On Laughing Your Head Off

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My mom laughing sometime in the 1980s.

 

One thing my family of origin did really well was—and is—laugh. Growing up, our family system had all kinds of garden variety dysfunction, and perhaps some incidents of our wanton laughter even qualify as dysfunctional, but I don’t care. Because I love it.

One time, my little brother brought a super ball to church. Christopher drove a hard bargain to come with us as a family to Trinity Church, where one of our closest friends was the first ordained female minister in New Jersey. (Meaning, attending her services as a family was important.) This particular day, the conciliation from negotiating with my parents was that Christopher got to bring his neon green super ball.  But my dad, a lawyer, imposed specific conditions: Christopher was to handle the super ball discreetly, and only in our pew. You can guess what happened. Synthetic rubber against marble floor caused too zealous a bounce, and the super ball banked off a Book of Common Prayer, zinging into the aisle. My memory of what happened next is most likely inaccurate, because I see the neon green ball ricocheting all the way up to the pulpit, landing in the basket of communion wafers—which is probably too slapstick to be true. But what did happen, for sure, is the ball escaped our pew and took on a life of its own, as super balls tend to do, gathering momentum. Our family was laughing so hard that snorts emitted from my parents’ noses, which they pretended were coughing fits, and we were all stifling giggles so vigorous that our pew was squeaking.

I love that. I loved it then and love it now. And I am thankful, because I think laughing is a skill, in fact, that has saved me from certain aspects of my personality that could otherwise get the better of me.

Do you remember Norman Cousins’ experiment in 1964 that made the news? Diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis and given a matter of months to live, he rejected the verdict and checked himself into a hotel instead of the hospital, watching funny movie after funny movie, following his intuition that laughter would be his cure. Which, along with high doses of Vitamin C, it was. Subsequent studies on laughter have shown that laughing lowers stress hormones, increases infection-fighting antibodies, and boosts overall immune function. Laughing releases endorphins, thereby increasing one’s sense of wellbeing, which, along with the fact that laughter relaxes the musculature of the body, in many instances can temporarily relieve pain. It’s good for the heart, too, because laughing increases blood flow, improving blood vessel function. And in addition to helping the cardio-vascular functions of the physical heart, laughter heals the emotional heart as well. Studies show that nothing diffuses the toxic burden of stored-up anger more than laughter.  And sharing a laugh with someone—particularly someone with whom you’re in conflict—is some of the best medicine around.

When was the last time you laughed your head off? And would it be possible to make belly-laughing a daily practice?  

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On Armageddon

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso

 

Apparently, every era believes it marks the end of humankind. Nostradamus predicted the end of the world. The Aztecs did, too, and the Mayans. Eclipses were considered a sign the world was ending. In the 1950’s, people were on edge about the push of a single button annihilating our species if not the entire planet. And in the 1980’s, remember Ehrlich’s population bomb theory, predicting “The Great Die Off” that never happened?  

These days, people flock to my office wanting coaching on how to handle what so vividly appears to be Armageddon. Disease and pestilence are rampant. Cancers, autoimmune disorders, tick-born illnesses. (Here in New England, my layperson estimate is that roughly half the people I know either currently have or have had Lyme’s Disease). The climate change that is purportedly not real meanwhile wreaks havoc on so many parts of our globe. I hold the intention of not getting political in these writings. So let me try to do this next part without naming names. I have the sense, often, while listening to my clients, my friends, my family and myself, that we are all like powerless children trapped in a minivan with a madman at the wheel, let’s call him a reckless daddy, most likely hammered, waving a gun out the window aimed at North Korea and shouting racial slurs. So we, clustered in this minivan called the U.S. of A., are a little freaked out. I recognize I am not speaking for all of us. I know many find this wacky daddy fun. But this minivan image comes to me often as I listen to people’s fears about what is currently going on in our country.  

There is a lot we can do to combat modern-day Armageddon. Getting involved in Black Lives Matter. In the Climate movement. Protesting the travel ban, the Affordable Care Act repeal, and any other decisions that we may find unfair. Writing to our congresswoman or man regularly about our objections and concerns. Et cetera… In spite of feeling powerless over the bigger picture, we can, and ought to, do whatever we hope might make a difference. (Even in the back of the screeching minivan, we can buckle our seat belts and take action from our hand-held devices.)  

There is something else we can—and must—do. Let me draw our attention to the common understanding of the Hippocratic Oath. “First, do no harm.” (I say common understanding because apparently that phrase is not in the original doctrine of Hippocrates—although if we want to split hairs, the Latin translation of the ancient Greek contains Primum non noncore, which means: First, do no harm.) Doctors take this oath—and I believe we all should, too, right now, during these anxious times.  What can we do to not cause harm?  Not contribute to the mayhem?  Not join with the dysfunction and fear?

