Category Archives: Musings

Spring is the Season of Failure

by Heather McIver, L.Ac

In most cultures above the equator, Spring is the season of new beginnings. Baby animals are born, seeds lying dormant underground begin pushing sprouts upward, trees begin to clothe their limbs in blooms. And with those vulnerable new beginnings come threats of failure. Hawks and snakes love young birds and bunnies; large rocks or burning sun can thwart young sprouts; a late frost can decimate a tree’s attempt at fruition.  And yet the plants and animals keep trying. Somehow, despite these threats to life, the tree doesn’t refuse to bloom and birds keep laying eggs.

If you pay attention, you may notice that for humans, spring brings new ideas, new excitement, outrageous projects. Spring fever is not just about romance…it also exemplifies that ascension of Qi that makes us feel invincible, as if we can accomplish anything. We relish the speed with which we can travel to work, the windows open to feel the warming air, our favorite music blaring, the bright colors of green and pink and white trees against the blue sky…spring awakens the senses and we feel connected to everyone and everything. Until we see the blue lights behind us and realize that in our ecstatic appreciation of the world, we let the speedometer creep to 80.

All of a sudden, all that expansive everything-is-perfect feeling drops with a thud into the pit of the stomach, curse words leap out of our mouths uncontrollably, and now the conversation in our head turns mean. “You idiot,” it says, as it runs through all the consequences this mistake will have.  When we are speeding along toward a goal, excited about new possibilities, there are inevitable failures along the way. Getting where we’re going requires us to become friendly with our failures.

Failure is part of the experience of being alive. It’s what happens the moment you engage with the world. As adults, many of us find ways to avoid failure as much as possible. Some of us choose to never take on anything we might not do perfectly. Instead, we spend our time changing channels on the TV, or we get competent at one thing and never bother to try anything new. Some of us try new things but then work so hard that we sacrifice our time, money, health and relationships to be sure we don’t fail.

Children, however, are very good at failure. They fall down. They get up. They drop the ball, they pick it up. They fail to get your attention, they scream louder. They don’t attach any significance to failure, they just keep pushing on.

I wish I remembered the exact moment at which I made failure mean something. At some point—maybe around age 8 or 10 or 13—missing the mark went from “oops, missed. I’ll try again.” To “OMG, I’m stupid!  I can’t do anything! I’ll mess up everything I ever do and die miserable and alone!”

It’s so easy to take our failures as something definitive of our very personhood. “I can’t dance/ sing/ draw/ act…I’m not any good at that.”  What you really mean is that you tried to dance/sing/draw/act once and you got some feedback that didn’t feel very good, and in your attempt to never feel that particular way again, you resolved to forevermore avoid the catalyst for that feedback.  But what if, like children, we allowed ourselves a good cry and then danced again anyway?

Pema Chodron gave a speech at Naropa Institute in 2014 when her granddaughter was graduating. She borrowed a quote from Samuel Beckett who said, “Fail! Fail Again! Fail Better!”  She said learning how to be with failure was perhaps the most important life lesson to learn. In her usual soft manner, she encourages us to “get curious” about how it feels to fail. She reminds us not to admonish ourselves too much, not to blame others too much, not to drown the bad feelings in food or drugs or alcohol—but to sit with them and observe how they move and sway and come and go. To let them be there. Only in the recognition of something’s presence can you actually let it go.

She describes her first meeting with her Buddhist teacher*. Her second marriage had just ended in divorce. She said, “My life is over. I have hit the bottom. I don’t know what to do. Please help me.”

He said, “Well, it’s a lot like walking into the ocean, and a big wave comes and knocks you down. And you find yourself lying on the bottom with sand in your nose and in your mouth. And you are lying there, and you have a choice. You can either lie there, or you can stand up and start to keep walking out to sea.”

If you are walking into the ocean, you will get knocked down sometimes. It’s nothing personal. It’s not particularly noble. And maybe some wonderful insight will come from having sand in your face…or maybe not. It’s just what the ocean does. Success and failure is what life does.

