Thursday, November 29, 2012

Under pressure

The holidays take their toll on us, physically, mentally and emotionally. They do. Even those who love the season find themselves, at some point, at the end of their ropes.

I'm a romantic, hence I like to imagine that once upon a time, people were not expected to do everything - and celebrate the holidays. I imagine a world in which, during the holidays, ordinary pursuits were put aside to make room for the tasks of gift procurement, gift wrapping, gift giving, card sending, cookie making, tree decorating, carol singing, costume wearing, traveling, partying and the eating of Many Very Rich Foods, the drinking of Insane Drinks Such As Eggnog. (Yuck. Who can drink that stuff?)

It would only be fair if the holidays were the way I imagine they were, once upon a time. It's a fantasy, of course. During the "good old days" people had to get dinner on the table, keep house, take care of the animals and such. The holidays then, just as they are now, were probably both joyous and harrowing, fraught with family drama, exhausting. When I snap out of my romantic illusions, the thought comes to me that on some level, the holidays are the same as they ever were.

Though, it's probably more complicated now than it once was. In 21st century America, not only do we expect ourselves to find and purchase the perfect gift for everyone on our list, but now we're supposed to shop locally, buy gifts that won't hurt the environment, yet still fulfill the expectation of perfection. And we wonder why, by the time New Year's Day rolls around, we're ready to snap.

I don't have any advice about getting through the holidays that you haven't heard a million times. In fact, I have a quarrel with those who suggest moderation. It's ridiculous. The holidays are an ancient human ritual designed to keep us warm and cheerful during the cold, dark nights. The holidays are a sacred drama meant to convey to the gods that we look forward to the return of the light. We're wired to gather, drink too much, get too loud. That we shame ourselves because we participate in this ancient tradition is very sad and only adds to seasonal stress.

My strategy for making it through the season involves remembering my sense of humor. It's also great to keep in mind that the holidays don't last forever, thank god. The cold quiet of January is something I look forward to, even though there is inevitably some degree of detoxification that will take place, especially early in January, the result of coming off the feast foods and drinks.

I find our devotion to the ancient rituals adorable. We homo sapiens are willing, more often than not, to throw ourselves into the fray. Why not? This is the beauty of life lived in a body. We make mistakes, we surely do, but by and large, we are a lovely species.

May your holiday season be enjoyable. May you prevail. Shalom.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Feast and be grateful

The masseter is the strongest muscle in your body - well, except your heart which, though technically a muscle, is a completely different kind of tissue. When the masseter contracts, your jaw closes. Sometimes your jaw snaps shut with incredible force. If not for the masseter we could not bite, and if we can't bite, we die.

I'm thinking about this magnificent muscle on the American harvest feast day we call Thanksgiving, not that the masseter has to work overtime on T-day. Most traditional Thanksgiving foods are very soft and easy to chew. You could practically eat Thanksgiving dinner without teeth. But you still need your masseter.

I digress.

I'm not here to deliver a big lecture about the hazards of overeating, overdrinking, and/or getting into a screaming fight with the family member of your choice.

Thanksgiving is a pagan ritual of abundance, a sacred drama in which we act out our deepest hopes that we will be well fed throughout what was, once upon a time, a long, cold, dark winter.

The ritual requires a sacrificial animal, of course. We roast it and then display it proudly before feasting on it. There's a whole thing about placing the turkey on the platter and adorning it, before carving it, then displaying it so the dinner guests can oooo and ahhhh at the perfectly roasted bird. There is also a thing around who carves the turkey. It is an important role in the ritual. I swear the Romans could not have designed this ritual any better than we have. It is so pagan.

For the best results in rituals of this sort, as a participant, you're supposed to overeat and drink too much. There should be too many people, too much food, too much drink. There must be some period of chaos in the putting together of the ritual foods, to stir the energy and capture the attention of the gods. There should be a huge mess afterwards, evidence of the sincere devotion of the participants. It's a ritual of abundance; hence the too much factor should apply universally.

We gather with our blood clan, or adopted clan, or both. Initially it's a pleasure to bring everybody together. As the festival days wear on, tempers begin to flare and fights inevitably break out. Rituals need energy in order to work. The crankiness, shouting, crying as well as the laughing and joking, adds to the energy of the spell which is not complete until the last of the leftovers have either been consumed or relegated to the compost pile.

