What gratitude really feels like?

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The holidays are prime time for gratitude and compassion in this country. We have an actual holiday dedicated to giving thanks. But being grateful and compassionate is season-less. It should be a part of our DNA, our character, our daily routine all year round. It should be akin to getting dressed or brushing our teeth. Often though it's difficult to make time to appreciate the good things we have when we are in the midst of the grind we call life. 

Gratitude is an emotion and as such we should be able to feel and experience the emotion in our body. Just as anger or frustration manifests itself in the form of a tight chest or shortness of breath, gratitude too has a physical sensation. It can feel like warmth in the body, a sense of grounded-ness, a slowing of the breath, spaciousness in the chest and heart, uncontrollable tears or an automatic smile. I know when I am experiencing gratitude because it's not just a concept in my head, I can feel it in my body. 

The most popular advice out there for cultivating gratitude is some form of a gratitude journal. I have tried it, and to be honest it just doesn't work for me. For a year I kept a voice diary of the 3 - 5 things I'm grateful for each day. The list included my husband, friends, meals, where I live (San Francisco), my job, co-workers etc. Very quickly the exercise started to feel like a "should" and not "want" in my life.  

The first time I truly experienced gratitude, in a way that was cathartic and physical was during my first loving-kindness meditation, a type of mindfulness practice that is also known as Metta. In a loving-kindness meditation, we direct our attention and send kind wishes to four types of people in our lives, someone we love very much, someone we are neutral towards, someone we are having difficulty with and then finally all beings.

I was going through my meditation teacher's training when my teacher Jill Satterfield guided us through our first Metta practice. As I brought to mind the person I was grateful for, in this case it was a mentor at work, suddenly I felt this surge of emotion through my chest. Next thing I knew, tears were flowing uncontrollably down my face. Needless to say, I was shocked by how my body reacted to what was happening in my mind. Eventually, as the tears and mind settled, I was left with a sense of warmth, comfort and contentment in my body. Being grateful never felt so good. 

There are so many different tools out there for cultivating gratitude, but my watermark is "can I feel gratitude in my body?"

A regular mindfulness meditation practice is the most effective tool that I have used in my life to cultivate gratitude because each day I sit to practice, I am reminded of why I practice, to be a better person for those that I love, the people that I'm grateful for in my life. More often than not, I feel a sense of warmth and ease in the body after a meditation. 

If you have never experienced a loving-kindness practice, I highly recommend trying it at home. All you need is a comfortable place to sit and a recording. And this recording by Sharon Salzberg is a great one to try.  

In addition to leveraging mindfulness, here are other tools that I have used successfully to cultivate gratitude in my life in a way that is not only in my head, but in my body as well. 

Reflecting on the past. It is no coincidence that some of the most grateful and compassionate people in the world have suffered the most. Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela to just name a few. Hardships and obstacles in life can be a foundation of strength and gratitude. These experiences often involve a person or a group of people that helped or supported us in a time of need. Taking a few moments to remember and reflect on those experiences and people can be a great tool to cultivate gratitude.

For example, when I reflect on my past, I often think of the sacrifices that my parents made immigrating to this country from China in their mid-40's. Can you imagine moving to a new country where you barely spoke the language to start a new life with almost no money? I can't. My dad came to this country with less than $100 in his pocket and gave up a good medical career just so my sister and I could have the opportunities this country provided. My mom worked in a sweatshop for years to make additional income even though she was already an educated accountant. We were poor and far from family, but my parents worked so hard to make sure we had everything we needed. Each time I reflect on this, I am filled with awe and gratitude for my parents. As I write this, I'm crying. It gets me every time. 

Reading the news. In times of stress or anxiety, one of the most difficult things to do is to dig ourselves out of our own self-dug narrow hole. Learning about the world can open up that aperture and is a great tool for shifting our perspective. Whenever I read the news, inevitably there is some form of tragedy or suffering occurring in another part of the world. It's not that reading about others' suffering makes me feel better about my own issues, but it opens my heart and mind by shifting and widening my perspective. It automatically helps me feel more grateful for the things I have and compassion for those that are suffering. Sometimes the news makes me cry, most of the time it doesn't. But in my body, I always feel more spacious, open and grounded.

