Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Be Your Own Best Valentine

Be Your Own Best Valentine

Welcome to the February issue of Envision Your Dreams! While the temperature and snow accumulation here in the Chicago area more closely resembles December than February, I must have faith that we really are inching closer to Spring. Heart shaped balloons, red tulips and roses and red cellophane wrapped chocolates were on full display at the grocery store this past weekend reminding me that Valentine's Day draws near. I paused to watch an elementary school- aged girl carefully survey the valentine cards, lollipops and cunning little boxes of conversation hearts, perhaps deciding which choice would send the best message to her friends and classmates on Valentine's Day. For the past couple of weeks, spots on television have hammered home the message of how diamond encrusted jewelry, chocolate covered strawberries or a cuddly teddy bear could be the perfect expression of one's love, thus sending the recipient swooning. If you are in a happy romantic relationship with your love, then Valentine's Day might be a natural celebration of your joy. For those who are not prone to celebrate the Hallmark Cards-version of Valentine's Day, February 14 might be just another day. For some of my clients, Valentine's Day invites heartache and regret. February 14 is a painful reminder of relationships lost through death, divorce or simply fizzling out for lack of energy and spark. Although I am not a couples therapist, sometimes the focus of the therapy or coaching centers around blockages to expressing love or deepening the connection one has with his or her partner. When I work with single women and men, nagging worry regarding whether one will find a partner in life inevitably comes up at some point in our work together. We are social creatures who thrive in loving, nurturing and warm connection with others and I believe the core to experiencing love and being able to express love and connection to another centers on one's ability to love oneself. This month's issue will provide you with information about being your own best Valentine--rather than passively expecting another to fulfill your every desire or, perhaps my most disliked statement ever, "complete you" (a la Jerry McGuire), I offer tips on creating it for yourself. Additionally I provide you with evidence that love is everywhere and the incredible role it plays in your overall health. Next I invite you to engage in a practice to help you cultivate and deepen your love for yourself which, in turn, will help you to acknowledge the love around you. As always, enjoy the read and feel free to pass it on to someone you think might benefit. Happy Valentine's Day to YOU!

Won't You Be Your Valentine?
If you watch romantic movies or pay attention to the lyrics of any love song you get a pretty consistent description of what love is supposed to be: consuming, lasting, exclusive, unconditional and powerful. The experience of love, as depicted in song and story, is often dependent on one's response to, and acceptance or rejection of, another's overtures. Most plots center on the search for one's soul mate and I've consoled friends and counseled clients who felt they failed in their quest to find monogamous love. A few months ago I was privileged to participate in an online class entitled "Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do and Become" and the content pretty much turned the above description of love on Cupid's curly-haired head. The course was taught by one of my favorite positive psychologists, Barbara Fredrickson, a Professor from UNC-Chapel Hill and was a review of the latest research on the topic of love plus a discussion of her most recent book of the same title. It was a fantastic, thought provoking and timely course and I am happy to share a bit of what I learned with you in this writing. Please note, this is an extreme thumbnail sketch of her writing, therefore, if you are intrigued at all, I suggest you go buy or borrow the book--I believe you will find the science of love fascinating.

Dr. Fredrickson sees love as similar to any emotion--it can be fleeting in it's expression. Think about the last time you burst out in a deep belly laugh--it may have been five minutes or five days ago. Even though that belly laugh was delightful and cleansing, and the memory of it may bring a smile to your lips now, you are not experiencing that deep belly laugh at this moment. All emotions pass--anger, irritability, joy, grief--even love. No emotion is designed to last, but love, from Dr. Fredrickson's perspective, is easily and consciously renewable. Dr. Fredrickson's research focuses on what this renewable emotion does to our bodies--our cells, our immune system and our emotional and physical health. Her earlier work on how positive emotions increase our awareness (i.e., we become more open to opportunities and our ability to problem-solve improves) as compared to how negative emotions limit our thoughts and behaviors (i.e, we become emotionally closed-off and survivalistic in our approach to problems or challenges). Her definition of love is radical and broad--it encompasses the feelings between a parent or grandparent and child, friends, spouses, partners, lovers and even total strangers and the health benefits of this positive emotion expressed between and among all people is universal. Her latest research indicates that micromoments of positivity resonance (i.e., being in-sync with another and connecting in a positive manner through smiles, laughter, or other form of positive emotion) fortify the connection between your brain and your heart, making you healthier day by day. Decades of research has shown that people who are more socially connected live longer and healthier lives. Dr. Fredrickson and her team found that when people were randomly assigned to a group to learn new ways to create more micromoments of love in daily life, they lastingly improved the functioning of the vagus nerve, a key conduit that connects your brain to your heart. This discovery opens a new window onto how micromoments of love serve as nutrients for your health. The vagus nerve not only connects our brain to our heart but is also integrated in everything from the physiognomy of our smile and eye contact with others to monitoring the middle ear muscles so we can focus on another's voice. The vagal tone is the association of our heart rate to our breathing rate. The higher the vagal tone (and conversely, the lower the breathing and heart rate) the better. Research shows that people with high vagal tone typically have more and better positive connections and are more loving, have higher social intelligence and are more emotionally resilient. People who are more socially connected also have improved immune health. Dr. Fredrickson's research on vagal tone and love has shown that through training, one's vagal tone can be improved. In her lab, Fredrickson and her colleagues taught randomly assigned subjects how to engage in loving-kindness meditation (LKM), an ancient Buddhist practice of fostering positive feelings toward the self and others. The participants practiced this less than an hour a week and their vagal tone, compared to a control group, soared after a few months of this daily practice. Those who had the largest increase in vagal tone also had the most frequent positivity resonance experiences with others. Love is not something you fall into but something you make it for yourself.