I say: self-regulate. Do whatever you can to regulate your nervous system. Meditate. Practice 1:2 breathing. Pray. Exercise. Doodle. Write in your journal. Dance. Sing.  Whatever it takes to get yourself back to your center, back into your compassionate heart, so you don’t go out there and spread more anxiety into this already anxious system of our minivan— aka our great nation. If you’re an overachiever, and I hope you are in this case, you can take it one step further. Now that you’re not contributing to the rampant anxiety spreading like wildfire through our culture, and you are a regulated organism, spread peace. Do good deeds. Open doors for people. Smile at them. Teach someone to read. See how many people you can grace with your kindness.

On Ninth Grade Biology

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Golgi Apparatus

 

What do you remember learning in ninth grade biology? I have a vague inkling of taking a few notes on what is now crucial information for my life’s work: the functions of the parasympathetic vs. the sympathetic nervous system.  

But at the time, I had a delightful learning obstacle. My ninth grade lab partners were Aaron, a brilliant eccentric friend who went on to make the documentary King Corn, and  quirky talented Trey, who grew up to be the lead singer of Phish.  (In preschool with Trey, where we sledded on treys, I got mixed up and thought his name was “Sled”.)  Let’s just say that Aaron and “Sled” and their inspired antics (think: unorthodox dissection of a piglet embalmed in formaldehyde) were far more compelling to me than what our gentle methodical teacher explained to us about how the hypothalamic-dictated autonomic nervous system is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  What I remember most from ninth grade biology are the two words “golgi apparatus,” riffed on by Aaron and “Sled” and two other witty guys at another lab table, which eventually evolved into lyrics of the Phish song.

Now, as an adult, I have come to appreciate what our soft-spoken, bearded biology teacher was trying to teach us. It is in fact really cool that our autonomic nervous system has two divisions, the parasympathetic, which is known as relax-and-respond, and the sympathetic, referred to frequently as fight-or-flight. A key component of the sympathetic often gets dropped in common parlance, which is freeze. As in: fight-flight-or-freeze. Modern day Americans, speeding around with our double hits of Starbucks and our road rage, feeling obligated to be in touch with anyone and everyone 24/7 on our devices, spend far, far too much time in our sympathetic nervous systems. Pumping out adrenaline and cortisol. Freezing when it’s all too much, and we shut down. This sympathetic system is extremely useful to tap into if you are about to be stabbed, or if you need to protect someone from an oncoming car or meteor. But for the average daily life events, we really would do much, much better operating from our parasympathetic nervous systems. Secreting endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine. In other words: marinating in wellbeing.  

So how do we do this? How do we exit the code red reactive freakshow of our sympathetic nervous system and inhabit the calming state of relax-and-respond?  One easy method, available to all of us at all times, and 100% free of charge, is breathing. Not just breathing the bare minimum amount of oxygen it takes to stay alive. But really breathing. Taking in air, this abundant manna, way past the shallow upper chest into the deep drum of the belly. Try it. Try breathing in through your nostrils, and letting delicious air travel down through your torso into your belly. Actually let your belly fill with air, so that it visibly and palpably expands. Try that again, counting the beats of your inhale through your nostrils. And when you exhale, do it so slowly that you double the count, exhaling for twice as long as you inhaled. Set your timer on one of your devices for one minute, repeating this 1:2 breathing. Next time, set it for three minutes, then five. You will experience for yourself the switch from the reactive fight-flight-or-freeze mode into the wellbeing of the parasympathetic nervous system. If you set your timer to do this 1:2 breathing a few times a day, you will notice yourself more frequently able to respond to life, versus reacting. Keep it up, and you will find yourself much more comfortable in your very own skin.

On Self-Absorption

 

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Confession: I get self-absorbed when I am anxious. Consumed by whatever it is I am worried about. My body contracts, and my mind goes around and around in my own little swirly moon shell. It sucks.

I understand that this is the nature of anxiety. It pulls us into its swirl, limiting our scope to whatever it is that troubles us. Whether over the quotidian worry du jour, or something very legitimate and scary that is actually happening, anxiety consumes. So I am not beating myself up about what I am confessing, but nonetheless, I find it embarrassing.  

When I was a little girl, I was so anxious about potential calamities befalling my family members on any given day, that I held us all up every morning begging for reassurance. “Dad, you promise you won’t fall in front of a subway?” “Mom, you promise you won’t get in a head-on collision?” etc.. etc.. ad nauseam. Finally one morning, in an act of brilliance born of running extremely late, my mother preemptively said, “You Are Reassured.” Which over time then got shortened to “YAR.” That one syllable became all I needed to hop out of our VW bus with its Flower Power stickers and go join my friends in school. But the point I’m making here is: I was asking my family to reassure me. I had no idea how to self-soothe. Again, I don’t blame myself.  I was a kid. And, to be fair, the anxiety was actually a byproduct of our family system, all the chaos and unresolved dysfunction that had come down the multi-generational pike and now lived in my house. (Hence in my body. And my mind.)

