The Magic of Hugs

As the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Norwegian father, there were two distinct kinds of hugs when I was a kid.

There was the bone crushing embrace of my Bubbe, which was accompanied by a series of kisses literally smacked onto my cheek, forehead, and (if aimed poorly) eyelid, with lips pursed over clenched teeth just dying to go ahead and sneak a bite of me, as if I were an irresistible piece of chocolate babka.

Visits to the other side of the family concluded in a much different display of affection. Standing by the door as we left, Grandma Dagny would stiffen her body like a wooden board and lean slightly in my direction, arms by her side. She would awkwardly turn her cheek out to field any potential kisses, lest she should make lip contact with me. She was not a cold woman, quite the opposite, but her warmth was expressed through coffee and conversation, not through physical contact. Uff da. Very Scandinavian.

One of the most epically defining experiences of my childhood involved a hug. When I was six or seven years old, my family had a green and yellow pet parakeet. Barney liked to walk around on the kitchen floor like a dog, catching crumbs and hitching an occasional ride on a passing foot.

One day after school, my father and I were rushing around making a snack on the way out to my ballet class. I was in my black leotard and brown leather sandals—the ones we got on vacation in Cape Cod from a real leathersmith, with big flat waffle-patterned rubber soles. I cannot report the detailed logistics of how it happened. It was sudden, and it was shocking. I stepped on Barney. I felt him crunch under my foot.

What I saw and heard is permanently seared in my memory. In fact tears roll down my cheeks as I write this now, so many years later. Barney was immobilized on the floor with his back broken. His head and tail were intact, but he was flattened in the middle where my foot had been. The worst is that he wasn’t dead. Hardly. He was frantically squawking in pain he tried to get up. Recognizing there was no way to help him, my father knelt down and took me in his arms. Safe in the sheltered world of my father’s embrace, I buried my face in his shoulder and sobbed just a few feet from our suffering pet while we waited for him to finally die.

I didn’t go to ballet that day. My father made me change my shoes. In fact, he had me permanently retire them. Seeing the blood and feathers adhered to the waffle-patterned rubber, was enough to warrant their permanent disposal. He made sure I knew it wasn’t my fault and took me for an ice cream to soothe my aching heart.iStock_000022165068_Small

In the libidinous teenage years, and followed by early adulthood, I didn’t think much about hugging. The need for physical affection was eclipsed by—or perhaps entangled with—sexual expression. In search of the perfect French kiss, I could make out for hours. Exploring the feeling of a man inside me was like a space expedition. How could I think of a simple road trip like hugging when NASA was launching a rocket to the moon?

It wasn’t until my daughter was born in my early 30’s that I became reacquainted with the importance of hugging. Any woman who has had a baby is familiar with the bizarrely wondrous feeling of having a human being growing inside her body. And by the time it’s time to give birth, the transition from inside to outside brings a mix of relief and loss. It’s curious what the experience is like for the baby. A 40-week human pregnancy is broken into three trimesters of roughly three months each. I have heard the first three months of an infant’s life referred to as the fourth trimester.

In the earliest days after birth, we replace the warm, tight containment of the womb with the swaddling of a blanket. In fact, the basic ways we soothe our babies are rooted in mimicking the conditions in utero. We cradle them in our arms, holding them tightly to our chest, where they can hear our hearts beating and feel surrounded…contained…held. In the land of the living, our first language is hugging.

I love hugs. I give good hug. In fact, I consider hugging a practice, a healing modality, a form of meditation. As a blissfully single woman who just recently turned 50, I rarely am at a loss for a lover. But what I truly crave more often than sex, is a long, quality hug—the kind you sink into so long you forget that you are actually two people.

I asked my 972 Facebook friends, recently, what they love about hugs. The responses were plentiful, and all about safety, warmth, comfort, security, heartbeats, connection to each other, and connection through each other to Source or Oneness. To me that sounds a lot like the bonding that happens at the dawn of our consciousness.

