Saturday, May 22, 2010

To be or not to be...happy with my body

"I am feeling pretty good about how I look and feel these days. I think that all that hard work, exercising every day and eliminating wheat and sugar, is finally paying off. My clothes are getting looser." This is the monologue I have with myself on the way to the bathroom, determined to look at reality in the face as I am about to step on the scale and weigh myself for the first time in a week. I urge myself on: "Don't be scared. They are just numbers on a scale. Just numbers. They don't mean anything about who you are as a person. Don't let the numbers discourage you. Remind yourself of how you feel instead of focusing on numbers."

I take a big breath and I step on the scale. I have not lost a pound in over 10 days. How can that be? I have been so good. I watch everything I eat and I have doubled up on exercise! NOT FAIR! Why is it always so hard for me to lose weight? Any normal person on the same regimen would be melting away. But not me! Ah no! I have to invest blood, sweat and tears for every single ounce I shed and then some.

I have been on diets ever since I can remember. One memory in particular sticks out like a sore thumb. I was 12 years old, too fat to wear the hot pants and halter tops that were the rage in the seventies, and my dad drove all of us kids to the Dairy Queen for a treat. Every one ordered their favourite ice cream and then my parents turned to me with a "be reasonable" look in their eyes to ask what I wanted. I said I did not want anything. They approved. They smiled.

I said no to something sweet with lots of calories. An act of bravery. A step in the right direction if I did not want to balloon into an even bigger version of myself. I had done the right thing but I was miserable. I felt deprived as I watched my sisters happily lick their cone in what appeared to be slow motion.

When I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with a condition called Hypothyroidism which explained in part was I was obese and feeling lethargic. Getting that diagnosis was like a balm on my wounded self-confidence. It was not
all my fault that I was overweight. I had a very slow metabolism (3 times slower than normal in fact). I managed to lose a lot of weight that summer before starting grade 12 partly thanks to the medication and mostly thanks to a starvation diet and manic exercise sessions.

But unfortunately the damage was already done. I grew up feeling fat and no matter how much I weighed, I would always be fat in my head and in my heart.

That is why I was so intrigued when Oprah had the author Geneen Roth on her show talking about her new book entitled
Women, Food and God. I bought the book right away and devoured it (pardon the pun) in just a few days.

Geneen Roth belonged in my club of people perpetually displeased with their weight and looks until she had a revelation a few years ago. One day she was so disgusted with herself that she was on the verge of suicide. And then, out of the blue, she did something radical. She ended the war. She stopped trying to fix, deprive and shame herself. She began trusting her body and questioning her belief. Roth's basic premise is that "the way you eat is inseparable from your core beliefs about being alive." According to her "your relationship with food is an exact mirror of your feelings about love, fear, anger, meaning, transformation and, yes, even God."

Ever since then, Geneen Roth has been leading workshops for women like me who have an unhealthy relationship with food with great success. Admittedly, it takes a few days before the women in her group agree to let go of their beliefs and start considering the possibility that their obsession with food has never been about food but rather a temperature gauge about how they feel about themselves deep down.

I had a huge revelation as I read Chapter Eleven of Roth's book is entitled
Those Who Have Fun and Those Who Don't. Roth talks about two kinds of compulsive eaters: Restrictors and Permitters.

Restrictors believe in control. Deprivation is comforting for a Restrictor because it gives them a sense of control. "If I limit my food intake, I limit my body size." Their guiding principles are denial and constraints. Their core belief is that less is more. Restrictors believe that they have to work very hard to achieve their goals and they are convinced that suffering is noble. If it is not hard it is not worth doing... What a way to live huh? They are not much fun to be around.

On the other hand the
Permitters are all about fun. They dislike any kinds of rules. Permitters prefer to go through life with sunglasses on. Permitters live in denial. "You just live once so what the heck!" They splurge. "Might as well pig out and store up before the bounty dries up" Their life strategy is one of avoidance. If they don't try to lose weight or achieve any kind of goal, then they won't be disappointed if and when they fail.

