Monthly Archives: November 2017

December | The Healing Power of Darkness

In this holiday-packed time of year one could almost overlook the deepening darkness and the inclination to hibernate that are natural to the season. People of not so many generations back used to sleep more in these long nights. Not us. We turn on the lights, indoors and out, fight nature’s pull to cozy in, and schedule the splashiest late-night parties of the year. Instead of becoming quiet and introspective, we’re more likely than ever to lose ourselves in a frenetic social whirl.

There is, of course, something miraculous and hopeful happening this time every year, something truly worth celebrating: the simple, wondrous rebirth of light where the ever-increasing darkness of fall gives way to the lengthening days of winter and spring. The many spiritual holidays celebrated within days or weeks of the winter solstice all echo our instinctive understanding of light’s importance to our physical survival and spiritual renewal.

Light is an often-used metaphor for all things wise and wonderful. We “see the light,” find “light at the end of a tunnel” and a “silver lining around every dark cloud.” It’s easy to give credit for all things good to the light and simply ignore the power of dark; darkness, with its opposite connotations of fearfulness, depression, ignorance and death.

Yet, here we are in a time of year when it’s difficult to deny the presence of darkness, as hard as we may try. What’s more, whatever we ignore inevitably has a way of sneaking up from behind and tripping us when we’re not looking. This is certainly true of those aspects of self we don’t like. The ones we keep hidden in the dark nether regions of our being because they’re too painful, too shameful, or too imperfect to admit to ourselves, let alone to other people.

So, here’s a different kind of winter solstice ritual, one that honors the moment of deepest darkness that has to happen before we can give ourselves over to the jubilant celebration of light. After all, this is the perfect time of year to give darkness its due and, for once, stop trying to ignore or artificially light it out of existence. And even though it may not inspire the cheerful exuberance of spring or summer, see if this exercise doesn’t leave you clearer, cleaner, and more ready to fully embrace the deep quiet miracle of light that is the season’s truest offering.

As a starting place, take a moment to reflect on the year that’s been, the one that’s following its natural course and ending in darkness. What are the stand-out “points of darkness” you experienced this year? The very worst of times, the biggest catastrophes, the deepest despair, the times you most want to forget ever happened?

As you recall these moments, notice the feelings these memories evoke. We tend to suppress, ignore or medicate pain out of existence in much the same way we artificially cover darkness with light. Unfortunately, all these pain-coping methods don’t make pain go away, just underground until it eventually grows too big to ignore. So instead of sending one more bit of pain to the dark, crowded storage locker of your psyche, this time simply be with it.

Notice how it feels in your body. Is it a sinking feeling in your gut? An empty place in your heart? A cloud of confusion around your head? A lump in your throat? A tense, armored feeling in your muscles? A clenched feeling in your jaw or fists? A fearfulness in your bowels? Instead of turning away from these raw places, this time give them your full attention. Notice the sensation of the feeling in your body and relax into it. Stop struggling. Stop thinking, stop trying to move on or make it go away.

Also let go of familiar interpretations and judgments you have around these feelings: “My sadness is bottomless. If I truly feel it, I’ll just fall deeper and deeper until I drown.” Or “My anger is wrong. I shouldn’t have it. It will hurt someone.” Tell yourself instead that as you stop resisting feeling, pain stops being pain and becomes something usable, something healing. Go deeply enough into these dark parts of yourself until you feel your resistance letting go, struggle being replaced by surrender, tension turning into relaxation, fear giving way to an awareness that there is nothing to fear.

Now, imagine yourself in total darkness. (Try doing this at night.) Most of us can recall middle of the night anxieties where we lay awake in bed, in the dark, and our whole world looked dismal and dangerous in a way it seldom does during the day. The darkness to imagine now is a different one altogether (or perhaps the same, but we are different). This darkness is healing.

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So many of us on a spiritual path have invoked the healing power of light, but what about that of dark? Imagine darkness around you like sheltering earth around a seed. Instead of imagining light pouring into the wounded places of your soul, imagine darkness, like a mother, drawing out of you the pain, doubt, worry, resentment, confusion and fear that interfere with peace. Feel it absorbing into itself the thoughts, memories and patterns that keep you from being your true self. Let the dark take back to itself all the darkness in you so there’s nothing left but light. The light that needs no artificial or external inducement. The Inner Light that has always been there. Feel yourself in this dark like a caterpillar in its chrysalis, safe and sheltered while a miraculous flurry of transformation is quietly underway.

Last, but not least, reflect again on those moments of darkness that have occurred in your life this year and now, instead of feeling the pain, ask them to show you their hidden blessings. How have you deepened, strengthened, changed direction, reached out to others or cared more deeply for yourself? How have you learned compassion, acceptance or forgiveness? Or gained clarity, broken down barriers, found your tenderness, released stubbornness and ego, or allowed others to help you? How has your very definition of who you are changed? Give thanks for the power of darkness to polish, facet and bring out the natural brilliance of your heart.

Consider sharing with another person the story of finding great blessing in this year’s points of darkness. Let the power of your spoken word change your personal mythology, transforming defeats and losses into powerful stories of resurrection.