Our love of a proper hug is not superficial or silly. It speaks to our need for the kind of existential homeostasis programmed in early infancy, or reaching even further back in the tight embrace of our mother’s womb, when two bodies were actually one.

As my colleague, Bryan Reeves, so eloquently states in his article, The Eightfold Path to a Truly Great Hug, “A truly great hug is a rich experience that has you pull another human body deliciously tight into yours as a way of saying, “I so deeply value your presence that I’m taking this exact moment to feel you, smell you, breathe with you—essentially stamp your being into my cellular memory so that even though we may be soon part, you will in fact always be with me in the living fabric of my existence.”

Consider this article an invitation to join me in bringing deep healing to someone by giving them a truly great hug. Reset their nervous system. Allow them to dissolve into pure existence, where no thought exists and our only requirement is to surrender to a loving embrace as a pathway to connection to a source even greater than our mother. Let’s make this our practice. You know—saving the world one hug at a time.

Waking Up to Sex

I had dinner with an ex-lover last weekend. He waited until we ordered and then looked directly at me across the table and said, “I read your article, 6 Ways to Have Radically Intimate Sex, and you forgot the biggest one.”

I looked back at him trying to detect if he was serious or just playfully sparring. He was serious.

“Yes? Which one did I miss?” I said with tentative curiosity. Without hesitation, he said, “Morning Sex.” It came out of his mouth like the moderator at a spelling bee, each syllable deliberately and matter-of-factly articulated.

MOR. NING. SEX.

I felt my chest and throat tighten. My resistance tells me I am at my edge. He’s right. Morning sex is radically intimate.

“Oh right, I forgot that about you,” I replied.

I love middle-of-the-night sex—the kind when it’s pitch black and you’re half asleep, when a good naked spoon slowly becomes a fork—but when the sun streams through the windows, I usually want to sneak out undetected. As a boyfriend of mine once said upon waking, “You look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.” Even his charming London accent didn’t soften the blow. I am not a morning person by nature. Having post-coital company exacerbates this condition.

In the days after our dinner, the conversation stayed with me. I asked my ex-lover to tell me what he loves about morning sex. This is what he said:

“I love watching the woman I have been intimate with stirring in the morning light. It’s like that Leonard Cohen lyric, “I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm, your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm…”’

Morning is

A time of true heartfelt exchange

And then…without the liquid intoxication

It’s like first steps again

Freshness of the skin sensations

Eye to eye acknowledgement and smiles

A playful scene

Kissing past the bad breath and leftover scents

A reconvening

I love the force of sobriety

If you can fuck in the morning, you can win the world

Maybe it’s like blowing off the ash of the fire burned the night before and then feeding it again.

His words moved me. This is a man who is not afraid to feel. I know well the benefits of radical intimacy; the deep connection that is made through mutual vulnerability—the healing that comes from being seen and from the witnessing of another. I want to feel about morning sex the way he does.

“What would have to happen for that to happen?” I asked myself. It’s not easy—but it’s simple.

I would embrace my imperfections. I would be naked in broad daylight. I would love my scars that grace my body after 17 surgeries. I would see my pale lips and bare cheeks as an expression of natural beauty. I would rock my bed head like it was the mane of the goddess mother herself.

The great researcher and author, Brené Brown, says that people who live “wholeheartedly” believe that what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful. I imagine a space where physical imperfections actually make me more beautiful—because I embrace them with courage and the kind of self-love and compassion that it takes to dance naked in the sunlight with a lover, without shame. I want to live there.

And as far as the morning breath goes, I have found that a single sip of bubbly water from a bottle—strategically place on the nightstand the night before—has a way of freshening a morning mouth.

Grace by Bandwidth

“I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few.” —Brené Brown

There are a few things that I am certain of: we are born alone, we die alone, and I could eat rice pudding until I explode. Other than that, it’s all a crap shoot. The remarkable breadth of possibility in the world is met by an equally broad range of uncertainty. And so, in order to embrace a life filled with expansion and growth, we must also be able to sit with uncertainty and the discomfort of vulnerability it brings with it.