The Restrictors control.

The Permitters numb.

Now let's be clear. These typologies are not cut and dry. Everyone can be both Permitter and Restrictor. A Restrictor turns into a Permitter every time she binges. A Permitter becomes a Restrictor every time she resolves to follow a weight loss program.

Even so. I think that your core personality is one or the other. Either you like to control things or you have a laissez-faire attitude towards life.

As for myself, I am a text book Restrictor. I am not proud of this. But the knowing is freeing at the same time. At any time and in any circumstances I have choices to make. I may still make the choice to deprive and limit myself but maybe I can start to change by at least being aware of why I make those choices. Maybe I can entertain, even if for a few milliseconds, another choice. The choice of letting go. The choice of trusting my body. The choice of accepting (and dare I say it, loving) all of who I am in that moment, warts and all.

What about you? Can you relate to any of this? The Permitter and Restrictor labels are not just restricted to your attitude about weight. In life, do you tend to deprive yourself more often than you splurge? What impact is this having? Do you like being the way you are? Is there another way? Is there a way for you to suffer less and to enjoy more?

Food for thought... (Isn't it funny how fascination with food permeates our culture?)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fleeting Moments

Spring time is my favourite season. I love watching Mother Nature putting on her green coat with a sprinkling of tulips and daffodils. Alas... the season is fleeting. It seems like just the other day I caught my breath as I looked at the apple tree in bloom. The tree looked like a giant pink cotton candy and brought a smile to my face. But today the flowers are already fading. The petals are floating to the ground with each breath of the wind covering the base of the tree in a pink shroud.

Nature gave me a fleeting gift of a tree in bloom. I am glad that when I saw it, I actually saw it. Not just with the corner of my eyes as I was driving by but I saw it with my whole being. I "saw" the apple tree in bloom and registered in my head and in my heart how beautiful it was. I felt awed. I felt grateful for witnessing nature at work in all its grandeur.

Recently I read an article in the Yoga Journal magazine by Frank Jude Boccio entitled I'm so happy for you. Boccio explores the concept of impermanence. When we are aware of the impermanence of things it can enhance our ability to touch joy, even for just that moment. Boccio writes:

"Both Patanjali and Buddha emphasize that much of our duhkha (suffering or discontent) arises because we live as if the current conditions were permanent." When things are going well, we attempt to live as if they always will (...) And when things are going poorly, we imagine that this will always be the case, forgetting that bad times too will pass."
When one becomes conscious of the fleeting nature of all things, including ourselves, we do not take anyone or anything for granted. That is what they call living mindfully. When you are in the presence of something that fills you with joy, you soak in that moment. On the other hand, when you face difficulties or setbacks you may be more resilient because you know that this too shall pass.

This notion of impermanence has taken on a greater meaning for me this week. On Monday I got an emotional phone call from my 80 year old father informing me that the nagging pain he had in his lower abdomen for the past few weeks was in fact cancer. Four days later, the surgeon took out a tumour the size of a grapefruit from his abdomen. Now we are waiting for the lab results...

Since I found out that my father had cancer, I have been on an emotional roller coaster. Yes, in my darkest moments, I have reflected on the possibility of losing my father to cancer. What would my life be like without his loving presence? We live in the same town, we talk on the phone and visit every week. He has always been there for me, as a child and today, as a parent myself.

Memories of my father have danced in my head this last week. The small things stand out. The heart-shaped sandwiches and homemade valentine he would leave by my bed on Valentine's Day. The mashed potatoes and milk he coloured green in honour of St. Patrick's Day. The cartoon characters shaped pancakes he would make (and sometimes still makes upon special requests) on Saturday mornings. My father's big hand holding mine on the way to church when I was a child and years later, as I was crying over a boyfriend who broke my heart as a young adult. The chocolate icing cake (as my daughter's affectionately call it) that he makes especially for his grand-children's birthdays. The homemade 3D personalized birthday cards that he makes for everyone of his children, grand-children, brothers and sisters every year without fail.