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November | The Season of Food Begins!

Ah, that wonderful time of year after the harvest, when food is abundant and Thanksgiving begins a whole season of eating! Yet for us overfed and diet-obsessed Americans, the season of food can be a time of losing our tenuous hold on sensible eating habits and surrendering completely to more than a month of uncontrolled feasting on rich and sentimental comfort foods.

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“But Mom only makes this once a year!” and “It’s only for the holidays…” we tell ourselves, and then in January wonder how that extra ten pounds got there!

If a little cheating on your sensible eating plan morphs into a month-long binge for you at holiday time, consider a different approach, an alternative to deprivation or binging, involving neither guilt nor denial; one that actually results in more gastronomic pleasure than simply eating everything in sight. The secret has to do with replacing quantity with quality and autopilot eating habits with an extra measure of attentiveness.

Conscious eating is all about waking up your taste buds to every sensory delight so that you don’t miss even a second’s worth of enjoyment by falling into unconscious eating habits. It enables you to enjoy your food more while requiring less to feel satisfied.

Binging happens when we’ve stopped paying attention. We may enjoy the first bites but then keep eating to recapture that first moment’s gratification even after the food is no longer delivering. We may eat for reasons other than hunger, to fill an emotional void or to stuff painful feelings. Binging also happens when we’ve developed such a long-term habit of restrictive dieting that one taste of something not our food plan sends us into an out-of-control eating frenzy where we consume enough to hold us through the long drought of deprivation that invariably follows “cheating.”

This holiday plan calls for a softer (in the kinder, not fatter, sense), gentler you. It involves putting down the whip of guilt and discipline and easing up on food restrictions while simultaneously paying more attention to the whole experience of appetite, craving, and satiation. It entails eating exactly what you want exactly when you want, thinking of all foods as equally “good.” This isn’t permission to binge. Rather it’s a challenge to go out of your way to feed yourself exactly what you really want even when eating what’s readily available would be easier. It’s about treating yourself to what will give the greatest possible eating pleasure instead of “treating” yourself with whatever great quantities of sugar and fat happen to cross your path.

This approach isn’t for everyone (and please don’t substitute my suggestions for your doctor’s counsel), but if it’s appealing to you, consider devoting the holiday season to making every eating experience a conscious one where you eliminate as many distractions as possible, like TV, reading material, and eating on the run, in order to savor every bite.

Make eating a meditation: before you put anything in your mouth, become quiet and relaxed, take several deep breaths and say to yourself, “Everything I eat turns to health and beauty.” You can do this even at the holiday table with family and friends. Especially with family where the temptation may be strong to stuff down childhood feelings with another serving of pie. Disconnecting a bit inwardly and putting your attention on the food, your body, your nourishment, and the experience of pleasure can help break the knee-jerk, stuffing-family-feelings-with-food habit.

As you take a moment to be with your food before you consume it, picture it being easily assimilated by your body and turning into health and beauty. Eat slowly, paying attention as you chew and swallow. Stop the minute you feel the first sensation of fullness. If you’re full but can’t stand the thought of leaving all that yummy food on your plate, ask for a doggie bag. After eating, sit quietly for a moment, relax, and take some deep breaths. Imagine a feeling of comfortable fullness and lightness in your body. Imagine that your stomach is filled not just with food, but with peace and well-being that radiates soothing sensations throughout your body.

Don’t eat again until you feel the first sensation of hunger. Then eat immediately, but only until you feel the first sensation of fullness. Pay attention as you eat, chew well, and really notice how food feels in your stomach and what the sensation of fullness is like. Every time you feel hunger, ask yourself what food you most crave. Feed yourself the food or foods that are just what you want. You may find yourself craving previously “forbidden” foods at first because enforced restriction can, in and of itself, create cravings for whatever’s been denied but, as you eat consciously in this way, you’re likely to find yourself satisfied with much less. And, as you eat consciously but not restrictively, you may also be surprised by your cravings becoming more and more balanced. I once saw a perpetually dieting and vegetable-phobic woman, who equated greens with cruel punishment, astonish herself by craving salad after just three days of giving herself permission to eat whatever she wanted.

If you’re tempted to binge, create a healing ritual around eating one of your favorite foods. Set the table, light candles, and eat consciously, savoring each bite. Imagine the food having marvelous healing powers that are making you healthier and more beautiful. Continue eating this way until you feel the first sensation of fullness. (Again, you’ll probably find yourself eating less and enjoying it more.) End by giving thanks for your healing food.

If you do catch yourself eating unconsciously, forgive yourself. Notice what the binge is telling you about your emotional needs. Forgive the eating and address the cause. How are you feeling empty, angry, sad, or scared, and what can you do about it?

After all, the holidays with all their frenetic activity, social obligations, and childhood associations, are prime time for exacerbating emotional eating. As you make a commitment to conscious eating, also make a commitment to self-care. Make a list of other things you can do to nurture and soothe yourself that don’t involve food and give yourself time to do them when the urge to overeat arises. Let conscious eating become just the beginning of a more conscious approach to the holiday season where the frenzy of it all doesn’t override the spirit of celebration and joy.