute to others as a teacher, author, therapist, and coach.

And (here’s where the shift happened at the idea of calling gratitude “joyful appreciation”), I can ALSO find appreciation for the dark moments of unkindess and injustice that have come my way. How can I have joyful appreciation for some of the hardships in my life? Well, not because I condone or accept them, I can tell you that. But I CAN deeply appreciate myself for how I’ve put my hardships to good use. Growing up, my parents were a mess for much of my childhood (details in my next book—for now, take my word for it), and for many years all I felt was pain and disorientation at how my head got screwed on wrong during those years. But in my late twenties and early thirties I made a commitment to heal and to suck every bit of wisdom out of those hard times that I could, to put that wisdom to use for humanity in any way that presented itself. And I’ve spent my entire adult life doing just that. I have viewed my life as a project in making a person out of myself—someone I could trust and rely on and that others could, as well.

There have been some pretty significant setbacks and confusing decisions to make in the course of this project so far, but each setback has required that I re-commit to the experiment. And I have. So, I suppose I can authentically say that some of the “bad” things that have happened to me have given me opportunity to appreciate myself for my own strength and determination—and also to appreciate the way other people have shown up for me.

This week, I’m looking out for things I appreciate as a way of cultivating the feeling of joy inside of me because one thing Dan Buettner did say contributes to long, happy life in the Blue Zones is the lack of “time-urgency.” Slow down and smell the flowers. Let joyful appreciation settle in your body and savor it for a few moments. That’s my plan. What’s yours?

F is for Faith

Jul 14
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

F is for Faith

As I mentioned in “B is for Beliefs,” the meaning of faith has changed for me. I used to have faith “in” something (or Someone). And faith was framed as a cognitive commitment to a series of doctrines. I always struggled to believe some of the things I was taught I should, and my faith suffered for that. Many evangelical tenants require a person to believe things that are incredible, impossible even, for me to agree to. I couldn’t always figure out how to be both faithful AND intellectually honest (that said, I’m not claiming to be perfectly intellectually honest even now—I’m a work in progress).

Hebrews 11:1 in the Bible defines faith this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

I never really understood that definition while I was in the church because the things we were meant to be assured of (eternal life, salvation from our sins) were so hard for me to wrap my mind around. Now, of course, I don’t think one can ever have total assurance of something one hopes for. But this second part of the definition resonates for me these days.

I have plenty of conviction of things not readily seen:

  • My ability to handle, with a roughly sound mind, whatever life throws my direction.
  • My value as a human being even if I am not serving, helping, catering to, placating, or otherwise being useful to someone else.
  • The general goodness of human beings.
  • The certain shadow we humans also carry, both individually and in the collective consciousness.
  • The possibility that humanity can and will evolve to be kinder to one another and to the earth.
  • My ability to grow and expand into greater self-authority and, therefore, into deeper wisdom for my own life.

You may look at this list and think these small convictions, but I don’t think so. If we don’t trust self and life at least a little bit, the only reasonable response is either paralysis or constant vigilance. I have lived with both emotional paralysis and vigilance, holding still and watching for bad things to happen or for people to be mean. And bad things HAVE happened and people HAVE been mean, but these never came from the direction I was watching—always from some unexpected place I didn’t think to look. I can tell you that it’s better to decide to carry optimism and trust around in the body than to live eyes-darting to and fro, ducking from danger.

Faith doesn’t come easily for me unfortunately. I’m not a naturally relaxed person. I worry a lot. I have to recite my chosen convictions to myself often. I say things to myself like, “There are as many people committed to growth as there are those wallowing in hate.” And I look for evidence that SOME things in the world are getting better (women have the vote in municipal elections in Saudi Arabia since 2015, for example), even as so many things look bleak right now. Without closing my eyes to what is dark and needs changing, I choose to practice a state of Faith, and this opens my heart to also see goodness and wholesomeness and to sort out where I can personally take action.

I wonder what faith means to you, reader. I’d love to hear your reflections.

E is for Energy

Jul 11
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

E is for Energy

Maybe the one thing I’ve noticed about my own approach to dealing with the massive number of transitions and losses in my life these past couple of years is the way I’ve sourced my energy. I’ve decided there are two pots of energetic source to draw from: Fear and Presence.

I’ll tell you right now as I write this that where to source my energy to get through the tasks in my day is my biggest struggle—in life. Always has been.

