Earlier this year I gave myself the gift of a silent mindfulness retreat. I spent a weekend in the beautiful foothills of the Georgia Mountains deepening my metta meditation practice.
Metta is Pali for loving-kindness. And this meditation does just that - focuses attention on the cultivation of loving-kindness toward oneself and others (benefactor, dear friend, neutral person, difficult person, all sentient beings). This is done partly through the internal repetition of phrases for each category.
The meditation always begins with extending metta to yourself. The idea being you need to first have unbounded love for self before you can have unbounded love for others. We spent almost an entire day of a three-day retreat meditating on the self, an indication of the difficulty we have seeing ourselves as worthy and unconditionally lovable.
I left the retreat full of love…and loss.
You see, I was the only woman of color – the only person of color, in fact - among the 30 retreaters. This has become a regular occurrence in my wellness pursuits, although I live in a diverse metro area.
My mindfulness practice encourages the acceptance of an experience for what it is versus lamenting what it isn’t. Even so, I feel loss when I’m The Only: loss of the opportunity to remove all of my protective armor, to be fully recognized, to exhale.
My sister-friends who have the means to participate in wellness activities – which I’m clear is a privilege – express reluctance about being vulnerable in what will likely be all-White or mostly White spaces. They fear experiencing some racial injury while in search of healing. The residential nature of retreats adds to this fear.
I get it.
As a psychologist who has spent 20 years researching and teaching about health, I can’t ignore the numerous benefits to body and mind of unplugging, finding time for self, just being. So I choose to continue participating in these wellness activities despite the drawbacks.
But the loss of opportunity persists.
When we broke silence, I questioned the retreat leaders about the lack of diversity among the participants and the need for more outreach to communities of color who are suffering in these painful times. Their response acknowledged the problem without much solution. One of the facilitators did emphasize that metta is centered on loving actions as much as loving feelings, which for her includes working toward a more just society.
Since this retreat, I have thought a lot about the notion of loving action. It reminds me of Wangari Maathai's telling of "I Will be a Hummingbird." In this fable, a hummingbird was trying to put out a raging forest fire by filling its little beak with water and emptying the droplets on the flames. When asked by the larger animal bystanders why it was doing something so useless, the hummingbird responded, "I am doing the best I can."
What is the best I can do? Although that answer is ever changing (thanks, Liz Roemer, for this wise tidbit), I know it’s more than lamenting the lack of wellness opportunities for women of color, especially since I have the skill to add to those opportunities. So I’ve started experimenting with creating what I wish for.
With the assistance of lots of amazing people, I facilitated a day-long faculty wellness retreat for women of color in May. This retreat was all about pausing, reflecting, renewing, and connecting through practices shown to reduce stress and boost mood. There was yoga, dance, mindfulness, sister circles, laughter, and tears.
As I was leading the last activity of the day, not coincidentally a metta meditation, I looked around the room at the 24 women of color in attendance and felt the power of our sisterhood. It was without exception the highlight of my professional career.
The positive response to the retreat was deeply humbling and motivated me to step out of my comfort zone and plan a weekend retreat for women of color faculty. It will be held October 5-7 in those same beautiful Georgia Mountain foothills.
I am clear that these retreats won’t singularly change the wellness industry or the individual, institutional, and systemic factors that injure women of color. They are, however, acts of love for my sisters and for myself. And that’s a start.
Special thanks to Nyasha GuramatunhuCooper, Michelle DiPietro, Kami Anderson, Joycelyn Moody, Michelle Boyd, and Nicole Guillory for their support in helping me be a hummingbird, not a bystander.
In peace and solidarity,
Do you perceive time as going by faster and faster? Do have little memory of what you did last week...or even last night?
If you answered yes and yes, you might be stuck in a rut, a place where your days are horribly predictable. When we do the same things over and over, our brains stop paying a lot of attention, leading to lack of memories and the perception that time is passing quickly.
Need proof? Think of your last commute to work. I bet you can't even remember what happened.
The cure is simple. Add novel experiences to your life.
Not only do novel experiences create lasting memories, they slow down time. [The longer an activity takes the brain to process, the slower time is perceived.] This means the more fun, novel experiences you have, the more you feel like you're living a full rich life. And don't we all want that feeling?
