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April 19, 2022

Sleep Well (Or Better Than You Currently Are)

A long way back, I blogged about how I wasn’t sleeping well. Since the start of the pandemic, my sleeping schedule has dramatically changed. I go to bed much earlier than I used to – and I’m often up by 4:30 am. On the whole, it’s worked for me – but it can be challenging because I can’t seem to break the cycle when I need to stay up for an activity that lasts beyond 9 pm.

Most people would say they are someone who gets insufficient sleep – either in duration or that they have an abnormal pattern. I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life that way myself. It’s a bummer.

Recently, I read the wonderful book by a neuroscientist, Matthew Walker, entitled “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.” My wife had been handing out copies to friends for over a year – and I finally caved to see what the hubbub was about. Subconsciously, I think I was avoiding reading it because it illuminates just how important sleep is.

The book is chock full of fascinating revelations. Here’s the description of it from the Amazon page selling the book:

“Sleep is one of the most important but least understood aspects of our life, wellness, and longevity. Until very recently, science had no answer to the question of why we sleep, or what good it served, or why we suffer such devastating health consequences when we don’t sleep. Compared to the other basic drives in life—eating, drinking, and reproducing—the purpose of sleep remained elusive.

An explosion of scientific discoveries in the last twenty years has shed new light on this fundamental aspect of our lives. Now, preeminent neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker gives us a new understanding of the vital importance of sleep and dreaming. Within the brain, sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions. It recalibrates our emotions, restocks our immune system, fine-tunes our metabolism, and regulates our appetite. Dreaming mollifies painful memories and creates a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge to inspire creativity.

Walker answers important questions about sleep: how do caffeine and alcohol affect sleep? What really happens during REM sleep? Why do our sleep patterns change across a lifetime? How do common sleep aids affect us and can they do long-term damage? Charting cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs, and synthesizing decades of research and clinical practice, Walker explains how we can harness sleep to improve learning, mood, and energy levels; regulate hormones; prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes; slow the effects of aging; increase longevity; enhance the education and lifespan of our children, and boost the efficiency, success, and productivity of our businesses.”

April 5, 2022

We Are Creatures That Can Transform Pain Into Beauty

I just loved this two-part Brene Brown podcast with Susan Cain about how bittersweetness can be so wonderful. Susan is the author of “Quiet,” which informed us all about the power of introverts. Now she has penned “Bittersweet” – and how longing and sorrow can make us whole.

The essence of the concept is that we are creatures who can transform pain into beauty. From the podcasts, it seems like there are oodles of quotes in the book that you might be hanging on the wall above your desk. Like “Creativity has the power to look pain in the eye and turn it into something better.”

Note that Susan is not advocating for depression. That’s not a good thing. Whereas melancholy and bittersweetness are not all that different, depression clearly is different and something to be concerned about…

March 25, 2022

The Joy of Kirtan (Chanting)

Whether it be Krishna Das or Girish – or any number of kirtan singers that are easily available on Spotify or YouTube – it can be such a relaxing pleasure to listen to kirtan. And even more beneficial to participate in the chanting of kirtan itself, as this article notes. Here’s an excerpt:

While Kirtan has been around for thousands of years, modern researchers have only recently begun to study its health benefits. A team at the University of West Virginia interested in examining the effects of Kirtan on cognitive impairment found that doing a Kirtan mantra for 12 minutes a day for 12 weeks altered plasma blood levels involved in cellular aging which were associated with improvements in cognitive function, sleep, mood, and quality of life.

Another team at the University of Pennsylvania, who studied the effects of Kirtan on patients with memory loss, found that after eight weeks of Kirtan the brain scans of participants in the study showed significantly increased cerebral blood flow in several areas. Most importantly, their performance on neuropsychological testing showed improved visuospatial memory, increased connectivity, and improved verbal memory. Others researchers have found that Kirtan can reduce symptoms of depression and improve chronic pain.

From an emotional perspective, Kirtan is beneficial because you are engaged in an activity that distracts you from thinking. This is particularly beneficial if you are caught up in a spiral of negative thinking and would like to use meditation to alleviate the ruminative process. When you stop flooding your brain with fear and worry about the future or resentments from the past, this has a profoundly positive effect of resetting your emotional state to calm and peaceful. Some people who practice Kirtan also report a spiritual benefit, with some saying they feel a sense of bliss, more emotionally open and connected to others.