So when your kid doesn’t make it on the team, or your best friend doesn’t get the promotion she worked so hard for, don’t try to be helpful. Don’t suggest what they could do better next time or feed into malicious gossip about the person who did succeed. Don’t try to problem-solve or to cheer them up. Instead, allow them the freedom to be in pain. You can say, “I’m so sorry, I know you are disappointed.”  Be the space in which they can let the sadness, anger, resentment, self-pity wash over and through them. Given space, these emotions will move out of their own accord.

Just like a tree will send out blooms again, we all have an innate desire to move forward in life – to create – to make a difference. That desire has its own momentum. Once we can get our minds out of the way, it will take over. It will pull us off the ocean floor and point us in the direction of the horizon.

* Chodron, Pema. (2015). Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better.  Sounds True, Inc. pp 77-79. 

 

 

Aligning with the Seasons: Winter to Spring

by Debby Jennings, L.Ac.

As I sit on this rainy and blustery day, I ponder Spring……….the season and the Five Element correspondences.  This past year has been my first at Stillpoint.  It has been a great year, filled with both challenges and rewards I didn’t know were possible.  I began this journey with a ‘wait and see’ attitude.  Over the year I have come to know many of you and am so delighted to be a part of this journey with you.  As with life, the more we ‘practice’ our trade, the more we learn AND the more questions we tend to have.  As I embark on this year, I have closed some doors and wait for a brief time before closing other ones which have outlived their potential to create joy and inspiration for me.  The journey with Chinese medicine continues to inspire me and push me deeper into the study of this ancient form of healing.

This winter has been a challenge for many of us with the bitter cold.  My garden was decimated by this harsh winter and I am forced to visit the grocer for my normal yard food.  By February each year, I can hardly stand one more minute of cold and dark.  I want to push the spring into NOW.  The wind stirs things up, bringing an impatience to be outside, to get my hands in the dirt and to spring into new growth.

Spring is associated with the Wood element in Five Element acupuncture.  It is ‘green’, the taste of ‘sour’, ‘wind’, the sound of ‘shout’, the smell of rancid, the emotion of both benevolence and frustration/anger, the pushy movement of growth upward and forward.

For those who either have their ‘home-base’ in Wood or who have a good deal of ‘wood’ in their temperament we understand frustration and anger.  Anger gets a ‘bad’ rap in our culture.  It seems to be either everywhere or covered over with the ‘genteel teaching of being nice’.  Anger is a moving energy……….taking us out of our stuck-ness and darkness and bringing opportunities for new growth.

If we ignore these opportunities, we fall into depression and desolation.  If we can learn to navigate the difficult feelings of frustration and anger, looking deep within ourselves, we can see the place we need to grow toward.  We are like trees, standing upright and yearning to move toward the light.  If our forest is too heavily populated, we may have ‘leaners’ weighing us down, holding us back.  If we are too solitary, we risk destruction by wind and harsh storms.  Isn’t it true in life also?  We need to find our place of balance and the things/people/places and activities which nourish us and help us to grow into wiser humans.

In these last weeks of winter, take time to ponder the direction of your growth for this coming year.  Do you need to spend more time near the water or in the woods?  Do you need to move more or rest more?  How will you begin to get a handle on your stress and life’s demands?  How can you ask your companions on this ‘yellow brick road’ to help, or to give you time for solitude, or to share the burdens and the joys?  One of my favorite things is a bit of art by Mary Engelbreit entitled “Don’t Look Back”.  It reminds me of Dorothy on her journey to Oz.  The girl in the picture is at a fork in the road.  The sign for one direction says “No longer an option” and in the other direction “Your Life”.  The girl has her bundle over her shoulder, suitcase in one hand and is striding solidly forward down the path to her new life.

Each spring beckons us to push forward to new life and new growth.  Use this Wood energy of spring to help propel you forward.  As the days lengthen and the weather warms, eat dandelion, chickweed and wild violets to clear the Liver from heavy foods (be sure they are coming from a yard not poisoned by chemicals).  Drink kombucha and lemon water.  Move more and sit less.  Go outside to ‘play’ and lie down on the earth to infuse your body with the energy of Spring.  And take whatever steps you need to grow in whatever direction you deem best for yourself.  We are here to support you on the journey.

