Friday, July 31, 2009

Why Seven Steps?

About a year ago, to my great surprise, I found myself in the midst of writing a self-help program of guided meditations. Even beyond surprise, the writing process was transformational, because during the time that this inspiring material was pouring through me, my father was slowly succumbing to congestive heart failure. In my last blog, I touched briefly on the topic of dementia. It’s not my intention to dwell on heavy subject matter, but once again, I must include a short mention of this big issue. For my father, dementia was sneaky and pernicious, a result of natural aging, and the accumulation of years of unhealthy choices. While he appeared to acquaintances to be of sound mind, the eroding process was slowly eating away at his ability to make sound judgments, stealing away the delights of his personality, and gradually laying waste to his relationships through irrational anger and paranoia. And so, as I reflect on my father’s transition and the writing process that took place a year ago, I choose to celebrate the power we all have to make healthy and loving choices, and use our gifts to create good in this life. Positive living absolutely attracts positive outcomes, so here we go……
The focus of the collection of guided meditations called Seven Steps to Positive Living is to affect beneficial change in people’s lives by providing material that is, first and foremost, easy and accessible. Easy, as in easy to fit into your day – each of the meditations runs less than 10 minutes, making it an natural fit for even the most schedule stressed individuals. No studying necessary, no special clothing or membership fees, just a few minutes in a quiet place, and you’re good to go! Accessible, as in welcoming to individuals of all belief systems – the mediations are flexible and appropriate for secular, or a multitude of spiritual or religious approaches. For those who have never tried meditation, and wonder how to get started, Seven Steps is a great introduction to creating quiet time in your hectic life, and reaping all the well-touted benefits of regular meditation. Those who have been practicing meditation for many years will also benefit from the Seven Steps pick-me-up of short sessions that lead you along a steady path of opening to greater awareness.
Most of us have heard more and more about the benefits of regular meditation in recent years. Mainstream media and medicine have become increasingly open to considering so-called “alternative” therapies in the treatment of both mental and physical illnesses, and improving overall quality of life. Of course, many of these alternative approaches have been around for centuries and eons, but who’s counting, right? America’s most read magazine, the Parade section from the good ol’ Sunday morning newspaper, included meditation in the December 14, 2008 article entitled “Alternative Therapies that REALLY WORK”. Their article cited positive effects on blood pressure, insulin and blood sugar regulation, heart health, improving concentration, reducing anxiety, and assisting patients dealing with post-traumatic stress disorders. If you like a scientific approach - the website for Psychology Today notes that neuroscientists have found that study subjects involved in regular meditation shifted the focus of their brain activity away from the stress-prone right frontal cortex, to the calmer area of the left frontal cortex, resulting in calmer and happier people overall. Sweet.
In case that’s not enough to convince you to give it a try, the federal government would like for you to feel better, too. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institute of Health has sponsored studies that have found the following positive results from regular meditation: relieves stress in caregivers for elderly patients with dementia; reduces the frequency and intensity of hot flashes in menopausal women; relieves symptoms of chronic back pain; improves attention-related abilities (alerting, focusing, and prioritizing); and relieves asthma symptoms.
Of course, those of a spiritual or religious bent know the importance of sacred quiet time, although they may call it by different names. Checking one of my favorite resources, Wikipedia, one can find a great variety of citations on this topic. From Buddhism to Judaism, almost every faith path known to man includes traditions of meditation as a necessary practice to enhance spiritual growth. A devout Muslim is obliged to pray at least five times a day. Christians, of course, generally use the term prayer when referring to sacred quiet time. The use of the rosary or prayer beads, the repitition of memorized prayers, and the emphasis on silent prayer are all forms of Christian meditation.
Getting back to Seven Steps to Positive Living, I would like to mention that the initial idea for the CD came about in midst of brainstorming with my friend and colleague, actress and healing practitioner, Katie McCall. (You can find Katie’s fabulous new website at For a short while, Katie lived out her fantasy of being a back-up singer by developing harmony for songs on my first CD, Springfield. While working on music, we began talking about ideas combining my writing with her skills as a voice-over talent, in a way that would benefit others along their path to a better life. We chose a specific audience to start with, the generous and loving congregation of Unity Christ Church of Bon Air in Richmond VA, designed the project to flow along with the fall book study program at the church, and used sales to raise money for the church’s expansion fund. All of these factors knitted nicely together, resulting in the initial release of Seven Steps to Positive Living in September of 2008.
Now, Seven Steps to Positive Living is widely available online in both digital formats, and old style CDs. A simple Internet search will turn up multiple sources, so Google, Bing, dial it up on iTunes, or visit me at and give it a try, one at a time, or all together as a collection. Given how these meditations came to be, I feel strongly that these messages have the potential to affect positive change in many lives, and I feel it is my responsibility to do my best to spread the word. I’ll be writing again soon about the content of the Seven Steps meditations, as the material continues to develop. Even if Seven Steps to Positive Living isn’t your style, there are many ways to create sacred quiet time in your life. Whether you prefer to use your daily exercise as a time of reflection, or to brew a cup of tea and sit in a rocker for a few minutes before you start your day - whatever your style, take a few clearing breaths, and give yourself the gift of quiet time. You’ll feel better, and be better prepared to be a force for positive change in your relationships and community.
Thanks for reading!