But still.

In my twenties, when I was a newlywed and (luckily for my brand new husband) in therapy, my wise wonderful therapist Leigh told me I was no longer allowed to wake up Pierre in the middle of the night when I felt anxious. “It’s not his job,” she said, “it’s yours.” What? My anxiety was my job? To manage and handle? Til death do I part? Cold turkey, I stopped waking up my husband. And found I had quite a big job on my hands. Working the night shift.  

What I ended up discovering recently, through writing my memoir, is not only how self-absorbing the state of anxiety can be, but also, how the state of gratitude is its antithesis, or antidote. I spontaneously entered a state of over-the-top gratitude when my twelve-year-old daughter Téa miraculously recovered from a life-threatening accident. Organically, I experienced how the state of gratitude precludes anxiety, as well as the reverse: the state of anxiety obviates gratitude. Not that you can’t toggle back and forth between the two states, because I certainly did.  And do. But the biochemistry of the two states are very different: anxiety fuels and floods the brain with adrenaline and cortisol, whereas gratitude creates the feel-good hormones like dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin. I am currently revising my memoir to make this point more explicit, and include the brain science behind it. But in the meantime what I want to share is: anxiety isolates us, keeping us in our negative swirl of what could go wrong.  Gratitude connects us, opening our hearts and physical postures to all of life, all that’s right, and to each other. 

On Curiosity

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All of us have something to give others that is exactly what they need. It doesn’t cost a thing, it’s an ever-replenishing resource, and it’s one of the most healing agents we can offer another human being. It’s our curiosity.

Okay, maybe sometimes, it does cost something. When we aren’t feeling curious at all in a charged relationship, it may cost us our ego pride to let go of needing to be right and become curious instead. In those instances, it also costs us some effort, because we might have to do a little work to get there. But when we hold the intention to get curious, curiosity is always available to us. And always worth the effort.  

Curiosity is a marker of emotional neutrality. If you’re genuinely curious about another person, you’re de facto not judgmental. De facto, not reactive. You’re neutral. And while curiosity is a symptom of emotional neutrality, it’s also the avenue for getting there. Which (provided your goal is to be psychologically and emotionally healthy in a given relationship) is where you want to be. Cultivating emotional neutrality does not mean becoming a lobotomized robot. It means existing in present time, in the now, with another person. Versus being sucked into reactions based on your history, your habitual stories, dynamics that control you versus you having choice or any say over who and how you want to be.  

If you can’t muster curiosity about the other person in a particular moment, get curious about yourself. What is going on in here? Inside this whirling reactive hurt or angry cyclone that at the moment is me? Inside this shut down closed off fortress I have built? Getting curious about the body can be a great place to start. It’s an effective way to get out of the repetitive cycles that tend to go on in the mind. What is happening in my body? Where do I feel intensity, or numb? Can I focus on my breath for a moment here, and breathe a little more deeply? Calming the body can lead us into the ability to get curious about what is going on in our mind. The stories we tell ourselves, and believe without question: that’s precisely where we need to bring on the questions! Is there another way to see this situation instead of the way I always do? Is it possible that the way I am experiencing this might be optional? Could I shift just a little bit and open up to a new perspective?

Getting curious about yourself is bestowing that healing agent upon the human being you happen to hang out with 24/7. For that reason alone, it’s highly recommended. But also, getting curious about self in a charged relational moment can shift the dynamic with the other person, precisely because it takes you out of the dynamic. And hopefully, through managing self, you can calm down enough to get curious about the other. And maybe even start to ask them some questions. About how they’re doing. About what is going on for them.

Not just any question will do. I think we can all agree that “What the hell is wrong with you?” doesn’t exactly convey curiosity. But, “Tell me more about why you think that?” “What do you need right now?”, “What can I do for you?”, these are the kinds of questions which transmit the curiosity that melts armor. That opens hearts. That heals.

On Divinity

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Spirit Strands, by Alexandra Sheldon

 

I believe in God.

Uh oh.  

A statement like that can trigger a whole host of reactions. Our relationship, or lack thereof, with the Divine is so personal. So particular to each of us. Yet the way the word God gets used can cause everything from your basic quiet acrimony to divorce, to violent discrimination, to full-on war.  

So let me tell you what I mean by God, starting with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean an imaginary man in the sky.  I don’t mean a God affiliated with any religion. I don’t mean Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, nor Vishnu, Krishna, Lakshmi nor any of the other Hindu gods or goddesses—although I respect the teachings of all of them. At their essence, all religions have beautiful wisdom and guidance to offer us, should we choose to explore their doctrines. What I mean by believing in God is sensing a benevolent force surrounding us. Some refer to this as Spirit. The Light. The Divine. Source.   