Here are 3 ways to increase your tolerance for discomfort:

1. Play with Your Edges

I had a boyfriend once who insisted, one night, that we sleep upside down in our bed—with our feet at the top, heads at the bottom. His point was that we would never forget that night. Many years and lovers later, I can confirm that he was right. But something else happened that night. We woke up.

By definition, habits are unconscious thoughts and actions. When we begin to dismantle habitual patterns, we awaken to our experiences with a heightened state of awareness. We usually embody this wakefulness across the board, bringing new perspective to many areas of our lives—a state of enlightenment.

Rather than wait to be passively woken up out of our sleepy habits by an accident, trauma, or other existential bump in the road, practice stretching the edges of your comfort zone when life is calm and peaceful. Actively creating insignificant changes for the purpose of sitting in discomfort, will help to develop the muscles you need when life takes you on a roller coaster unexpectedly.

Some suggestions:
Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand.
Forgo one of your go-to comfort foods for a month.
Drive a different route home from work for a week.
Read before bed instead of watching television.

2. Self-Soothe

Those of us who are parents know how important it is to teach our infants to self-soothe. It is an area in which many of us are still underdeveloped, even as adults. When we are emotionally uncomfortable, it is easy to act out in ways that ultimately will contribute to an increased state of discomfort and distress.

Some suggestions:
Choose a cup of hot tea, instead of a pint of ice cream.
Take a warm, candle lit bath, instead of opening a bottle of wine.
Read a book to escape perseverating over a situation, instead of calling a friend to vent about it into the night.

3. Delay Action

As a culture, we are conditioned to focus on Doing, and not so much on Being. When faced with challenging circumstances, we usually will find ourselves saying, “I don’t know what to do about this.” Very often, the doing is something that could—or even should—come later. A better statement of inquiry would be, “I don’t know how to be with this.” By resisting the urge to take action, we afford ourselves the room to sit with our thoughts and feelings. Give yourself permission to have your thoughts and feelings, but at the same time, realize that your thoughts and feelings do not define you. One of my favorite Pema Chödrön quotes is: “You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather.”

Some suggestions:
Name your pain. Unpack it, spread it on the table, inventory it, write it down.
Sit with it and get to know it.
Draw distinctions between what you think and what you feel.
Breathe into the part of yourself that transcends “the weather”.

Perspective as a Power Tool

“I kind of quit surfing when I got out of high school, but then a few years ago I started to take it up again. I’m not an expert by any means, but it’s so wonderful to get out in the ocean and get a different perspective on things.” —Jeff Bridges

It’s part of the human condition that we come upon challenging moments when it feels as though the people in our lives—or life itself—is beating us down. Or perhaps there is a specific aspect of a situation or relationship that is showing up as a persistent source of discomfort. At these times, we lose objectivity and become immersed in our own myopic experiencing of the circumstances. Emotional pain has a way of clouding our vision. The suffering can be compounded when we react with emotional charge, without the benefit of time and distance to balance the way we see things. The first step in deciding what to do with something is choosing how to be with it. Perspective can be defined as the interrelation in which a subject—or its parts—is viewed in it’s context. Bringing choice to the way we hold our experiences, releases us from victimhood and hands us back our personal power.

As Byron Katie says, “Don’t believe everything you think.” So how do we change the way we perceive things? Here are 3 ways:

1. Change Your Geography

Changing our external environment can shift our internal landscape. Going to a yoga class, taking a weekend out of town, or even just stepping away from our desk for moment can not only divert our attention, but the visceral feeling of a new environment can cause a somatic shift in consciousness. How many times have you said, “Let me look at this from a different angle?” Taken literally, it means moving your body to a different location to see what things look like from there. Adding the element of physical exercise draws energy from the mind to the body—breaking up fixated thought patterns, and opening up pathways to a new perspective. 