Various Sources:

Monday, July 13, 2009

Don't Worry, That's Normal

Sometimes I worry about getting Alzheimer’s. I’m sure a lot of people do. I’m not a dedicated worrier, but given the genetic tendencies for this particular disease, I could claim some cause for worry. My maternal grandmother was lost in the last 10 years of her life, if not more, in the twisted world of dementia. Following in those footsteps, my mother began to show signs of dementia by her early sixties, and has continued to step further and further away from the here and now for the last decade. At some point, I will want to write more about my experiences with my mother, and there is plenty to write about, but I’m not up to that at the moment, so let’s just say we’ll do that later.
Right now, let’s consider behaviors that we don’t have to worry about – those things that cause frustration, but aught not cause undue paranoia. The behaviors to which I refer fall into categories such as “brain farts” or “senior moments”, defined on also as a “spontaneous stupid” (I love Now then, I am drawn to this subject by a recent article in More, a magazine for, yes that’s me, 40+ women. The June issue, featuring the achingly beautiful Mary-Louise Parker on the cover, has an article called “New Rules for Saving Your Memory”, written by Judy Jones, based on an interview with John Medina, PhD, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. Find out more about More magazine at
So, that article starts out with the bad news, urgh, that our brains are basically wired to reach peak capacity at about age 19. Wonderful. According to Dr. Medina, our caveman brains are designed to last long enough for us to reproduce, and then it’s all downhill from there, with 85,000 neurons jumping ship every day. OK, so where is the hopeful part? Well, to begin with, the article explains that we have to understand a bit about how the brain processes information. First, information comes in from our senses; then the brain sorts it and stores it; next the information is retrieved, as we need it; and lastly, the most important step according to Dr. Medina, the brain dumps unnecessary information. This last part is so important because the forgetting process creates the space we need to take in new information. As we go through our days, we encounter an endless stream of visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli, just to touch on the tip of the iceberg. All the while, our brains sort out the keepers from the useless, and dump the trash as we go. And that, apparently, is where middle-aged brains start to falter. As we age, our brains have trouble blocking out the static of useless information, and in the deluge, our filters get clogged, resulting in, you guessed it…….a brain fart, a senior moment, a spontaneous stupid of just where did I put my keys, or why did I come in this room.
Now, consider how much information there is to process in the average 30 minutes of TV. Heck, how about just considering 30 seconds? I did an exercise with the college students in my Intro to Theatre class last fall, in order to demonstrate the difference between recorded media and live performance. I showed a 30 second commercial, asking the class to tally up how many different images their brains were offered in one short TV ad. The counts came in close to 30 - almost one different image per second, in one short and very simple commercial, not even counting music, voices, and sound affects. Just think about your day, and all the information your brain has to process. No wonder our brains can go on overload.
I feel better knowing that the occasional brain fart is normal, and not a sign of impending doom. And if sorting static is what puts my brain over the edge, I’m happy to look for ways to simplify my world. But this leads to the question, what can we do to keep our brains healthy over the long run? Dr. Medina has some answers there for us as well. First of all, and most importantly, exercise, be active, and stay active. An active lifestyle improves your odds of being healthy across the board, physically, emotionally, and in terms of mental acuity. Even if you’ve been an armchair pilot for years, getting started with some form of aerobic exercise, and sticking with it, will boost your brainpower over the long run.
The other advice Dr. Medina has for us to improve the shape of our aging brains is to learn tactics to limit the ill affects of stress in our lives. Apparently, situations that lead to feelings of frustration and powerlessness can actually damage the brain. It’s important to learn to take steps so that, even when experiencing something negative, you can still feel like you have some control. The tactics suggested by Dr. Medina have mostly to do with managing interpersonal stress, like finding a way to talk out a tough issue with a co-worker or loved one. But often, the big stressors in our lives are things that are beyond our control. What is within our control is how we choose to view these circumstances, and doing things to help ourselves stay in healthy balance as much as we can. So, do the thing that helps you to “chillax”, as my teenage daughter would say. Even when things really suck (and I know about when things really suck), you are in control of how you view and address your circumstances. So take some deep breaths, and make some changes that will help keep your brain cells healthy and thriving for years to come.
Before I tie things up here, I will take a moment to mention that one of the best tools for promoting balance and harmony is meditation. If you are new to meditation, and don’t know how to get started, try Seven Steps to Positive Living, a set of guided meditations that are short and accessible, and appropriate to both secular and spiritual approaches to meditation. Already down with meditation? OK, try Seven Steps as a refreshing, less than 10-minute way to enhance your current path. Go to to listen to samples, and see if you’d like to give it a try. All right, enough with the shameless self-promotion.
Let’s just all find a way to chillax!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The 4th of July