I have friends and clients who have sworn off believing in a benevolent force when something unthinkably horrific happens to someone they love. How can I believe in a caring God when this heinous murder happened? This brutal act of terrorism? These are real and painful questions, impossible to answer for anyone else. Some people find a deeper comforting relationship with the Divine in the aftermath of trauma and loss, some move decisively to atheism. To each his or her own. We all need to make sense of our lives in our own way.    

At times in my life, I have lost my connection with the sense of a benevolent force, and found myself wondering if I made the whole thing up. Other times, I have felt it dimly, and pined for more, not knowing quite how to turn up the dial. And then there are the phases I love most, when I feel my body humming with some energy that is more than just me and my skeleton and organs and cell tissue. I feel held, guided. Connected. That’s what I mean when I say God, the connection to what feels like Source Energy.  

As I age, I notice for myself what enhances this connection, and try to do more of it. For me, it is as simple as having space and time. Space and time to reflect. To meditate or walk in the woods. To do yoga. To go hear live music. To laugh my head off—with friends, or while watching hilarious comedy. Something about this Divine Energy has a real levity to it. A sense of humor, born of perspective, scope, that prevents me from taking myself and my life so damn seriously. Check out the Dalai Lama next time you get the chance. He sometimes laughs so hard he has to take off his glasses and wipe his eyes. The next moment he is in deep reverent meditation. And a few minutes later, talking about the pain of exile. Then something strikes his funny bone again and on come the giggles.  

How does connection to the Divine allow for the whole range of human emotion, the acceptance of all of human experience? What does that have to do with spirituality? For me, it has something to do with the sense of being held, which loosens me up. I get uptight when I think I’m running this whole show on my own. My shoulders rise, my neck tightens. Sometimes my hands even start to grip, as if I am holding reins, or the imaginary steering wheel. When I remember—or even better, deeply sense—that there is something way more than little ole me in charge here, I soften. And when I soften, I allow. Allow for the tears, the giggles, and everything in between. That’s what I mean by believing in God. I mean tapping into the grace that allows me to surrender to all that is.

On Grieving

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The hands of my father’s grandchildren on top of his, as he lay dying.

 

Grief took me down.    

I know I am not alone in this, it’s what grief does.  

But the experience of being leveled, and the amount of time (three years) that it took me to metabolize the loss and climb out of the abyss caught me off guard. This was when my father died, a death that was in fact a blessing, anticipated, even prayed for. He had been suffering from two aggressive strains of brain disease, Alzheimer’s and Lewy Body’s Dementia, both of which were kicked into high gear from an insult to his brain that occurred at age 68. By 73, he was in and out of psychosis, besieged by hallucinations and agnosia. He told us he wanted to take “an early exit,” and in spite of all his confusion and the mayhem of his mind, he managed intentionally not to eat or drink for the ten days it took his strong body to die. We wanted this for him. We his children, his children-in-law, his grandchildren and his wife, surrounding him in hospice, wanted him to succeed, to find peace by departing the ravaged chaos that had become his life. His terrier Davis was in bed with him the entire time, a comforting sentinel.  For many weeks after my father gracefully passed, I felt a strange elation. Like I could feel his soul, and the peace he’d found, which reassured me deeply.  

But then I realized he’d died. He was dead. You’d think I would have known that, considering the fact I was holding his hand, kissing his face and cheering him on, there for his final breaths, there when the nurse pronounced, “Kit no longer has a heartbeat.” I saw his body in the bed, while his dog Davis ritualistically licked every inch of my father’s arm right after he died. But as dim as this may sound, I still did not get that he was gone.  

And when it finally hit me, a few weeks later, it was a body blow. A sucker punch that came daily for years, leaving me hollowed out, yearning, wobbly, curled in on myself. I would never hear my father laugh, ever again, or feel the gruff yet tender love of his hugs. I remember one evening about six months after my father’s death, lying in the fetal position in front of my fireplace and wondering if I would ever get up again. This death was prepared for, a tragic sort of blessing: how about all the brutal untimely deaths, the suicides? Parents who lose children, kids who lose a sibling or a mommy or daddy at a young age? The empathetic inkling of their grief made me wonder how anyone does this. Loves and loses, then gets up again.  

All of us will experience grief in our lives, and most likely already have. Maybe many times. Loving is a risky business, if you think about it.  

My friend Annie once did an exercise at LAMDA (London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art), which was to walk around the city acting as if each and every person had just experienced the death of their parents. She and her classmates who carried out this assignment all entered a state of profound compassion. They were blown away by the level of eye contact, the heart-opening love wordlessly given and received amongst strangers. Maybe we should all try this. Every single day for the rest of our lives.