Some of those things I truly appreciated in the moment, especially the birthday cards which are the highlight of my birthday every year. (A few years ago, I celebrated my 45th birthday on a trip in Kyoto, Japan, with my husband. Even though we had a spectacular day visiting temples and shrines, something was missing. When I got back home, my father gave me my birthday card and it seemed then, and only then, that all the pieces had fallen into place.) Other things, I took for granted. They made me happy at the time but I did not realize how memorable they would become.

I regret that I was not conscious of how meaningful and joyful those ephemeral moments were when I lived them. I don't think I knew then that forty years later those heart-shaped sandwiches would still mean so much to me. If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I would savour those moments. I would take a picture in my mind's eye to capture the feeling of happiness and contentment forever.

Knowing what I know now, I will gain courage in knowing that this difficult and painful time is also impermanent and that happier times are ahead.

Knowing what I know now, I will seize every opportunity to tell my father that I love him and that I am grateful for all the loving kindnesses he has given me over my lifetime. I will keep savouring each and every impermanent moment with him in the years to come, once he has beaten his cancer. And maybe, just maybe, it will make up for all those years when I lived happy moments with my eyes closed.

In fact, knowing what I know now, I vow to live my life in the present moment. Not longing for the past or blaming the past. Not planning for the future or worrying about the future. Living in the now, feeling the happiness of happy times and the sadness of sad times.

Knowing what you know now, is there anything that you would like to do differently? By reminding yourself of the transitory nature of life, what joys take on more meaning and what heartaches become more tolerable? Who do you need to say "I love you" to in your life today?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

It's the small things that matter most

I finally had a chance to watch the movie Up last night. What an uplifting movie! (Pardon the pun). I understand now why it won so much acclaim and garnered two Oscars.

Up tells the story of an old man, Carl Fredricksen, who has always dreamt of adventure. All of their married life together the old man and his wife Elie talked about building a house on top of Paradise Falls somewhere in South America. They painstakingly saved their loose change in a Paradise Falls jar but then life happened... A broken down car that needed repairs. A forced stay at the hospital as a result of a broken leg. A tree falling onto the house during a bad storm. Every time, they broke the piggy bank holding the promise of their dream to pay for these necessities. The years moved on. One day, Elie was not able to climb the small hill to their favourite picnic spot under a tree. That was the same day that the old man wanted to surprise his wife with two plane tickets to South America. Sadly, they never went on that trip Elie had to be hospitalized and passed away. Carl stubbornly refuses to sell his house and move into a senior's home even though his little house is being dwarfed by the skyscrapers surrounding him. The nasty building developer seizes an unfortunate opportunity to get rid of this recalcitrant man. Mr. Fredricksen is forced to move to a senior's home by the authorities. He ties thousands of balloons to his house which is transformed into a aircraft. As he relaxes back into his easy chair, floating over the city, feeling quite proud of himself, there is a knock at the door... somehow an 8 year old boy scout has tagged along for the ride.
They actually do make it to Paradise Falls but they face all sorts of trials and tribulations on their way there. The quest to Paradise Falls helps them uncover personal strengths they did not know they possessed. They stood by their values and saved the day.

In the end, as they reflect on the wild ride they experienced together, Carl and the little boy come to the conclusion that it is the little things that matter most. The little boy remembers fondly times with his dad when they both got ice cream, chocolate flavour for the boy and butter pecan for the father, sit on a curb and count the blue and red cars passing by. Carl realizes that even though he and Elie never did travel to South America together, the times spent reading the paper side by side, holding hands while sitting on the couch watching TV, or picnicking under their favourite tree have been his most treasured times on this earth. He would not change a thing.