By the time I was a teenager, the landscape of my family was complicated. My mother’s remarriage involved a lot of conflict with her new husband. Then there was a new baby brother she wasn’t equipped to fully take care of, so I was surrogate mother much of the time (Hi Matt. Love you!). By the time I was 14, my stress levels were through the roof. Since my mother and stepfather broke up and got back together again many times the first several years they were married, I never knew when I got home from school if I would find an empty house or if my stepfather would be there waiting for me.

My stepfather and I didn’t have a good relationship. He was young (only about 14 years older than I), unprepared to raise four children, perhaps confused about the marriage he’d found himself in. I don’t know all that might have been going on for him; what I do know is that he was a loose cannon. Sometimes he was chatty and seemed to want to befriend me while other times he cruelly bullied me, even physically struck out in violence periodically.

During my high school years, the one time of each day that struck fear into me was walking down our street after school. The bus dropped me off at the top of the block and my house was second from the end of the cul-de-sac. I had to pass about ten sets of homes to get to my end of the street, but I couldn’t see our driveway until I was only two houses away. I didn’t know until I was nearly home whether or not his car was in the driveway.

A slow tension built in my body as I walked that 150 yards each weekday. My chest tightened, and my stomach grew sour. I could feel myself rounding my shoulders to protect my heart. If the car was there, I would prepare to put my head down and walk straight for my room. If the house was empty, I would spread out and relax before my brothers arrived from their middle and elementary school busses. During that walk, I was suspended between fear and relaxation—not knowing which energy I would need to present with.

Many years later, I’ve found myself in a similar suspension. I needed to transform my life, but so many things had to be put in place. And then the deaths set me into grief. I find that too often, I round my shoulders and draw from fear to keep me moving through. Fear generates my motivation to go to work. Fear urges me to pay my bills. Fear motivates me to go to the doctor. Fear is at work in zillions of decisions. I move through the day preventing bad things from happening. And then I find there is no energy for joy or play or relaxation.

Sometimes, though, I can still the voices of fear and bring a laser focus to this very moment of time—to the life that exists right NOW, before anything bad has happened. Right NOW where this breath, the computer on my lap, the dog on the bed next to me, the clothes strewn around the room, the sun coming in the window, the sound of distant traffic, and the bird chirping on the fence outside my window is all there is. I can notice the aftertaste of coffee and feel of my glasses perched on the bridge of my nose. And I can draw from this moment right NOW to move me to… this next moment right NOW. The motivation to move into the next moment is only that the next moment is what arrives.

And here, right NOW, my chest cavity opens. I notice I’m not afraid because I’m not looking for a metaphorical car in the driveway. Not waiting for a shoe to drop. Can’t stop those shoes from dropping anyway, can we?

Here in this moment, enough energy is only needed to BE, not to produce or generate or fix or heal or… anything.

I’m practicing this laser focus in the mornings before I get started on my massive “to do” list because this is a better pot to draw from.

 

 

D is for Death

Jul 9
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

D is for Death

“When conditions are sufficient things manifest. When conditions are no longer sufficient things withdraw. They wait until the moment is right for them to manifest again.”
― Thich Nhat HanhNo Death, No Fear

You’ll think the subject of death a strange choice for someone who is focusing on “vitality” words. I would have thought so too until yesterday.

In the morning I got a sudden flurry of texts with bad news. A dear friend passed away. Suddenly. During the night. Alone in her home. She wasn’t even 60 yet. I want to tell you more about her, but I see that her family hasn’t posted anything about her passing on social media yet, so I’m not going to tell you her name or share identifying stories about her at this time. I’ll only say she’s someone I’ve blogged about before and she’s as dear to me as can be.

I was shocked by the news, and at first I wept for myself with pity that death had visited loss on me again. Too many losses in the last two years have left me raw, dangling at the edge of depression.

As the day wore on, I vacillated between tears and numbness. Then in the early evening, as I loaded my dishwasher and took care of a few other household tasks to give my mind some relief from heaviness, I began remembering several instances when my friend had comforted me during sad moments. And times when we’d collapsed into laughter together. Times when she’d depended on me for support. Times when she’d mocked my seriousness in exactly the right way at the right time. Memory after memory flooded in. Our friendship was an uncomplicated gift from beginning to end. Most of us don’t get many like that.