2. Try on a Role Model

We all have people in our lives who we admire. Maybe they have qualities we find admirable or maybe it’s the sum total of how they show up in the world. When we are struggling with a situation in our own lives, it can be a great exercise to try on the persona of someone we would like to emulate. Ask yourself, “What would the Dalai Llama do?” Whether its your sister, your teacher, or Meryl Streep, borrowing the consciousness of someone we look up to and applying it to our own situation can fast track a shift.

3. Pull Focus on the Big Picture

When we are in the thick of a situation, we tend to be focused on the intensity of our own personal experience. Taking a moment to balance the micro with the macro can be like a breath of fresh air. “How does this moment fit within the larger context of my life? What feels important about this? What values are being challenged?” are all questions which have a perspective shift built into them. Another way to reframe is to ask yourself what you would like to say about this moment when you look back at it five years from now. Considering the context of our personal life history is often just the change in perspective we are looking for.

Shut Up and Listen

 

“Within you there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” —Hermann Hesse

Life can often feel like an act of survival. It’s a hyper-connected, multi-tasking, texting-tweeting-downdogging-180-degree-latte kind of world, and it’s easy to get so caught up in the juggle that we forget we can simply put down the balls and breathe. Simply stopping the motion periodically provides us with an opportunity to redirect our attention inward, shifting the focus back to ourselves. Developing a stillness practice helps us tune in to our inner voice, so that we may remember who we are and reconnect with our own personal power.

Here are five practices to cultivate stillness in your busy life:

1. 7-in-Heaven

Begin each day by sitting in silence for seven minutes. Take advantage of the moments in the morning when outside stimulation is at a minimum and your mind is clearest. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed and slow your breath. Pause at the top of each inhalation and at the bottom of each exhalation, creating a moment of stillness. This sets a baseline for inner peace and connectedness, which we can return to throughout the day.

2. Alarming Presence

Set an alarm to go off four times during the day (for example: 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm). Whenever the alarm sounds, bring your focus to what you are doing. Take a mental inventory of your physical presence and articulate it something like this: Feet on the floor. Feet on the floor. Thighs on chair. Thighs on chair. Hands on keyboard. Hands on keyboard. Repeating each item twice gives your mind a moment to really become present to the simple mechanics of what you are doing and encourages the transfer of energy from the mind to the body.

3. Quiet on the Set

Sometimes I feel like my life is like a huge movie production with many people hustling around. It is noisy—figuratively and literally. Take steps to reduce the noise level in your day. Turn down the music, turn off text and email alerts, and stop talking! Silence is not the same as stillness; lowering the overall volume of your life will keep you from getting so over-stimulated that you spend the better part of your stillness practice recovering from auditory overload.

4. Dirty Feet

Chaos in our lives is almost always reflected in our physical energy. We get caught in our heads as we try to manage many things at once and regain some sort of order and control. Even at moments of critical stress, stepping outside and putting our feet in the dirt (grass or sand will do) has a calming effect by drawing the energy down through the chakra system. When someone we know is level-headed, we say they are “grounded.” Feeling connected to and supported by the Earth is a path to instant stillness.

5. Time-Out from Technology

Take one hour each day to be completely off-grid. Schedule this time at a regular hour, just like “Happy Hour.” This works not only to foster stillness in the moment, but also to counterbalance and recalibrate your participation in the chaos that can result from perpetual accessibility through multiple technology-enabled information streams.

As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Author of The Distraction Addiction, says, “It’s not about forsaking the digital life for ‘real life’; it’s a way to discover a richer life where your devices, your social world, and your rediscovered, unburdened self can coexist. Like any practice, you need to do it regularly, work past the hurdles and uncertainties, to see the benefits flower. And while you’re cultivating them, don’t worry about your phone or Facebook. They’ll be there when you get back.”

 

The Art of a Truly Restorative Vacation

“I NEED A VACATION FROM MY VACATION.”