Love 2.0 offers many opportunities to practice and develop connection but here I provide you an opportunity to learn just one of the practices: Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM). This practice is challenging for some because it asks you to direct thoughts of loving kindness towards yourself. Dr. Fredrickson notes that the old saying telling us we can't love others unless we first love ourselves is true. The positivity shared between knower and known--between I and me--provides a vital foundation for all other forms of love. We need to accept ourselves fully before we can enjoy the benefits of shared connection with others. For some people offering tenderness and kindness to themselves is awkward and difficult. For whatever reason you may be unaccustomed to accepting and caring for yourself just as you are--in this moment. Many people grew up in families which fostered mild self-deprecation, or unrelenting self-criticism to full-blown self-loathing. Here's an opportunity to practice a bit of tenderness towards yourself. If this practice is too difficult or problematic at this point, perhaps consider directing the practice with easier people at first and then over time, refocusing on yourself. The steps I outline are taken directly from the book (pps 120-126).

Find a comfortable place to sit where you won't be disturbed. If in a chair, sit comfortably upright, with your feet grounded on the floor. Lift your ribcage and press your shoulders back against the chair. These postural changes allow a physical openness to your heart. Lower your gaze to reduce distractions and if you are comfortable, close your eyes. Begin by taking two or three deep breaths, bringing your awareness to your heart. Visualize how each breath affects your heart physically. Consider how each in-breath massages your heart and brings in precious oxygen. When you are ready, check in with how your body is feeling. Are you feeling tired, excited, anxious, calm? Whatever the feeling, just notice it. No need to push it aside or judge it as right or wrong. Just witness it and accept it. Begin the meditation by calling to mind your own good qualities. If this is difficult, imagine what positive qualities your loved ones, mentors, friends or coworkers might comment upon. No need to launch an exhaustive hunt for the best good quality--just accept whatever good quality comes to mind. No need to judge or rate it. Simply let the words remind you of what is good in you--what touches your heart about yourself. Next begin the meditation by offering these wishes of loving-kindness to yourself--choosing the phrasing that best speaks to your heart:

May I feel safe and protected.
May I feel happy and peaceful.
May I feel healthy and strong.
May I live with ease.

See yourself as being a dear friend to yourself. Experience how your face softens and your heart expands as you repeat these phrases to yourself. Between each phrase, pause and drop your awareness down to your body and to your heart in particular. Note the sensations that arise. The repetition of the phrases allow you the opportunity to condition your heart to be more open, more accepting and kinder. After a few moments, your attention may wander, when this happens, simply bring your attention back to the phrases. No reason to harshly judge or berate your wandering. Just bring yourself back with gentleness. Try to sit in this meditation for 5 minutes. Remember, your heart and life will benefit with only a 60 minute awareness per week.

Throughout your days and weeks to come, be aware of the opportunities that present themselves to you to treat yourself with gentleness and kindness. Know that you can generate this tender and loving attitude toward yourself anytime you wish. Notice the ease you feel when you treat yourself with such gentleness and love.

I wish you kindness and love this February. If you would like additional structure on this practice, Dr. Fredrickson has made available a free guided meditation on Loving-Kindness on her website: www.PositivityResonance.com.
Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
--Derek Walcott