I felt a sudden rush of joy. Surprised, I sat down and let the feeling in and then I had an experience like nothing I’ve had before. My friend’s energy was in the room with me. I’m not saying her disembodied spirit was there—I’m not claiming she was literally visiting me (who knows?). What I’m saying is that I had conjured her laughter, simplicity, and salt-of-the-earth generosity with my memories.

My friend and I had run A LOT of miles together over the years. Out on the trail we talked about everything. From frivolous to grave, our conversations meandered. I can’t think of many topics we didn’t touch on at some point because we had so much time for wandering trains of thought. Because of this, I knew what she believed about death. I knew she wasn’t afraid of it. Expected an afterlife. Held that she would see loved ones again. In fact, she was one of the few people I’ve ever believed when she claimed not to be afraid of dying. Her phrase was, “When it’s my time, I’ll go,” and she made decisions in her life based on that assertion.

This morning as I woke (unlike yesterday morning when I received the news), I could feel myself making peace with death himself. He visits EVERY SINGLE ONE of us. Usually he comes many times for those around us before he brings us to the end of our own lives. He visits us because it is his only job. Everyone you know and everyone I know will transition out of this life. With my friend’s passing, I’m seeing that I can’t be happy unless I stop standing in front of this ocean, stop trying to keep back the coming tide with my hands held in front of me like a police officer directing traffic to halt. For the most part, dying isn’t in our control, so we waste our precious life resisting it, don’t we?

Something opened up in my chest yesterday. Today I’m breathing in gratitude for what has been instead of grief for what will not be. I know my friend would prefer this perspective. Gratitude is how she guided her life.

C is for Calm

Jul 8
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

C is for Calm

I lay on a beach towel on the warm, white sand and let the sun glaze my skin. Waves wash ashore gently, and I am in a state between waking and sleeping—totally serene, totally at ease. Nothing in my body is activated and ready to defend because THERE IS NO DANGER, real or perceived. This is a state of calm.

I remember these few moments while traveling to Panama. We had taken a side trip to one of the Bocas del Toro islands and I was committed to total relaxation for a few days.  That moment on the beach when, surrounded by nothing but warm air and the sound of palm tree leaves rustling and ocean waves lapping, is the safe place I go in my mind after my therapist and I do deep work to heal painful memories.

The opposite of calm is where I’ve lived most of my life. Oh, I know how to look centered (another “C” word) on the outside, but much of the time I am fighting to keep my equilibrium. Don’t get me wrong, my inner life isn’t utter turmoil and writhing, but my set point has been a certain amount of constant vigilance. Why? Well, not to blame my parents, but the truth is that I was born into a very, very, very activated context. I can imagine how scary life must have been for two teenagers foisted into parenthood before their brains were even fully developed.

My earliest memories were of screaming matches between my parents. Father drinking, mother flailing her arms and throwing things across the room in desperate anger. Chaos. In one fight, my mother threw a full glass of milk at my dad’s head. He ducked, but was doused by the splatter when the glass hit the wall. Then, my usually passive father came after her with a whole carton, set on dumping it over her head. My mother screamed at all of us to run into the laundry room, where we huddled, holding the door shut by shoving the massive piles of dirty laundry up against it until my dad calmed down.

Moments like that—especially when many such moments are strung together over a childhood—change a child’s brain, you know? Her emotional thermometer will be set for “watch for anger, stay out of the way of danger.” And CALM becomes illusive.

Since my first foray into a therapist’s office thirty years ago, I came to understand that my neuropathways were formed around fear. Never mind blame, okay? I don’t blame either of my parents for their unskillful approach to childrearing, and I know they did the best they could, but that does not change what happened to the brain. The brain doesn’t calm down just because we forgive. The parasympathetic nervous system learns its lessons young and, though we consciously make efforts to gain insight into the past, insight does not change the body’s clenching when someone throws something or when an angry face scowls at you.

What then? How to gain calm?

Picture yourself on a beach with the sun glazing your skin. Nothing to be afraid of. No place to go. See the serenity of your surroundings and direct the shoulders, chest, forehead to relax.

Calm, I am FINALLY finding out (bummer I didn’t learn this in therapy school), comes through the body, not the mind. Polyvagal theory explains this: that perceived danger first activates fight/flight, then shutdown. But if we can regulate the response of the nervous system through self-soothing or what is called “co-regulation” with a trusted other person who is present to support, then calm is the result.

Nowadays, I am regularly taking time away from everything (even if it means some things don’t get done) and regulating my breathing, relaxing my muscles, and lying on the beach.

Try it. Can you feel the calm?