We’ve all said it; we’ve all felt it: the blanket of exhaustion that unfurls upon our return from what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation, the disorientation tinged with melancholy that always seems to take us by surprise. Imagining and fantasizing about a trip is energizing. Researching and planning is exciting. But as months of anticipation turn into weeks and then days of preparation, the logistics of extracting ourselves from our busy lives loaded with responsibilities can be daunting and leads to a phenomenon that I have come to call, “the pre-vacay crescendo.” Work, kids, packing, dogs, mail, passport, newspaper—whatever your particular moving parts—putting them all on hold for a while takes considerable energy, and the days and hours leading up to departure inevitably feel like a mad rush to get it all done. I often find myself saying, “I’ll relax when I’m on the plane.”

But, is this scenario really inevitable? Must every vacation be bracketed by depletion? Is it possibly to have a truly restorative vacation? When a colleague handed me a press release about Rancho Bernardo Inn’s new Wellness Rooms, it sounded like a perfect laboratory for an experiment. One of Southern California’s most renowned spa resorts has taken several guest rooms near the spa and refashioned them with a focus on wellness. Each room was adorned with calming lavender scented candles, house-made body scrubs, neroli water spray, in-room yoga mats, exercise balls and fitness DVDs, plus a 15% discount on spa treatments and exclusive access to the exclusive spa pool. I booked a room, packed a bag, and headed down the coast.

The word vacation comes from the Latin root vacare— to be empty; free. As I drove the nearly two hours from Los Angeles to San Diego, I emptied myself of all the things that usually demand or capture my attention, so I was free to be present in my exploration of personal restoration. I did my little “presenting practice” of systematically taking inventory of my physicality and the accompanying sensations, repeating each observation twice, like this: “Hands on the wheel. Hands on the wheel. Wrists relaxed. Wrists relaxed. Elbows gently at sides. Elbows gently at sides. Butt in the seat. Butt in the seat.” By the time I hit the 405, I had left my life behind and was making a list of what typically gets in the way of a relaxing vacation. Here’s what I came up with:

FAILING TO DOWNSHIFT

Like it or not, most of us move at mach speed through our very busy lives. We are required to be master multi-taskers. With our devices perpetually in our hands, our attention is almost always fractured. It’s practically not a choice anymore; it’s what we must to do—who we must BE—in order to function effectively in our fast-paced, hyper-stimulating, über accessible, urban world. Without realizing it, we tend to maintain this energy level even when we could be slowing down. Vacation is a time to get off the Autobahn and take the scenic route.

FOMO

“Fear of Missing Out” is a term I only recently heard. I wasn’t late to this party; I just didn’t know what the fete was called. We are blessed to live in the Land of Opportunity and we like to make the most of every one of those opportunities. When it comes to vacations, Travel Channel and TripAdvisor have brought the world into our homes and heightened our awareness of all the extraordinary places to visit and experience on the planet. I often find that in planning a trip, I make an impossibly long list of everything I want to do and see. Self-imposed pressure to not miss a thing is a roadblock to my relaxation.

GUILT SHMILT

I’m not sure what it is about our society—or maybe it’s just me—but it seems like we feel guilty when we relax. Productivity is paramount, and with everyone manifesting all over the place, it can be tough to give ourselves permission to drop out of the production line. I am sure every European takes the customary month of August off without a shred of guilt. It’s time to let ourselves off the hook. Our kids, co-workers, and pets are fine without us. And if they are not, they are developing coping skills.

STAYING ONLINE

Unplug. For realz. Enough said.