Some choose to eat way too much, until they are in pain. Others will eschew the rules of abundance, and pick at their food. Each must choose according to his/her values and sense of what's proper. Most will eat just a little too much, in accordance with the Tao of Goldilocks. By being slightly overfull as the result of our feast, we show the gods we wish to be well fed all winter. May it be so!

When I say everyone is a shaman, I am not being facetious. Everyone really is a shaman today in the U.S., enacting a sacred drama of the harvest.

May we never hunger. May we never thirst. Shalom.

The sacrifice, elegantly presented.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why we hoard

We homo sapiens are shapers of the world, not so different from beavers, wasps, birds or gophers. We have huge brains and opposable thumbs, and can balance on two feet, hence what we shape tends to be fancy. We like to make stuff, touch stuff. It is perfectly natural to like what we make with our clever hands.

The nomadic peoples of planet earth like stuff but have no sense that they should hang on to it. I loved learning that in Genghis Khan's culture, it was much more important to give things away than keep them. This is why the tribes convened every now and then on the steppe, to give everything away. The Norse had a similar tradition. I think those values have to do not only with generosity, but as a sign that the giver is not ruled by the objects he/she owns. It's a gesture of liberation that indicates strong character.

Twenty first century America is the opposite. We are a society of hoarders. Rich beyond belief in terms of what is available to all of us 24 hours a day, we are utterly seduced by the urge to acquire. I don't have anything against it. What I wonder about is why we can't stop, why there's never enough stuff, and I do mean NEVER. There are several "reality" TV shows based on people who become literally buried by their stuff. It's shocking, and strikes a chord for many people, which makes for good TV.

Here's a link to a book review from the New York Times, about how to stop hoarding. Hmm. You're supposed to buy/acquire something to learn how to not buy/acquire more stuff? Unclear on the concept, are we? Yes we are!

The review made me a little sad for the reviewer. She speaks of drawers so jammed with swimming suits she can't even get them open. She reveals many tips from the book about how to lessen anxiety while decluttering, assuming it's going to be a horrible experience for everyone. She never once mentions the catharsis made possible by a newly cleaned dresser drawer or closet, she doesn't mention how great it feels after such a project is complete, how liberating it is to know what you have and where it is. I wonder why.

Why do we do it? Here's what I think. I think we are too rational, that in creating a society based on knowledge and reason, we have in so many ways come to discount activities that cultivate and nurture the human soul, the old rituals that we have always performed since the beginning of our species. What isn't "real" is discarded. I'm not talking about religion here, but something more fundamental: the life of the spirit. We ignore our powerful dreams, visions, crazy ideas that come out of the nowhere. What does the phrase "It was only my imagination" mean? Only? Creativity is not rational, nor is the life of the spirit.

Human imagination and creativity is incredible, powerful, healthy and extremely entertaining. To toss it out with everything else that is unproven or irrational impoverishes us spiritually. We try to fill the emptiness with stuff, but nothing you'll ever see at CostCo or Target can provide what our soulful birthright as mystics can. We are mystical beings every bit as much as we are scientists. We flatten our humanity in my society by tilting so far into the rational. It's very unfortunate.

We wanted to be less crazy with ourselves and each other, we wanted to understand and control our incomprehensible behavior. That's what the Age of Enlightenment was about, a way to become less violent, less destructive, more predictable. I get it, what we were striving for, you know - truth and justice, two things well worth pursuing. But we have thrown out a huge chunk of what makes our lives rich by being so overly rational.

In America, we seem to have reached the limits for hoarding, thank goodness. May we relax our hands and hearts and simply let go. May it be so.


Thursday, November 15, 2012


How I would love to gather together the community of medical researchers for a day outside the lab. Though I could very well be wrong about this, and of course it varies according to the individual, I imagine these people in general as super smart nerds, sitting in front of their computers, munching on a sandwich through lunchtime as they gaze at the screen, puzzling over numbers, etc. I don't see them out and about, sitting in a cafe for an hour to people watch, or just watching stupid TV, you know, activities that would bring them around a little bit, help them be a part of what is called the "real" world.

Why am I going on about this? Because the studies these people conduct can be so silly. Here's a link to a story in the New York Times about a study meant to determine whether or not doing housework is good for you.