Needless to say, each of us respond to different tools. Don't feel bad if a gratitude journal isn't your thing. What is most important is that through trial and error, we each find what works for us. I hope you can find yours. 

How Meditation Helped me Through the Pregnancy Transition

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Transitions are always hard for me, no matter how big or small. Even the "good" transitions, those after which life should be better, can be challenging. For example, moving to a new city was simultaneously exciting and lonely. Starting a new job was refreshing and scary. The same applied for pregnancy, which for most of us is a 10-month long transition into motherhood. 

I got pregnant towards the end of my meditation teacher's training. We found out the day I got back from my last meditation retreat. I was ecstatic of course. But I also knew there were going to be changes, physically and emotionally, that I can't prepare myself for. So I made an intention to meditate everyday in the hopes that it would help me manage the transition better. 

As all moms know, pregnancy can be full of joy and difficulty. It changes your physical, emotional and mental bodies in ways that you just can't imagine or control. The growing belly is the least of your problems. It's the "other" stuff, the many forms of physical discomfort, inability to sleep, the hormones and the emotional rollercoasters they bring you on, that can suck. These are things that you can't fully prepare yourself for. 

I meditated almost everyday through my first pregnancy. Even though I can't scientifically prove it, I know that a regular meditation practice was the most important factor in my experiencing the transition of pregnancy with greater emotional ease. It helped me be more confident, strong and resilient. 

There are many contributing factors to a healthy pregnancy, including exercise (which I did a lot of), diet (I followed a somewhat healthy diet), genetics, medical care, and environment. What is also extremely important though is a healthy psyche and mind. Meditation is one of the best and easiest tools to keep your mind healthy during this important transition. 

Here's how mindfulness meditation helped me. 

1. Cope with fears related to pregnancy: Like all first-time moms, I worried about miscarrying, problems during pregnancy, childbirth and taking care of a newborn. I read books, articles, attended childbirth classes to allay the fears. But even then there were so many unknowns! Having a regular meditation practice helped me be more present and worry less about the future on a day-to-day basis. 

While there aren't many studies done on mindfulness and pregnancy yet, one recent study published in BMC Pregnancy and Birth indicated that women who took a class in various mindfulness techniques felt better prepared for birth and experienced less prenatal and postpartum depression and anxiety symptoms. 

2. Enjoy my pregnancy: Mindfulness shows us that nothing is permanent in life. We learn through practice the fleeting nature of everything because no moment is the same as the previous. I won't lie, the first trimester was hard. I was nauseous and bone tired all the time. But my daily practice was a good reminder that this too is a temporary state. That realization made the physical symptoms easier to deal with. During the second and third trimester when I wasn't feeling so awful, the practice of anchoring in the here and now actually helped me enjoy the pregnancy and appreciate how magical the experience is. I was growing a baby inside my belly!

3. Emotional Ease. We all already have daily stressors in our lives from relationships, jobs, finances, etc. Throw on pregnancy, it's hormones and the stress levels can sky rocket. If you've spontaneously cried, had mood swings, or felt depressed during your pregnancy, then you're not alone. Most of us want to keep stress levels at bay during this time.  A regular meditation practice did just that for me and created more overall emotional ease. How?

In mindfulness meditation, we practice being less reactive to our thoughts and feelings, and pausing before responding to a stimuli. Eventually we can learn to disengage from our habitual patterns of reactivity and deal with situations with more ease and clarity. 

A recent study in Frontiers in Neuroscience showed that just 20 minutes of meditation can reduce brain reactivity. Researchers displayed disturbing images to subjects and found that those who are naturally more mindful have less emotional reactivity than others and thus faster recovery. They also found that even novices and people who are less inclined to be mindful had less emotional reactivity after just a short meditation. 