I have been very lucky. I have had some great adventures in my life so far. I have travelled to over 25 countries: snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef; rode in a tuk tuk in the middle of rush hour traffic in Bangkok; prayed in Buddhist temples in Kyoto; climbed the stairs of the Tour Eiffel and drank champagne in a gondola on a canal in Venice. Although all these experiences are treasured memories, I always looked forward to coming back home after those trips.

I wonder, if I were to look back on my life as Carl Fredricksen did in the movie
Up, what memories would truly warm my heart? What memories would define who I am and who I was proud to be? Who would be the main actors in those memories? Chances are that I would come to the same conclusions as Mr. Fredricksen. It was the little things that mattered most.

When I come back home after one of my trips, I look forward to the little pleasures of life. I cherish things like pizza and a movie every Friday night with my family, watching my girls teary eyed performing in a play or playing beautifully at a musical concert or sharing a bagel and a coffee at the local Tim Horton's with my husband on a Saturday morning.

This is not to say that if I had a choice to do it all over again I would not choose to go on those trips. On the contrary, not only did I discover places of incredible beauty on my adventures but I also got to know myself better. The being away makes the coming home that much sweeter. The coming home gives you a fresh perspective about things you may take for granted in your every day life. Those little seemingly mundane things that in retrospect makes life worth living, worth remembering fondly...

What about you? Is there an adventure calling your name? What will you look forward to when you come home? How will that change how you experience the everyday pleasures that life offers you? Will it change those pleasures or will it change how you live those moments of pleasures? The Buddhist remind us to live in the present moment. Soak in those moments. Taste them. Relish them as they happen. After all, it is not the big exotic adventures that define us but the every day adventure of being a parent, a partner, a friend.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Body Wisdom

OUCH! It really hurts! As I get out of bed to start my day, I notice that my left shoulder and neck are stiff with pain. I try stretching and a hot shower but it does not feel any better. The day must go on. I am presenting a workshop. People are counting on me. I pop a couple of aspirins and jump into the car to drive to my session downtown.

The pain medication is not kicking in. Odd. I rarely take pain medication and when I do, I can feel some relief almost immediately. I shove the pain in the back of my mind, put a smile on my face and greet my client with enthusiasm. Usually, when I am delivering a workshop, I can throw myself into my work and forget about what ails me. Not this time. My shoulder is throbbing. I keep massaging it hoping the pain will subside. Maybe if I stand this way it won't be so painful. Maybe if I sit down to do this part I won't feel it as much. Maybe if I let my arm rest on the table my shoulder will be able to relax. Nothing works. I get through my two hours workshop with a sigh of relief. I take a couple more aspirins as I gobble down my lunch.

In the afternoon, I am attending a workshop by a well-known guru in the field of coaching, James Flaherty. I have been so looking forward to hear him speak. While my mind is enthralled by his words of wisdom, I will be able to forget about my sore shoulder and neck. Alas no. No matter how I position myself on my chair, the throbbing pain in my shoulder and neck marks every second that goes by.

James Flaherty says that our work as coaches is to lessen human suffering. Our mission is helping people become more and more alive. Two things prevent people from moving forward in their personal development: an unwillingness to
be a beginner and anxiety.

Beginner's mind

If we are not willing to let go of what we
think we know to explore new ways of interpreting the world, we become stuck. In a beginner's mind there are lots of possibilities. In an expert's mind (an "I know it all" mindset) there are only a few possibilities. In order to grow as a human being, we need to be willing to feel off balance from time to time and become a student of life. We need to be content with sitting with a question rather than quickly jumping to an answer.


According to Flaherty, anxiety happens when we feel our identity starting to loosen. We feel anxious when we sense a kind of threat or uncertainty. Anxiety comes when life's circumstances challenge our way of seeing the world. Flaherty says that we need to interpret anxiety in a different way: as an indication that something exciting is about to happen. We feel anxious when we
learn something (a condition for TRUE learning). Flaherty believes that anxiety is the barrier that separates the authentic and inauthentic self. If we consider that anxiety houses a lot of energy, we then have a choice to make: use that energy to preserve the status quo or face the fear to be able to uncover our authentic self. If we let anxiety prevent us from acting, we become smaller and smaller. We can have access to a fuller and happier life if we make friends with anxiety.