 

Arriving at Rancho Bernardo Inn with my commitment to wellness at the forefront of my consciousness, I pulled up to the valet, grabbed my bag, and handed him my keys. My plan was to slow way down and evaluate every choice by it’s alignment with my wellness. After an easy check-in, I dropped my bag in the room and headed to the spa. On the wellness-scale, a “Heaven and Hops” treatment is a no-brainer. My therapist oiled me, massaged me, scrubbed me with crushed grape seed and olive oils, slathered me with barley and hops, and wrapped me like a burrito in warm towels. When my muscles were the consistency of pudding, and my mind was sufficiently empty and free, she showered me, stuck a pint of craft beer in my hand, and then led me to my own private poolside cabaña where I stayed all day. I read a book. I took a dip in the pool. I had the pool boy bring me a salad. I watched the birds. I finished the book. I drank water. I watched the butterflies. I relaxed. Here is what I didn’t do: worry about paying bills, check my email, think about the freelance gig I was trying to land, wonder if my son was having a good day at school, try to figure out what snacks to bring his soccer game that weekend, wonder why that guy I met the other night hadn’t called yet…you get the idea. I was successfully present to what was happening in the moment.

Back at my room, I unfurled the provided yoga mat and saluted the setting sun, falling into a slow yin practice and pranayama. With each inhalation, I felt the pull to go do something: to get dressed and check out the scene at the lounge, to try one of the restaurants. With each exhalation, I let the restless energy go. It’s not that going out would have been relaxing, quite the opposite. But in that moment, with the limited time I had, what served my wellness most was stillness. I ordered in, drew a bath, and ate dinner in bed with a movie.

The rest of my stay looked exactly the same. Checking out, I found myself longing for more time. The post-vacay melancholy was making an early appearance. So I used my drive home wisely by developing a strategy for a graceful reentry. It comes down to these two things:

  1. Take a day or two to fully integrate (with a longer vacation, three or four days). In other words, go easy on the productivity and manifesting. Take care of business and let the chores go. Or, do some laundry, but order in dinner for a couple of nights.
  1. Identify a peak moment of the vacation and define what made it powerful. Use that as a basis for ritual in daily life. For me it was the experience of being swaddled like a baby during my spa treatment. As a (blissfully) single woman, I rarely have the opportunity to be held. I forgot how therapeutic it can be to have the nervous system calmed by gentle constraint. Since that moment on the treatment table, I have climbed into bed under heavy blankets to get the same effect.

What I learned in my experiment is that, indeed, it is possible to have a truly restorative vacation. I’m not going to lie… I will often choose to have a whirlwind vacation filled with sightseeing by day and bar crawling by night, soaking in as much local culture as I can absorb—the kind of vacation that leaves you physically drained but even more mentally and spiritually full. But, after seeing the restorative effects of slowing down, turning in, and simply choosing wellness, I am much more likely to schedule in some downtime during such a trip with some stillness in the midst of perpetual motion. And I will always make a plan for a mindful reentry.

 

9 Essentials for a Truly Restorative Wellness Retreat

1 SLEEP  According to the CDC, sleep deprivation has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Sufficient sleep is the foundation of wellness. Use your wellness retreat to catch up and to feel what it is like to experience a full night of sleep.

2 STILLNESS  Taking the opportunity to slow way down will disengage the sympathetic nervous system, allowing you to reprogram your brain. Meditate, soak in a hot tub, take a sauna, lie in a hammock, and let your brain unwind.

3 MOVEMENT  Just as we tend to lack mental stillness in our daily lives, we also tend not to move our bodies enough. Go for a run, play golf, take a yoga class, or swim laps. Moving your body gets the blood pumping, increasing oxygen to your organs, including your brain.

4 READ  Let your mind travel from its everyday focus, along with the rest of you. Whether you choose a novel, a magazine, or the sutras, expanding your intellectual world can offer a healthy respite from your mental chatter.

5 NATURE  Intrinsic to wellness is balance. Connecting with the world around us reminds us that we are one small part of something much greater than ourselves and puts our own struggles into perspective.

6 NURTURE  There’s a fine line between self-care and self-indulgence. Make choices that promote your wellness. Moment-by-moment presence will help connect with what you really need for your own care and restoration.

7 NOURISH  Eat clean. You know what makes you feel good and healthy. Everyone’s system is unique. Listen to your body and choose well. And hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

8 GRATITUDE  “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” —Eckhart Toll