4. Self-compassion: This was the greatest benefit for me. Bottom line for pregnancy is that while most of us are excited about being pregnant, it can be really difficult. Our bodies get bigger, which can be a source of negative self-talk. The emotions and the inability to control them can make us feel like a crazy person and lead to self-criticism. Thus, there is no better time to practice self-compassion. A core practice in mindfulness meditation is non-judgement, about ourselves and what's happening around us in the present moment. I learned to replace my usual lens of judgement and replace it with a lens of kindness and compassion. Being kind and accepting of all that comes with pregnancy can take the edge out of the difficulties. Self-compassion during pregnancy is the best gift you can give your unborn child. 

Coping with the fear of uncertainty, learning to enjoy the process, having more emotional ease, and being more self-compassionate, these are just some of the benefits that a regular mindfulness meditation practice can provide during a tough transition. It's a tool that I've been able to use again and again. And let's face, life sometimes feels like just one long transition. 

How mindfulness helped me outsmart my smartphone and regain quality time with my family

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As published on ThriveGlobal.

I often felt like my iPhone owned me, instead of the other way around. Whether I was eating, reading, riding the bus, you name it, I often had this strong URGE to pick up the phone and do something with it, anything with it. It was usually the first thing I touched in the morning and the last thing I touched at night. My phone had no separation anxiety, but I sure did. I absolutely NEVER left the house without it. It OWNED me and I knew it.

Most everyone I've talked to is aware that they are too attached to the phone, but is either not motivated to do anything about it or feel like there's nothing specific they can do other than to "try" and use it less. I was in that boat until recently. What motivated me to change my relationship with my smartphone was the deteriorating relationship with my husband.

It started innocuously enough. One of us would pick up a phone mid-conversation to check a message. Then one of us would have to just do "one" thing on our phone real quickly. Then mid-conversation as we're talking about how bad traffic has been lately, we just had to know what the current population is in the San Francisco bay area. Next thing I knew, we were spending most of our evenings sitting on the couch glued to our phones, just clicking and swiping away, barely talking and connecting. We were settled into this rhythm for months until I started to have this uneasy feeling that we were growing apart.

Family time and phone, it shouldn't be a zero sum game. But it is! We only have a limited amount of time in a given day. The majority of these hours are dedicated to sleep, work, food, errands, etc. That leaves us with few precious hours with our loved ones. And my phone was really getting in the way.

One, each time I picked up my phone to check a message or look up something, I was taking a moment away from our relationship. While each small interruption on its own was no big deal,multiple interruptions added up.

Two, quality time isn't defined by the total quantity of time, but rather the continuous amount of time spent together. The quality of a continuous hour of conversation is better than 10 minutes here or there adding up to a full hour. The smartphone interruptions broke our quality time into small intervals and left us feeling less connected. 

Three, when I picked up the phone at dinner, I was implicitly giving permission for my husband to do so as well. We were reinforcing each other's behaviors and along the way erasing our boundaries of phone usage without even realizing it. Eventually we just got to the point where we were spending more time on our phones than with each other. And that was just sad.

Over the last several months, I've used my mindfulness practice to deal with this issue and it has made a big difference on the quality of our family time. Here are some things I did.

Set an intention to check in each time I pick up my phone.  Any mindfulness practice begins with awareness. So I set an intention to check in with myself whenever I picked up my phone and just notice how I was feeling in that moment. Sometimes I felt anxious, other times excited, and sometimes just bored. The check-in gave me the opportunity to hit the pause button on this automatic reaction of pick up phone, open app, swipe, type, swipe. And during the short pause, I became aware of why I was picking up the phone, what I was feeling, and how picking up the phone affects those feelings.

A mindfulness practice also teaches us that when we became aware of our habitual tendencies, we can choose to respond differently. So sometimes, I would choose to put the phone down because I noticed I was picking it up out of boredom and not need. This has given me freedom. I own my phone, it doesn't own me. 

