What do you do for yourself that makes you feel most alive? When does your excitement for something shine so brightly that those around you can feel it? When is the last time you remember feeling passionately engaged with a creative project, a piece of music, or even a meal? Working in holistic healthcare, I think about this a lot. When I reflect on what it means to help someone work toward their health goals, this is always in the back of mind. What is the point of striving for health if not to achieve some level of joie de vivre, a joy for living?
In order to thrive we must be connected to ourselves. These days, with the stressors of modern life and constant demands on our attention, sustaining a healthy level of self-connection is a real challenge. Relationships are hard. Work is hard. Making big decisions is hard. Engaging in a world that has a skewed definition of success in general is hard. Feeling truly connected socially in a world that is increasingly oriented toward devices & media is leaving us overwhelmed, anxious, and malnourished. Naming these stressors is important if we are to see clearly how distracted we are from tending to our inner life.
In an excellent episode of On Being with Krista Tippett there is a heartwarming discussion about what it takes to thrive. Her guest, Esther Perel, discusses her life as the granddaughter of holocaust survivors and how that led to her current work as a couples therapist. In the episode she talks about asking her clients what they do for themselves that makes them feel most alive.
I have been asking myself that question routinely since listening to that episode and I encourage you to ask it of yourself. What do you do for yourself that makes you feel most alive?
For me, I feel most alive when I take a long walk by the water, make time to read or write, spend quality time with my family, and listen to or play music. In stark contrast, I feel less alive when I spend my time binge-watching TV (no matter how good of a show it is), scrolling social media, or eating an entire bag of cookies. I like doing all those things, but they don’t leave me feeling more alive.
In Chinese medicine, each organ system has a spiritual/emotional function. From this perspective, what enlivens us nourishes our hearts. When the heart-spirit is well nourished, we feel calmly excited, engaged and passionate about our lives. When our heart-spirit is lacking proper nourishment we feel depressed, tired, anxious, or manic. If you feel this way, you may need a walk in the woods, to get caught up on sleep, to spend quality time with friends, or to eat a nourishing meal in peace & quiet.
If you are struggling to find a way to get out of old patterns that keep you from feeling truly alive, please reach out for help to someone who cares about you, a good counselor or me.
Several years ago when I began studying Qigong as part of my East Asian Medicine training, I was surprised when my teacher encouraged us to yawn while practicing the repetitive and meditative movements. He had noticed the embarrassment of those of us in the class who had begun to yawn repeatedly and quickly pointed out that yawning was a sign we were actually doing the exercises correctly. He heartily reassured us that yawning was a key to deep relaxation and letting go of stress and tension. This was readily accepted by the exhausted and over-worked students in the class.
All vertebrates yawn. Even fish. And yet it is only we humans who learn to suppress such a natural phenomenon, led to believe yawning publicly is a rude demonstration of our disinterest or tiredness. As it turns out, not only is routinely suppressing your yawning detrimental to your health, yawning regularly throughout the day is really good for you.
Oscitation (yawning) and pandiculation (simultaneous yawning & stretching) have been shown to help regulate the temperature of the brain, which in turn can help reduce inflammation in the nervous system. It also releases a host of beneficial neurochemicals including oxytocin and dopamine.
Yawning plays an important role in helping us to transition from sleep to wakefulness and vice versa, and also in calming our nervous system and regaining mental clarity. It is also one of the only mechanisms that deeply stretches and relaxes the deep muscles in the face and inner ear.
So I encourage you to practice yawning. Yawn in the morning, yawn in the evening. Yawn at work when you’re feeling stressed and tired. Yawn to relax. Yawn to spread the joy of yawning. You’ll be doing those around you a favor!
The primary conceptual foundation of East Asian medicine is the theory of Yin & Yang, which describes the dualistic nature of everything in the universe. Yin-Yang theory is at the root of what makes East Asian medicine such a powerful tool for healing. It’s what gives our medicine its diagnostic power and ability to discern the root cause of disease, and is at the core of what ties together concepts about our physical health with our destiny and spirit.
So what are Yin & Yang? Here’s a short video that covers the basics of Yin-Yang theory:
As John Bellaimey summarizes in this video, well-being is achieved when there is a healthy juxtaposition between Yin & Yang. Practically speaking, Yin & Yang could be thought of as Being & Doing. When we are sleeping, playing, relaxing, resting, or eating we are in a relatively receptive state (being). When we are exercising, working, studying, or networking we are relatively active (doing).
Differentiating Yin from Yang moment by moment is key to finding greater physical & mental health. “Yin-Yang differentiation” is a phrase to describe this practice coined by my Taiji master, Harrison Moretz, founder of the Taoist Studies Institute in Seattle, WA. In fact, the primary reason for practicing Taiji is to practice Yin-Yang differentiation by gaining a deeper understanding of when our body is moving and when it is at rest. Over time, this process slowly reveals how receptivity and activity mutually engender one another.
With the practice of differentiating Yin & Yang comes a gradual unwinding of old patterns of disharmony and disease. Patterns of “chronic being” (an excess of Yin—such as not exercising for long periods of time) and patterns of “chronic doing” (an excess of Yang) begin slowly to unwind as healthy differentiation of Yin & Yang evolves.