James Flaherty has developed an approach to coaching called Integral Coaching. There are parts to ourselves that we cannot relate to. For example, he jokes, you step on the scale in the morning and you cannot relate to the number that appears on the scale. To become fully ourselves as human beings, we need to integrate all four parts of ourselves:

Personal World: our inner feelings
Body and Behaviour: the body has its own way of knowing things and because it can be observed objectively, people feel that it is more real
Relationships and Culture: the social world - our ways of living, talking and observing
Human and Natural: our physical environment

"As a coach, where would you recommend we start working with someone?" asked a fifty-something man in the audience. "When in doubt, start with number two, the body. The body is usually the most neglected part of ourselves." replies Flaherty.

"Huh? The body is the most neglected part of ourselves?" I repeat to myself. I work out 6 days a week. I watch what I eat: no processed foods, no sugar. I am making my local pharmacy owner very rich with all the creams, lotions and vitamins I am buying to keep my body healthy. My body is not neglected. What is he talking about?

My shoulder seems to be screaming with pain at this point. Is it trying to tell me something? OK then. Let's try this. What if my body was trying to tell me something that I have not been willing to admit to myself?

What has been on my mind lately? Lots of anxiety. I am worried about my new business. The work has dried up. I have not had any contracts in over four weeks. The only two contracts I had lined up for the rest of the year were for the end of May, and both were cancelled...on the same day!

In between the bouts of panic, I have had some moments of saneness. I have been asking myself "What am I supposed to learn from this situation? What opportunities may I be disregarding?" A friend who is a professional coach listened to me patiently as I was sharing with her my discouragement and fear. She asked me some potent questions: "What did you set out to do when you first launched your business? For the sake of what did you make such a bold step? What are your personal and professional values? Are you living them fully? How much work / money are enough?"

The answers to these questions were quite revealing. My goal in setting up my own consulting firm was to do more of what I love: teaching leadership and finding creative ways to bring the arts into my practice (for example incorporating Improv theatre, poetry and music into my workshops). As it turns out, my fear of not having enough - enough work, enough money, enough respect and credibility as a new business owner - has been dictating my choices. I have accepted any and all contracts that came my way out of a survival mentality. Those contracts have been mostly for facilitating strategic planning and action planning sessions (s0mething I do well but I do not necessarily enjoy). The work that I did do in the areas of leadership development and the arts has been far and few between and more by happenstance.

If my body could talk it might say something like this: "You are carrying a heavy burden on your shoulders. You are trying to build a successful business. To do so you are willing to take whatever comes your way and put in countless hours to get the job done even if the work does not feed your soul. There is only so much pressure I can take you know! You left your government job to pursue your dreams but you are replicating the same pattern of saying yes to everything and anything out of fear of not being needed. There is a part of you that feels that working hard justifies your existence. You tell yourself "If they need me then it must mean that I am somewhat useful to them. And if I am very busy then it must mean that I am very good at what I do." You are letting others define who you are and what you are worth. Well, I say "Enough already!" If you are refusing to listen to your headaches, to that pit in your stomach and your constant fatigue then I have to pull out the big guns and let you feel the pain. It will hurt so much that you won't be able to continue checking off those things on your endless "To Do" list, walking around zombie-like on autopilot. It will hurt so much that you will have to stop, completely. You will have to lie down on a heating pad and be bored for a while. Maybe, just maybe, this time you will ask yourself some hard questions and choose a different path. I sure hope so, for your sake."

My body is pretty wise isn't it? I think so. Now, if only I could "make friends with my anxiety" as Flaherty suggests. Anxiety is a huge source of energy. That source of energy could be canalized into creating a new path for myself. OK shoulder. I've got the message. Here I grow again. Wish me luck!