Track my usage. To further supplement my awareness, I downloaded an app called Moment to track how much time I was actually spending on my phone. Ironic I know. But holy moly was it a lot! ~2 hours a day on average. According to Kevin Holesh, the creator of the Moment app, the average daily screen time of users is 3 hours and 57 minutes, consistent with other studies. And the average daily number of pickups is 52. That is a lot! Simply knowing my usage has motivated me to use my phone less over time.

Create boundaries. Boundaries can be a great tool to break the otherwise automatic habits that most of us have created on phone usage. My husband and I instituted a no-phone policy on Tuesdays and Fridays, except in cases of emergency or Facetime with the grandparents. In the beginning, we'd pick up our phones without realizing it and one of us would have to remind the other. But over time, the habit started to fade. Moreover, having this policy on only two days also influenced positive behavior on other days.

 

It's hard to believe the iPhone was only introduced ten short years ago because most of us can't imagine life without one. But I know so many people that also have this nagging feeling we ought to be using our phones less. I would argue its not just about using our phones less, its about having a more mindful relationship with our phones. That starts with simply increasing our awareness of our relationship with the smartphone. Only through awareness can we then choose to behave differently. 

 

The One Thing All Companies Have In Common

I've been teaching mindfulness meditation at different companies for a few years, including at my last company. Some of these companies have amazing cultures, others terrible. I was at some during periods of massive growth and others during periods of contraction. There is one thing that crosses all boundaries of company size, industry, title, rank, or company culture. STRESS. No matter where you work or who you are, work is stressful.

And stress can be exhausting. So often I'd be so stressed out at work running from meeting to meeting, that when I got home, all I wanted to do was veg out on the couch and do nothing. I had nothing left to give my family. Other days, I would bring that stress home and complain and complain. And the cycle would start all over again the next day. But what if there is a way to hit pause and reset on that cycle periodically throughout the day, then we wouldn't feel so drained by the end of it.  

Mindfulness Meditation can give us that pause and reset. A few mindful breaks during the day can help us become more aware of our bodies, our emotions and how stress affects our bodies and emotions. And with that awareness, we can slowly begin to alter our relationship with stressful situations. Instead of letting stress hijack us, we can choose to respond to stress in a different way, with more ease and compassion. This is how mindfulness meditation can help us lower stress.  

I have found that a short meditation break at work can help make a BIG difference in how we feel and function that day. Here are some tips on how to start building in mindful pauses in the workday.

PUT A RECURRING DAILY REMINDER ON YOUR CALENDAR CALLED "PAUSE" to remind yourself to take a one minute meditation break just once a day. Pick a time that you will least likely ignore. On days packed with meetings and more meetings, this is easier said than done. Trust me I know. And that is ok. Just having that mindful reminder on your calendar is the start. 

TAKE A ONE MINUTE PAUSE. When the calendar reminder pops up, do this. Close your eyes, take a few slow deep breaths, then ask yourself "how am I feeling physically right now?" Notice your body and answer that question silently (lethargic, sore, energized, etc), then just focus your attention on your breath until you sense the one minute is up. There's no need to time yourself, just do what feels like a minute.

Somedays you will feel calmer and other days nothing.  But remember nothing happens overnight, mindfulness is cultivated over time so consistency is key! You can do this anywhere. I've done this at Starbucks, at my desk, in the car, in a conference room, waiting for the bus, and even in the bathroom. Start with once a day, and over time you can build in a longer pause or do it 2 - 3 times a day. 

IN MOMENTS OF HIGH STRESS, TRY THIS ONE MINUTE PAUSE.  Close your eyes, take a few slow deep breaths, then ask yourself "how am I feeling physically right now?" Notice your body and answer that question silently (lethargic, sore, energized, etc). Then ask yourself, "how am I feeling emotionally right now?" (frustrated, angry, disappointed, sad, etc).  Notice how your emotions and bodily sensations are correlated. Lastly, just focus your attention on your breath until you sense the one minute is up. 

When is the last time you checked in with your body and emotions in a moment of high stress? Probably never. Try it and you'll be amazed at what you can notice.