Seriously? Ha. The headline, "Can Housework Help You Live Longer?" made me laugh out loud. Of course an editor wrote that, not the researchers.

A part of the findings in the study show that strenuous house chores, like weeding or mowing the lawn, are more likely to extend your lifespan than milder activities, such as doing dishes. Can you imagine spending your days and nights focused on this? Who does dishes anymore anyway? The image they attached to the article has to be from 1960. Of course that, too, was chosen by the New York Times, not the scientists they interviewed.

I know this is part of how science works, singling out very narrow arenas, then trying to get enough data to point to a particular result. But I wonder, did anyone working on this study ever stop to think maybe there might be better ways to spend their time? I wonder who paid for the study, and why.

It's clear that a sedentary life is not good for us. Moving around doing almost anything is a lot healthier for mind and body than sitting on a couch or at a desk all day, especially creative or productive actities. We are working animals and need to be useful in order to be happy. OK. But is it necessary to compare the specifics of how we move around? As long as we move around and make sure to engage in activity we enjoy and find satisfying, isn't that enough data? I guess not!

Another question I wonder about: is good health analogous to long life? Apples and oranges, if you ask me.

I get snippy when science is stupid, because I love science. When science is smart I am so intrigued. When it's stupid, I feel embarrassed for it. Do you know what I'm talking about?

May your point of view be expansive and may your sense of humor prevail. May it be so. Shalom.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The peaceful face


I saw a guy yesterday wearing a tee shirt that said, "Every smiling face is beautiful."

It's true, isn't it? A smiling face conveys happiness, and happiness is always beautiful.

The human face tells a million stories, conveys a million emotions that most people believe they can keep secret. Even the stiffest face reveals what is going on inside, yes? I say yes. My goodness. I think about it a lot since I see mostly unvarnished faces in the massage room. Sometimes the way my clients' faces change during a session, from tense and twitchy to smooth and calm, is quite dramatic. 

Last weekend I took a Jin Shin Do class focused on the head and neck. It was a great class. Most of my work as a massage therapist has to do with tight shoulders or an achey lower back, legs tight from running or cycling, arms stiff from too much time on computers. I do love working on the head and face of my clients, too - now more than ever. A calm head, a calm face, can bring relief to the whole body. I experienced that last weekend after receiving a couple of acupressure facials in class. All I can say is: wow.

Is your face tense right now? If so, try this: Part your lips slightly, part your teeth slightly and relax your tongue. If you don't know what that means, pretend to relax your tongue - it really works. Now let your jaw relax and let your eyeballs soften back into your head. Take a deep breath. Feels good, doesn't it?

People will say, "You look great today!" They might think you've lost weight or just received a nice haircut, but really, it's your relaxed face they're picking up on. 

Every calm face is beautiful. It certainly is. Shalom.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Which way to acceptance?

The election is over at last. I, for one, feel tremendous relief and also as if I now have access to a lot of energy that was focused on the campaign. When energy is trapped, it spoils, gets rancid. In the case of politics, trapped energy inevitably turns bitter, then biting and at last, vicious.

It's a human trait to long for perfection in oneself as well as others. Of course there is no such thing as perfection, hence we judge ourselves and one another on a daily basis, reserving the most intense forms of that way of thinking for public figures including, of course, those who rule the roost.

Judging hardens the heart, stiffens the jaw and closes the mind. It is isolating and demoralizing. It's not good for us physically or spiritually, and yet, it's tempting to go to that place. I've been wondering why, especially during the last few months when the mood in the U.S. became so dangerously angry.

My theory du jour revolves around the idea that we are still, in so many ways, social predators who feel safe only when we know our place in the hierarchy of the pack. Judging seems to me (this morning anyway) a way in which we try to find our place in the human hierarchy. We are challenging the alpha when we decide he or she is not as deserving or noble as we think he or she should be.

The above is a half-formed idea that needs fleshing out. I might have to toss it entirely. Probably more to the point would be a contemplation of how we might go about unhinging the tendency towards judgment. How can we create a self satisfied feeling without blaming ourselves or others? Because, we love feeling self satisfied, we do.

How can we dismantle the Us vs. Them mentality that has, throughout human history, caused nothing but trouble?


May we holster our weapons, take deep breaths, and find a better way. May it be so! Shalom.