Perspective: The Gift of Chinese Medicine     

As you can see from testimonials and our post “Why We Do What We Do,” Chinese Medicine can offer relief and hope for people with a wide variety of physical and emotional symptoms. And yet, it has become very clear over the past couple of months is that Chinese Medicine also offers something which can be equally as healing: a new perspective.
With it’s emphasis on taking action at the appropriate times and maintaining balance among opposing forces, CM reminds us that we don’t have to be moving all the time. Mary Saunders’ lovely little book, “Rhythms of Change,” describes how Chinese Medicine can inform and direct different phases of life. Adjusting our outlook, activities and energies to align with the seasons is one of the foundational tenets of Chinese Medicine.  It’s this perspective that I find so life-changing for those of us steeped in the current culture of “never-let-up, work harder, no matter what.”
Too many people have come in lately burdened by impossible expectations set by themselves and others. A stay-at-home mom exhausting herself with volunteer commitments, corporate employees being asked to work 12 hour days even through the holidays, folks pushing themelves to meet expectations of extended family. Winter is exactly the time to politely decline these invitations to over-extend ourselves.  The earth’s energy and ours is moving down and in now. While it’s natural to be more engaged and outgoing in Spring and Summer, doing so now is contrary to your body’s natural inclination. Too much work in the winter prevents the body from restoring itself and can lead to fatigue, illness and what some like to call “adrenal burnout.”
Use this season to re-evaluate how much you push yourself past your mental and physical limits.  In the long run, who is this serving? Take advantage of the cold weather to pull inward, conserve your energy and look deeply to decide what tasks you perform are truly necessary and/or energy-giving and which are simply too draining.
Following the same principle Marie Kondo presents in her bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” ask yourself if the tasks, jobs, people to which you give energy  “Spark Joy?” If not, consider eliminating or down-sizing them. If you’re in a job you don’t enjoy, but feel dependent on it for income, find joy in the money it provides or a co-worker you have fun with. If it’s the house-cleaning that makes you crazy or the numerous social engagements on nights you’d rather stay in with a book…ask yourself which of those are truly necessary and which can be postponed or hired out or ignored altogether.
The bottom line is that rest and relaxation is important. It’s OK to do nothing sometimes. You don’t need to apologize for it. Only by taking a step back can the sculptor see what she’s creating.  Only by pulling nutrients down into the roots and sacrificing a few smaller branches can the tree survive winter to bloom passionately again in spring.

Creating the Right Environment for Health: How Chinese Medicine is like Organic Gardening

chinese-herbsChinese medicine operates from the belief that the body possesses its own innate ability to heal, and that disease symptoms manifest when elemental energies are out of balance. When proper balance is restored, health is the natural result. Not long after I began to study Chinese medicine, I noticed a similarity between how human health is cultivated in this ancient system and how an organic gardener promotes health in plants.

Organic gardening uses natural methods to promote the plant’s powers of growth and healing. In a general sense, chemical gardening follows the approach to health used by Western medicine. An organic gardener ensures a plant reaches its full potential by making sure that the elemental energies the plant depends upon are in a relative state of balance. Temperature, moisture, ph and the gases and minerals in the soil must be in balance for the health and optimal functioning of the organism.

When trying to control a pest population in a garden, there are two ways to proceed. The organic gardener would make sure that the diversity of plants in the garden brought about the right balance of insects in order to control pest populations. They might introduce predatory insects that would feed off the bugs eating the plants without harming the plants themselves. They would also make sure that the soil was well balanced, so that the immunity of the plants is strong. Strong plants can fight off the pests on their own.

In another approach, the conventional gardener might spray the plants with chemicals to kill the pests. This may be effective in the short term, but does not ultimately solve the problem, because it does not address the reason the pest infestation arose in the first place. It may also cause other problems down the road. Modern medicine has such value, especially in emergency situations. But similar to chemical gardening, it can produce unwanted side effects, and does not always deal with the underlying causes of disease.

You may be asked questions by your Chinese medicine practitioner that seem entirely unrelated to the reason you are seeking treatment. Questions like “Do you have an intolerance for cold weather, or get cold hands and feet”? “Do you get hot flashes, or sweating at night”? We ask these questions because every symptom in Chinese medicine is understood in a larger context. Your answers to these questions help us understand how to treat your back pain or your headaches. Chances are that your treatment will be very different from another person’s treatment even if they have very similar complaints.