March 17, 2022

How to Handle a Recently Deceased One’s Body

Following up on my reading of Roshi Joan Halifax’s “Being with Dying,” Chapter 18 digs into the topic of caring for the body of a dying person after death. Since our society “protects” us from seeing dead bodies, most of us have very little experience in this area. Here are a few of the things I learned:

1. Familiarize yourself with the faith and beliefs of the dying, ask specifically what they want you to do with the body after death
2. Ask “what guides and supports you in your life? what do you have faith in? what really matters to you?”
3. Many traditions believe that the spirit or consciousness remains present for a time; so you need to show respect after death
4. Immediately after death, try to keep the atmosphere around the body simple and quiet. If possible, don’t disturb or touch the body.
5. Since rigor mortis doesn’t set in for about two hours, you have plenty of time to bathe and dress the body
6. When you do bathe the body, plain water might not work well as the dying person often will defecate, urinate, vomit or sweat. You may need to gently bathe with a small amount of alcohol to close the pores and some mild aromatic tea
7. If the body will be viewed at home, you may want to brush teeth, place a condom or cotton to close holes in case their is leakage
8. You might want to close the eyes and tape them shut. And use a scarf around the head to close the mouth. Once rigor mortis sets in, you can remove the tape and scarf.
9. Choose light-fitting clothing and don’t cover the body. Open windows to get air circulating. But there is nothing inherently dangerous about a dead body for a short while.
10. It is usually easiest to attend to the body before contacting a doctor to administer a death certificate. The same with contacting a burial home – they will often come right away and you’ll loose your opportunity to do something with your beloved that might feel like a vital connection to the life cycle.

March 10, 2022

Let the Dying Take the Lead in Their Death

Following up on my reading of Roshi Joan Halifax’s “Being with Dying,” I learned that it was important to let the dying take the lead in their own death. Try to ascertain what is best, but don’t medicate someone who is dying if they don’t want it. Don’t medicate them just because you’re uncomfortable with their level of anger. Ofr grief. Or any one of a multitude of emotions that they may need to process as a way towards feeling fulfilled. Our mental faculties tend to unbind before the body releases itself.

Letting these emotional experiences happen are part of accepting death as the ultimate moment in life. The low-tide experiences, the chaos, may be necessary as part of the process…

March 1, 2022

It’s Okay to Grieve

Continuing on with my lessons learned from Roshi Joan Halifax’s “Being with Dying, I learned that grief is natural and that the experience of grieving can open up compassion in our lives. That grief is so connected to our body. So much like fear.

Fear and suffering can’t be transformed by someone else telling us how to do it. Others might be able to help us, but only those going through grief can pull ourselves all the way through to the other side. So even though accepting impermanence may seem like the Buddhist way to handle grief, it may well be best to scour the heart with honest sorrow instead.

Not getting thrown aside by shame but instead staying present with sadness is one way to give no fear to grief. And eventually heading towards a place where personal loss might be transformed into tenderness towards everyone who has ever suffered.

February 24, 2022

Conducting Fear Planning

Yes, I’ve been blogging a lot about death. Thanks to those that asked if I’m okay – and the answer is “I’m fine.” I’m just trying to learn more about death because becoming informed about those things we fear helps to demystify them and tamp down that anxiety.

In fact, defining your fears could be more important than defining your goals. Here’s the description of this Ted Talk by Tim Ferriss: “The hard choices — what we most fear doing, asking, saying — are very often exactly what we need to do. How can we overcome self-paralysis and take action? Tim encourages us to fully envision and write down our fears in detail, in a simple but powerful exercise he calls ‘fear-setting.'”

Tim describes three steps to conduct “fear planning”:

1. Define – Name the fear. Write it down. Up to 20 aspects of the fear in bullet form. By identifying the fear, that might even be enough to overcome that particular fear.

2. Prevent – Write down everything you can do to keep the thing you fear from happening. So write down things that can prevent each aspect of the fear you identified in the first step.

3. Repair – Write down what you can do to fix the consequences if the fear happens. The cost of inaction (emotionally, financially, physically – over a six-month, 1-year, three-year time frame). Again, cover each of the bullets you identified in the first step.

Some of your fears may be well-founded and may come to pass. But some may not…but this exercise may help reduce anxiety if fear is something that occasionally (or often) paralyzes you. Stoicism. Hard choices, easy life…

February 22, 2022

Dying In Peace and Alone (Or Not)

Following up on my reading of Roshi Joan Halifax’s “Being with Dying,” I was surprised to learn in Chapter 15 that people often die when caregivers leave the room. Perhaps they wanted to die peacefully and alone; free of the attention or perhaps pained to go in front of a loved one. This can be hard for some family members to accept.

On the other hand, some people want to be held when they die. Others want to be touched. Some want someone to be present, but not touched. It’s important to give the dying the option of what they prefer. It should not be about you as the caregiver. It should be about the one dying. Roshi Joan offers these choices as a possible “boundless abode” for you to use in your practice:

– May I be open with others and myself about my dying
– May I receive others’ love and compassion
– May I forgive myself for mistakes made and things left undone
– May kindness sustain my caregivers and me
– May I, and all beings, live and die peacefully