So make this month--and all the months to come--one to remember by breaking out of your rut and trying something new. Here are 10 big and small suggestions to get you started.
1. Take a trip to a new location (even for a day).
2. Better yet, plan a Monthly Novel Experience, like white water rafting, wine tasting, zip lining, or tent camping.
3. Learn a new skill. I recently participated in an 8-week mindfulness course for therapists. Not only did I deepen my mindfulness practice, I learned new ways to teach mindfulness to students and clients.
4. Mindfulness bonus: paying attention to the present moment also slows time down.
5. Throw an old school house party. Nothing says novel and fun like grown folks singing Prince's Purple Rain at the top of their lungs.
6. Call a friend you haven't talked to in a while. Shut off all potential distractions and really catch up.
7. Go bowling on a mid-week morning. I do this at least once per semester with colleagues and always have a wonderful time (even when my final score is in the double digits).
8. Take yourself out to a nice lunch instead of eating at your desk. Eat slowly, attending to the flavors, textures, and aromas of the food.
9. Have a surprise weekday family game night. Buying new games to play ups the novelty quotient. Our family's favorites are Sequence, Clue (I'm the reigning champ!), Uno, Sorry, and Monopoly.
10. Take a moment to savor small unexpected positive experiences, like a compliment someone gives you.
If you have a novel experience you'd like to add, please share it in the comments below.
In peace and solidarity,
COMPLETE BLOG POST. This to-do stood out among the others. Its silent recrimination ringing loudly—Why haven’t you gotten to me yet?
The answer boiled down to one word: Fear.
Fear and I go way back. Her presence inexplicably comforts me even though she can wreak havoc on my life, reminding me of a self more imagined than real.
Fear is best at derailing my writing. Her whispers—you’re not good enough, you have nothing important to say, you’re more lucky than skilled—made writing excruciating. Every. Single. Moment.
It is excruciating still. Sometimes. And the distance between always and sometimes is a huge win.
The journey to this point has not been easy. Fear is a worthy adversary, even for a psychologist trained in ways to cope with emotions. And I’m not alone. Many writers struggle with Fear in what appears to be a losing battle. And that’s not okay. Because Fear is vulnerable, wins are possible.
It’s worth repeating: wins are possible. Here are a few ways I use science to help me (and my clients) triumph over Fear.
Pull Fear from Darkness to Light
I thought I could hide from Fear. Crouched in shadows, I held my breath and waited for her to recede. But the dark is no place to face Fear. Avoidance feeds fear, helps her seem larger than life, uncontrollable.
Pulling Fear into the light makes her more tangible. The more visible Fear is—her contours and angles—the easier to deal with her.
So I named her and her goal. This is Fear, a.k.a. Imposter Syndrome and Anxiety. She tries hard to keep me from writing.
This small step makes Fear easier to recognize. Hello, Fear. I see you’re back.
Acknowledging Fear before she does damage opens the space to bring her—and myself—out of the shadows. In the light, I’ve discovered that…
Fear has preferences
Fear loves to, prefers to, show up when I’m writing something new (like this blog post) or writing in a new(ish) voice (e.g., autobiographic) or writing with others I admire. It sucks when all these things intersect, which is happening more and more.
Fear has stamina problems
Fear is strongest early in the writing process. She knows if she keeps me from starting or stops me from finding my rhythm, she wins. Her strength, though, wanes over time. Knowing she can be beat means it’s vital I write through Fear.
Fear has selective memory
Fear is amazing at recalling harsh critiques. Gentle critiques? No worries, Fear can sharpen them until their points penetrate any armor.
Positive feedback? In those rare moments of recall, Fear is adept at distorting the message or messenger. She only said she liked it; it must be crap if she didn’t love it. He’s too nice to tell me the truth.
Recognizing that Fear’s whispers aren’t my full truth is an ongoing struggle; Fear’s voice sounds deceptively like mine. But I’ve found effective interventions. One is creating a gentle counter-narrative that challenges Fear’s penchant for the negative. My writing is good enough. I chant this mantra each time Fear starts her whispers. I initially repeat it without conviction knowing that writing as if I believe still works.