START A MEDITATION GROUP AT WORK.  Ghandi once said "be the  change you want to see in the world."  I say, be the change you want to see in your company! Do you wish that others could be more mindful at work or that mindfulness can become a bigger part of your company's culture? You don't need to be a meditation teacher to start a meditation group at work. All you need is a room with chairs and an app with guided meditations. Headspace and Simple Habit are my favorites. I was scared to start a meditation group at my last job because I thought no one would come. With a bit of encouragement from others, I sent out a calendar tap. And people came!  People loved having a meditation break at work and eventually meditation became a part of the work culture, something we were proud of. 

While you may think you don't have the time for this, just think about how much time you spend surfing the web or checking Facebook. I challenge you to just swap out one of those minutes for a mindful pause and see the difference that can make in your day. 

May your work days be filled with more ease. 

Is everyone successful but me?

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I used to fear going on LinkedIn.  

On the one hand, I loved staying up to date on what friends were up to professionally. On the other hand, I know when I see friend A becoming a VP of company A, and friend B becoming a CEO of startup B, those updates will make me feel bad about myself. On top of that, I feel guilty for feeling jealous because my mind tells me I should be happy for everyone. So it was always with a bit of hesitancy and mixed emotions that I went on LinkedIn.  

Then I started practicing mindfulness meditation. Over time through this practice, I got to know my mind, its quirks and habits. I became familiar with my mind's tendency to be self-judgmental, to make it about me rather than someone else. I also learned to view them less as reflections of my character and accomplishments, and more as clouds just passing by. Through a mindful lens, these judgments not only lost a good amount their potency but also became less clingy. 

Sharing this feeling of inadequacy in-person with others revealed to me that EVERYONE feels like this, sometimes. Even the most "successful" people feel insecure about their accomplishments. Especially the most successful. That's because many successful people are driven by the fear of failure and work hard to prove that they can accomplish what others can.  

This type of fear motivated me to work hard and served me well for years. (The tiger mom up-bringing may have contributed as well though that's a story for another time). I graduated magna cum-laude from Columbia University, was top of my class at Morgan Stanley as an investment banking analyst, worked in one of the top real estate private equity companies in the world, then got into Stanford Business School. I followed my passion to work in health & wellness at Athleta after Stanford and rose fairly quickly through the ranks. By all traditional standards of success, I was successful. But this type of success also takes a toll mentally, especially in the age of social media. That's because we are made especially vulnerable to our fears and insecurities when we are constantly reminded of others' seemingly perfect lives on Facebook and Instagram.

When I'm on LinkedIn these days, it's not that I don't feel any pangs of inadequacy when I see other people's accomplishments, I still do. But I can quickly see in my mind and feel in my body the habitual tendency for my mind to go there. And I am able to let go more easily. We know what we practice only becomes stronger. So I use mindfulness to practice being kind to myself. I'm much more at ease with LinkedIn and with my own mental habits. This is how mindfulness meditation has made me more compassionate towards myself, mind and body. I also know (and my husband can attest) that self-compassion lead to compassion for others. In other words, by making me nicer to myself, meditation has also made me nicer to others. Win-win!

How do I know what I felt though was real? There's an increasing body of scientific research that shows meditation fosters compassion. A study by Kristin Neff of the University of Texas Austin and Christopher Germer of Harvard Medical School showed that when people incorporated loving-kindness practices in their meditation, they "reported significantly increased self-compassion, mindfulness, life satisfaction, and happiness, as well as decreased depression, anxiety and stress." Another study done by David Desteno of Northwestern University showed that people who meditated were 3x more likely to show benevolent behavior than those who didn't. 

So why start this blog? I passionately believe that mindfulness meditation can help all of us live life with more ease, happiness and compassion. I also believe that if more people meditated, this world would be a kinder one. I'm hoping through this blog and community, I can inspire others to develop or deepen their meditation practice and make this precious world one that is less divided and more compassionate, one mindful moment at a time.