When it comes to holidays, I have a tried and true favorite – the 4th of July. Stick around for a minute, and I’ll explain why.
First up, let’s talk about gift giving. Holidays like Christmas, Chanukah, and birthdays (our own personal holidays) all require gift giving. Now, of course, gift giving is intended to be a joyful process of expressing our love through the sharing of significant tokens of our affection. For some of us, this may be a wonderful and creative process, like making jewelry, knitting scarves, or building a birdhouse. Others enjoy the process of shopping, tapping into our shared heritage as hunter-gatherers, seeking and finding just the right something for that special someone. In the interest of being fully up front, most of the time, I fall into that category. However, I know that for many others, shopping is nothing short of painful, torture, a legal form of consumer water-boarding. I have one relative who abhors the idea so much, it brings about nervous shakes just thinking of hours of foot-numbing treks through stores one would never visit on a normal day, or carpal tunnel inducing eons of clicking away online. For those folks, I point out one sublime fact - there are no gifts required for the 4th of July. Aaahhh. Can’t you just feel the sigh of relief?
Now let’s talk about food. So many of the more complicated holidays require cooking. Not cooking for fun, which is, well, fun - but compulsory cooking. This entrĂ©e must be served, it’s a family tradition, we always have that, it takes all day and is worth every moment, things just wouldn’t be the same without it – that kind of cooking. The 4th of July skirts around weighty historic and religious traditions involving the cooking of copious amounts of mostly meats and sweets. On the 4th of July we celebrate freedom, and you have the freedom to choose to cook for fun, or not to cook at all. Sweet! Maybe you will freely choose to contribute a watermelon to the neighborhood cookout, or you enjoy grilling with all the works. But the important thing is, it’s your choice, and yet another reason to love the 4th of July.
Now, let’s talk dates and events. Whereas some holidays occur on the nth day of whatever month each year, no matter what the actual date, some others are honored in a floating fashion with dating systems dictated by ancient methods known to only a select few. Needless to say, I’m not one of those few, are you? Just to add to the confusion, some holidays actually occur on one day, but are celebrated on another. But the day for celebrating American independence is on the 4th of July, occurring on the 4th day of the seventh month, every year, never fails. It’s simple, it’s straight forward, and I like it. Likewise, the 4th remains accessible and uncomplicated because there are no mandatory events on the 4th of July. If you want to do a get-together with family or friends, that’s cool. If you’d rather sit at home and watch fireworks on the tube, that’s cool, too. If you want to travel to a major city, and see a concert followed by the big boomers, go for it. If you’d rather go for a walk in the warm evening air and then hit the sack, more power to ya. No requirements, no expectations, do it your way and have a good time, that’s why I like the 4th of July.
Now, let’s finish off with one brief moment touching on the deeper meaning of Independence Day. All my simple and mundane reasons for loving the 4th of July are rooted in one universal and yet singular ideal – freedom. Regardless of our religious beliefs or political preferences, we can all get on board to participate in a day that celebrates life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What’s not to like? So, here’s hoping everyone will have a fun and relaxing 4th of July. Come what may, I know I will.