We look at the environment in which you are growing and try to help you adjust your internal and external influences so that you can be stronger and more resistant to disease. Much like an organic gardener, we hope to support your own natural healing power by bringing all the elements into balance.

–Jesse Andreas, L.Ac.

The Value in Taking a Break…

More and more I see people who are overwhelmed, overworked, stressed out and exhausted. I know this feeling very well. In 2013, circumstances required me to work very, very hard. Even though these circumstances were temporary, and even though I was really having fun during the excitement of it all, by 2014 I was completely exhausted. The enthusiasm I carried for my work was gone. My curiosity was dulled. My thinking became unclear. That is when I knew I needed a break. Fortunately, I was in a position that allowed me to take six months off. During that time I slept (a lot!), read, meditated, played with my kids and studied. As a result, I came back to work invigorated and with a new sense of purpose. Because I had been able to take a step back, I now see things more clearly than before. I think more creatively, and work with more confidence.

Often, I see people in this same situation. Because our culture tends to view needing a break as weakness, they are looking for a treatment or a pill or a diet that will allow them to keep moving forward.  It’s as if they are frantically trying to keep up with a speeding train, and there is no station in sight. Typically, these folks know exactly what they need. They might need some time away, help with a project, some quality time with a friend or a spouse–maybe even to find work more suited to their strengths and interests.  

This is lesson number one: “You know what you need.”

If you stop long enough to look deeply, if you can cut through the social conditioning and work ethic and delve into your own mind-body wisdom, the solution is there.

Unfortunately, even once we recognize these solutions, we don’t often perceive them as available to us. I was in the same boat–since I was the only practitioner in one of my offices, I thought it would be impossible to take time off without closing that office completely. This thought–which I held to be ultimate truth–prevented me from looking for solutions. Then one day, it occurred to me that my health was at stake.

I remembered a story a friend had told me about the busiest period of her life. She had three young children, she worked as a nurse, she volunteered, she was busy all the time. She said, “I was just nonstop. Until one day I went nonstop through a stop sign and plowed into another car.”  That accident landed her in the hospital for 5 months.

So as soon as I decided that time off wasn’t a choice, I opened my mind to possible solutions. I made a few phone calls, sent a few emails, and within 24 hrs had work coverage for the next 6 months.

Which leads me to lesson number two: taking a break makes you more productive.  

One of the main excuses I hear from folks who are working too hard is “I just need to get through_____, and then I can slow down a little.” We know that the more likely scenario is that another more important or more compelling situation will present itself as soon as the current one is over. Or we know that even though we say we will take a break once this busy time is over, we probably won’t. And the myth is that if we stop to smell the roses, we will lose our momentum and therefore our productivity. This is simply untrue. I say, stop the train before the train stops you.

One of my teachers used to say, “Giving 100% is killing you.”  Another famous acupuncturist who is known for getting pain relief immediately once needles are placed says, “when you get 80% improvement–STOP! Otherwise you’ll screw it all up.”  His point is that after that 80% threshold, the amount of work we put in produces fewer and poorer quality results. Many productivity experts recommend working about 50 minutes of every hour, and then getting up to take a walk or otherwise get some distance from whatever you were working on. This applies to both mental and physical work. If you work at a computer, stop and walk around for a bit or maybe close your eyes and listen to music. If you are doing physical work, stop and rest or read some poetry. In other words, Let your brain re-fuel.

It is common practice in academia to take a sabbatical, and this concept is becoming more accepted across disciplines. Designer Stefan Sagmeister takes one year off every seven years in order to step back from his design work and reinvigorate his creativity. In his wonderful TED talk, he says something like “we in the West plan for about 40 years of work and 15 years of retirement, so I just decided to cut off 5 of those retirement years and intersperse them throughout my work years. This way the energy generated flows back into the business and to society at large. And at the same time, I have more fun.”

