My team has also gathered some of readers’ favorite articles and video clips in which I address the link between childhood trauma, and adult illness, and how we can heal, and put them all together in my most recent newsletter! You can find all that here: http://eepurl.com/b_AhU5 (If you want to receive future newsletters, you can “subscribe” in the top left menu in order to join our mailing list.)
Hope you can come join me on Tuesday July 7th at 7:00 at Baltimore’s lovely Ivy Bookshop for a talk, chat, and booksigning! Tuesday, July 7th, 2015 7:00 p.m.
Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal — a Discussion & Book Signing
with Donna Jackson Nakazawa http://www.theivybookshop.com/
Or, come join me on Friday, July 17th at the Annapolis Bookstore for a talk, chat, and booksigning! Friday, July 17, 2015 7:00 p.m.
Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal — a Discussion & Book Signing
with Donna Jackson Nakazawa
My mom said something recently that really stuck with me. She’s 82. “It used to be that we did everything once, and now we have to do everything twice!” I kind of brushed it off as a subtle sign of aging, but then I noticed, over the next forty eight hours: the washing machine/dryer repair man left (“all done!”) but the washer still won’t progress to the rinse cycle and the dryer drum still makes a clanging sound as if a rock band is hiding in the laundry room. So we called – the repairman is returning for round two.
Is Someone Driving you Nuts? Fifteen insights on how to stop thinking about someone who’s driving you crazy.
Have you ever found that you just can’t stop thinking about someone and what they did or said, and how bewildered or hurt you were by their actions? When someone hurts us, our children, or someone we love, gossips behind our back, or simply acts crazy in ways that confound us, we can get stuck thinking about it for hours or days. We’re washing dishes, we’re driving, or we’re walking the dogs and we can’t stop thinking about how unkind, untrue and self-centered the things they said were. Their image, their words, keep resurfacing to mind. Five hours, five days, five weeks later, there they are – we see their face in front of us, even when we haven’t seen them in all that time.
(Just to be clear, I’m not addressing how we deal with trauma or abuse here — situations which require professional help and intervention — I’m talking about the day-to-day interactions we have with others that leave us mentally sputtering.)
How can we stop feeling embroiled in other people’s craziness? How can we stop thinking about a person or situation — or what we should have, could have, done differently — when the same thoughts keep looping back, rewinding, and playing through our mind again and again?
Or maybe, for you, it’s not about a person, it’s about what you got or didn’t get, what you need but don’t have, what just isn’t right in your life. (Usually, of course, there is a person involved whom you feel deserves blame for whatever is wrong.)
Toxic cyclical thinking. Most of us know that this kind of ruminating is both emotionally and physically harmful to us.
In fact, studies show that a ruminating mind, a wandering mind, is an unhappy and unhealthy mind. When our monkey mind is unhappily fraught with replaying altercations, resentments or losses, we marinate in a cascade of harmful inflammatory stress chemicals and hormones that are linked to almost every disease we can name. Increasingly, scientists can pinpoint how ruminating plays a role in disease including depression, cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune disease. The stress chemicals we wallow in are far worse for us than the thing that actually happened to us in the first place.
Moreover, toxic thinking just doesn’t feel good. It’s like getting caught on a spinning, centrifugal-force ride at the fair that was fun for a few minutes, and now it just makes you feel sick and you want to get off.
But you can’t.
We work so hard to remove whatever is toxic from our lives. We buy organic, we avoid unhealthy foods, we remove chemicals from our home. We eat green, we clean green. We buy organic cosmetics.
But we put very little concerted effort into trying to go green in our minds. When our thoughts are relentless and pervasive, how do we Green the Mind? What is the green solution for toxic thinking?
In researching and writing my last book, The Last Best Cure, I developed a number of insights on how to stop myself from spinning stories, ruminating, worrying, and replaying thoughts about someone or something.
These fifteen small but powerful sayings work for me – many are based on teachings from today’s leaders in mindfulness psychology and meditation. Choose the ones that resonate most with you.