Finding a more nuanced balance between Yin & Yang is a practice that brings greater health, well-being, and inner-connectedness. The intersection between physical and psychospiritual health is at the core of East Asian medicine. Acupuncture and herbal medicine may play an important role in helping to correct long term imbalances in your health. I am always available to offer what I can and to help coordinate your care if you’re in need of tools outside my scope of practice.
Practicing gratitude serves to refocus the mind on what is abundant as opposed to what is lacking. It helps to balance out the mind’s incessant craving for satisfying needs and desires, bringing us more awareness and appreciation of what it is we already have in our life.
Mounting research in the realm of positive psychology and psychoneuroimmunology demonstrates time and time again that regular practice in feeling and expressing gratitude helps to support our health, build resilient relationships, and increase overall happiness. A grateful attitude tends to lead people to feel more positive, less stressed, more likely to eat well & exercise, and get better sleep.
Below are a few ideas for how to incorporate gratitude into your daily life. With any of these practices, prioritize taking time to experience the feeling of gratitude in your heart before rushing on to the next thing. It is important not to let gratitude become yet another obligation in your life, but to really experience it in your body. With practice, this can be done in a matter of seconds.
Notice: Just take time to notice things throughout your day that you feel thankful for. This could be a tree, the fresh air, the minimal amount of email in your inbox one morning, or for someone who took the time to help you with something. Just noticing your own internal feeling of gratitude and the happiness that results is a powerful practice. For more on the power of noticing, click here.
Write thank you notes: If you’re feeling grateful for someone who has helped you out or just generally appreciating their presence in your life, send a little note of thanks to them. Email them, text them or even write a card and mail it to them.
Gratitude Journal: Keep a journal in which you write down a few things each evening that you felt grateful for that day. Slow down to experience the feelings that arise as you write your entry.
Tell someone what you’re feeling grateful for: Whether this is something about them or just that you’re feeling grateful to have had another day to breathe fresh air and take in a sunset, telling someone how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing can be a great way to deepen your awareness of gratitude and to connect with a friend or loved one.
Gratitude & Food: A wonderful way to experience gratitude throughout your day is to take a minute before you eat a meal to imagine all the people involved in making your meal possible. Sit down in front of your meal and admire the food you’re about to eat. Imagine everyone involved in the preparation of that meal. This could include the person who prepared it, the farmers who grew the veggies, grains, and/or raised the meat, the truck drivers who brought the ingredients to your local grocer. The list can get long in quickly, but just enjoy making time to thank all those involved in your meal and notice how you feel afterward.
Watch this Ted Talk:
More on Gratitude:
David Steindl-Rast’s on On Being with Krista Tippett (Unedited version recommended!)
There is a saying in the world of palpation-based acupuncture that healing happens in the empty spaces. No matter the acupuncture points being used in a treatment, the goal of any skilled practitioner is to carefully locate the empty space within the channel because therein lies the most potential to affect positive change. From a biomedical perspective, the “empty space” is analogous to the interstitial spaces in which there is the greatest potential for enhancing biochemical processes.
Take this core idea as a metaphor for a moment: healing happens in the empty spaces. How might this be true for you in your life? For many people, healing often happens when things are at their most calm and quiet. This could be within one’s body or in relationships with friends and family members. When thoughts and strong emotions fade away, a healing conversation may finally take place because caring and attentive listening was able to arise for one or both parties. This concept also applies to situations wherein a physical condition only truly heals with rest and proper nourishment.
Below is a quote from twentieth century Dutch theologian and priest, Henri J.M. Nouwen. He speaks wisely to this concept of emptiness as being full of healing potential.
“We are all healers who can reach out to offer health, and we all are patients in constant need of help. And when we look at healing as creating space for the stranger, it is clear that we should be willing and able to offer this so much needed form of hospitality. Therefore, healing means, first of all, the creation of an empty, but friendly space, where those who suffer can tell their story to someone who can listen with real attention. Our most important question as healers is not what to say or do, but how to develop enough inner space where the story can be received. Healing is the humble, but also very demanding task of creating and offering a friendly, empty space where strangers can reflect on their pain and suffering without fear, and find the confidence that makes them look for new ways right in the center of their confusion. We are all healers.”
Hokusai says look carefully.
He says pay attention, notice.
He says keep looking, stay curious.
He says there is no end to seeing.
He says look forward to getting old.
He says keep changing,
you just get more who you really are.
He says get stuck, accept it, repeat
yourself as long as it is interesting.
He says keep doing what you love.
He says keep praying.
He says every one of us is a child,
every one of us is ancient
every one of us has a body.
He says every one of us is frightened.
He says every one of us has to find
a way to live with fear.
He says everything is alive --
shells, buildings, people, fish,
mountains, trees. Wood is alive.
Water is alive.
Everything has its own life.
Everything lives inside us.
He says live with the world inside you.
He says it doesn't matter if you draw,
or write books. It doesn't matter
if you saw wood, or catch fish.
It doesn't matter if you sit at home
and stare at the ants on your veranda
or the shadows of the trees
and grasses in your garden.
It matters that you care.
It matters that you feel.
It matters that you notice.
It matters that life lives through you.
Contentment is life living through you.
Joy is life living through you.
Satisfaction and strength
is life living through you.
He says don't be afraid.
Don't be afraid.
Love, feel, let life take you by the hand.
Let life live through you.