Compiling positive feedback into an easily accessible document is another way I challenge Fear’s whispers. Savoring the positive emotions that come up while reading the feedback dials down Fear’s volume, which makes hearing my counter-narrative easier.
Shame is Fear’s superpower
Fear thrives on shame, a feeling of unworthiness. The result: a pull to hide Fear, to perform (or fake!) a competence and ease in writing that I don’t truly feel. This inauthenticity only amplifies my shame which in turn amplifies my desire to perform.
Vulnerability is Fear’s kryptonite
Breaking out of the shame-performance cycle requires vulnerability. By vulnerability, I mean taking the risk to speak my writing truth to other writers, repeatedly. Why? Sharing Fear with empathic others makes her burden easier to bear. Equally important, it reminds me I’m not alone...and neither are you. Fear is a part of our lives, even those academics who make writing look easy.
Caveat: For women of color, hiding Fear can be an adaptive way to cope with daily indignities and systemic oppression. So be gentle with yourself if enacting vulnerability takes time. A trusting network of confidantes is something that must be nurtured to grow. Organizing a writing sister circle whose expressed goal is to provide compassionate accountability is one place to start.
Shout out to my sister circle: Joycelyn, Nichole, Griselda, Karen, and Jackie (my biological sister who is also an academic). I am grateful beyond measure that you welcome and encourage my authentic self, enabling me to face Fear, practice self-compassion, and get back on the writing path when I diverge. As I did with this post.
In peace and solidarity,
Expressions of gratitude elevate mood, decrease stress, and improve health; great things to manifest in the coming year. So instead of starting 2018 by declaring New Year's resolutions that won't make it into February, choose to express your gratitude to the old year.
You can do this by writing 10 things you are grateful for from 2017. To make this writing count, avoid generalities such as, “I’m grateful for my job.” Be specific and personal. “I’m grateful my boss recognized my hard work and nominated me for the Employee of the Month award in March.”
Caveat: I know what I’m asking is hard given all the pain and angst the last 365 days have brought many of us. But if we don’t pause to acknowledge the positives 2017 had to offer (even if they seem small), the only things that will stand out are the negative moments. That is just how our brain works.
I wrote my 10 thankful happenings on the first pages of my 2018 gratitude journal. That way every time I open the journal, I am reminded what went well last year.
Consider gifting yourself with a regular gratitude practice in 2018 that starts with this 2017 gratitude reflection.
In peace and solidarity,
By Roxanne Donovan
In these last days until Christmas, many who celebrate are running around trying to find the perfect gift. Before you head to the mall one more time, take a moment to think about what you are giving. Not all gifts are created equal. Delete off that list the clothes, electronics, and toys you planned to buy, because…
MORE STUFF DOES NOT MAKE US HAPPIER
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little for effect. There are some caveats. First, this applies only to those who are financially secure, not to the financially vulnerable—like those who regularly experience food or housing insecurity. Second, we do experience a short blip in happiness when we get stuff we want. BUT it is temporary, and we quickly get back to baseline.
So if you really want to find a gift that is remembered and savored for more than a blink of the eye, research suggests giving experiences not things.
Not sure what would make a memorable experience gift. Here are five suggestions to get you started.
1. Weekend trip.
This is well-suited for couples, friends, and families—think a camping trip to a nearby park, a two-day hotel reservation in a close city, an all-inclusive spa getaway, whatever. You are only limited by your imagination (and budget).
2. Annual membership to a museum or science center.
Pick a place you know the recipient will be excited about. Consider a family membership for those with kids.
3. Tickets to a play, concert, or sporting event.
Just make sure the type of event suites the recipient’s taste, that you gift more than one ticket (no one wants to do this stuff alone), and the date will likely work for all involved.
4. Classes to learn a new skill or refine an existing one.
The categories here are endless—wine tasting, painting, photography, Tai-Chi, dancing, pottery-making, yoga, singing, piano, swimming…I could go on. Just make sure you gift more than one set so the person can bring a friend or two, which ups the joy and memorability factors.
5. Season passes to a nearby amusement park.
This is particularly great for families. What kid doesn’t like to splash around, eat junk food, and ride roller coasters.
In peace and solidarity,