1. “Less said, More time” is my own personal motto. Saying less and letting more time pass when we’re dealing with a difficult, reactive person is almost always a smart move. It allows us to simmer down, and let it go, take the high road. Often, with time, the thing we’re annoyed about just falls away.
2. “Let’s just wait and see what happens next.” We often feel the need to respond and react to difficult people or situations right away, which is why we stew so much over what to say or do next. Buddhist psychologist Sylvia Boorstein suggests that instead we simply give ourselves permission to wait and see what happens next.
3. Move Away From the Blame Game. Picking apart past events and trying to assign blame (including blaming oneself) is rarely productive. Bad things and misunderstandings most often “happen” through a series of events, like a domino effect. No one person is usually entirely to blame for the end result. Sylvia Boorstein has a saying that helps to remind us of this truth: “First this happened, then that happened, then that happened. And that is how what happened happened.”
4. “Try not to fall into other people’s states of minds.” Another Sylvia Boorstein nugget that pretty much says it all.
5. “Deal with Your Biggest Problem First.” Buddhist meditation teacher Norman Fischer suggests that no matter what’s happened, the biggest problem we face is our own anger. Our anger creates a cloud of emotion that keeps us from responding in a cogent, productive way. In that sense, our anger really is our biggest problem. Deal with yourself – meditate, exercise, take a long walk, say less and give it more time, whatever it takes – before you deal with anyone else.
6. “When You’re Angry it Wrinkles the Mind.” This Sylvia Boorstein teaching follows along the same lines. “You can’t think clearly or be creative or thoughtful about how best to handle any situation when you’re mad. Anger wrinkles the mind. If you want to think clearly, you can’t be mad at anything.”
7. “Don’t Try to Figure Others Out.” This is another Norman Fischer teaching. Ask yourself, if others tried to figure out what you’re thinking, or what your motivations are, how right do you think they’d be? They probably wouldn’t have a clue as to what’s really going through your mind. So why try to figure out what others are thinking? Chances are extremely good that you would be wrong, which means that all that ruminating was a colossal waste of time.
8. Your Thoughts are Not Facts. Don’t treat them as if they are. In other words, Don’t believe everything you think. We experience our emotions — anxiety, tension, fear and stress — keenly in our bodies. Our emotions are physical. We often take this as a sign that our thoughts must be facts. How could we feel so bad if our feelings weren’t true? Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsokyni Rinpoche teaches that when we’re emotionally hijacked by worry, regret, fear, anxiety, anger, to remember that the emotional and physical state we experience is “Real but not true.”
9. How Can You Grow From This? Insight Meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach suggests that when we are locked in anger, taking offense over something said or done, making judgments, or fuming over how we were treated, we add to our own reservoir of suffering. An event + our reaction = suffering. When we’re able to be present with our feelings, and inquire why we’re experiencing such a strong reaction and what our feelings tell us about ourselves, that’s a learning opportunity. An event + inquiry + presence = growth. Center your thoughts on growth. Green, not red.
10. “Don’t ever put anyone out of your heart, not even you.” A Tara Brach teaching that speaks for itself.
11. You’re Not a Time Magician. When we churn over past events we often search for how we might have done things differently to prevent a crazy-making altercation or regrettable outcome. But what happened yesterday is as much in the past as what happened thousands of years ago in the time of the Mayans. We can’t change what took place way back then, and we can’t change what happened a week ago.
12. Forgive for Your Sake. Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield teaches, “It is not necessary to be loyal to your suffering.” We are so loyal to our suffering, he says, “focusing on the trauma of ‘what happened to me.’ Yes, it happened. Yes, it was horrible. But is that what defines you?” Forgiveness is not something we do just for the other person. We forgive so that we can live free of the acute suffering that comes with holding onto the past. In other words, Kornfield teaches, “Forgive for you.”
13. Occupy a Different Mind Space. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction teacher and psychologist Trish Magyari teaches meditation accompanied by powerful imagery – and studies show that imagery helps us to stop inflamed, stressful thoughts. Here is one image that works for me everytime: “Imagine that you are at the bottom of deep blue ocean watching everything swim by. Just watch all your thoughts go by. Imagine that you are the deep, calm, blue sea.” I always relax when I hear this.