There was a great article in the Harvard Business Review back in 2007 which talked about increasing productivity, creativity and innovation by encouraging employees to take care of themselves. It’s called “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time.”  The article talks about top-down workplace change, but also points out that “individuals need to recognize the costs of energy-depleting behaviors and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of the circumstances they are facing.”  In other words, whether you are the CEO or the line worker, there will be small and large things you can do to take a break and restore your energy.

For inspiration, look to nature. Waves surge and then withdraw. Storms rage and then the sun shines. Birds work hard to climb away from earth, and then glide on the wind. Bees have an incredible and difficult work schedule, but then spend the winter huddling together inside, resting and staying warm. Plants create beautiful flowers and berries and leaves at an incredible pace, but during winter they rest deeply. These are natural cycles of productivity and recuperation. When we ignore these cycles, not only does our health and vitality suffer–but our WORK and CREATIVITY suffer.

“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.”

Lao Tzu

Don’t exhaust your caterpillar before the butterfly has a chance to emerge! Listen to the signals indicating a break is needed:

  • becoming more easily distracted
  • tasks take longer to do than they used to
  • things that used to be fun aren’t anymore
  • feeling fatigued
  • re-reading the same sentence
  • becoming easily irritable
  • feeling something is missing in life
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • losing interest in things
  • reaching for the coffee or energy drinks as a way to “get through”
  • increased alcohol consumption
  • memory problems

In order to begin to recover your energy, you could make drastic moves like quitting your job, but that may just add more stress in the long run. So you could start by trying out small changes.  The possibilities are endless, and here are just a few suggestions:

Hourly (pick one or two)

  •      Set a timer for 50 min and spend the last 10 min of every hour taking a walk or even a nap.
  •     Close your eyes and breathe deeply for 30 seconds.
  •     Go outside. It’s amazing how this can change your perspective.
  •     Chat with a friend or coworker and not about work.
  •     Write down the one most important thing to accomplish in the next hour.
  •     Read poetry.
  •     Listen to music.
  •     Stand up and stretch.
  •     Read an inspirational quote.
  •     Admire a piece of art.
  •     Stare into space or out the window.
  •     Doodle

Daily (do as many as you can)

  •     Spend a little time writing / meditating / or staring into space
  •     Exercise a little — enough to feel your heart pumping, but not so much that it’s like a second job.
  •     Eat meals without working at the same time.
  •     Answer emails only twice a day.
  •     Notice your propensity to complain about things and begin to change that. Complain only to people who have the power to change things or to people who can truly help you see a way to change things.
  •     Turn your phone off for at least one hour, or while you are working on a task that requires focus.
  •     Do your best to sleep well.
  •     Be diligent about negative self-talk. Change the story.

Weekly 

  •     Plan at least some time reserved for “whatever the heck I feel like doing.” Put in on your calendar. Make it mandatory.
  •     Spend time outdoors.
  •     Do something silly–dance in your pajamas.
  •     Do something that makes you feel connected to God, the universe, the world around you.
  •     Be completely present with your kids or a good friend.

Yearly

  •     Plan at least one vacation…even if you just plan to stay at home but not work. If you can, plan some time off every quarter. Even if each break is shorter, they may prove more rejuvenating, and you’ll have more to look forward to.
  •     Spend a week tracking how you spend your time. How does this reflect what is important to you?
  • Spend some time in self-examination. Take the strength-finders test or some other personality test. Quit trying to fix your perceived flaws and instead develop your innate talents.
  •     Spend a week or even a day “disconnected.” What is it like to not have your thoughts interrupted six times an hour?
  •     Better yet, turn off the power in your house for a day. Live by sunlight and candle-light. Enjoy the silence.
  •     Go for a hike, go camping, go sailing or fishing.
  •     Sleep for a whole day.
  •     Go on a retreat — this could be a formal structured retreat or just some time away by yourself.
  •     Review your accomplishments. For one moment, forget all that there is left to do. Forget all that didn’t go the way you had planned. Forget the failures. Make a list of everything you accomplished from work projects completed to an exercise program in place to overcoming some negative behavior or thought pattern. Then just be with the success of that.
  • Take a scenic train ride…just for fun. Make sure it’s a leisurely one!

–Heather McIver, L.Ac.