14. Send them Loving Kindness. Intuitive Medical Healer Wanda Lasseter-Lundy suggests that when you can’t stop thinking about someone who’s hurt you or who’s driving you crazy, “Imagine yourself sending them a beautiful ball of white light. Place them in that ball of light. Surround them with it, holding that white light around them, until your anger fades.” Try it, it really works.
15. Take a 90 Second Time Out. To free your mind, you first have to break your thought pattern. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel, MD, says that “After 90 seconds an emotion will arise and fall like a wave on the shore.” It only takes ninety seconds to shift out of a mood state, including anger. Give yourself ninety seconds – about fifteen deep in and out breaths – to not think about that person or situation. You’ve broken that thought cycle – and the hold your thoughts had on you. Now, doesn’t that feel good?
Baltimore author Donna Jackson Nakazawa discusses her latest book, The Last Best Cure, on Wednesday, April 16 at 7 p.m. at the Perry Hall Branch, sponsored by the Friends of the Perry Hall Library. The award-winning science journalist and writer recently answered questions for Between the Covers about her book.
Before The Last Best Cure, you authored another book about autoimmune diseases, The Autoimmune Epidemic. What insights or new knowledge did you gain between that book and The Last Best Cure? What was going on in your life prior to writing these books?
The Autoimmune Epidemic focused on how modern chemicals in the world around us and in our diet are overwhelming the human immune system, contributing to rising disease rates and chronic illnesses. The Last Best Cure takes this research a step further and investigates “psychoneuroimmunology,” a new field of study that investigates how mind states, such as anxiety, fear, worry, rumination, anger and pain, can end up damaging our immune function in much the same way as environmental chemicals. Prior to this, I was struggling with my own health crises. The Last Best Cure is my chronicle of a one-year doctor/patient experiment to see if altering my mood state might shift my inflammatory markers and perhaps even improve my physical well-being.
The Last Best Cure has received much critical praise, described as a book that will offer hope for recovery, and change and save lives. What is the most important insight or piece of information you want readers to take away from your book?
I want people to know that there already exists an understanding as to how we can activate the healing potential of the brain. Understanding how to do this gives us powerful tools, ways to change the messages our brain is sending to our cells and our body. Everyone deserves to live the life they want, and these tools can help us all achieve a greater sense of well-being, and even joy.
You were already an award-winning science journalist and writer when you began writing these last two books. What was it like writing professionally about a topic that was also very personal to you? Were there any “aha” moments for your own life as you were writing?
At first, I was only going to write about my personal experiences in the introduction to The Last Best Cure, but my editor thought readers would want to read more about how I also went on this transformational journey myself. She thought it would help convey to readers that we can all take this journey, no matter what physical or emotional health challenges we face. There was so much that I realized along the way about adversity, self-respect and how they play a role in adult illness. Now I’m profoundly grateful to have taken this journey: Life is sweeter, relationships are better and it’s a better, more meaningful way to live.
In addition to being about healing and recovering personal joy, The Last Best Cure is a story about a health epidemic. What steps do we need to take now to secure a better health outlook for future generations?
We need to absolutely, completely and radically change how we view the doctor/patient relationship. If we keep up the current “medical factory” model we’re going to see very little progress in managing chronic health issues. Right now, 133 million adults in America have chronic illnesses, not counting the 22 million with addiction – and these numbers are rapidly climbing. The tools to help patients participate in their own healing and facilitate greater well-being exist; it just requires that physicians incorporate new practices into their doctor/patient paradigm. In order to do this, we must change the way we as a society view treatment, health care and the doctor/patient relationship.
Are there any new books in the works?
Yes, one due out at the end of next year called Childhood Interrupted: How Adversity in the Past Writes the Story of Our Future – And How We Can Change the Script (Atria/Simon & Schuster). It’s a deeper, more extended study of how childhood adversity can create changes in the brain and in our immunology that impact our health long into adulthood – and what we can do to reverse those effects as adults. I’m telling cutting-edge stories of science, about how even very common forms of childhood adversity can reset our immune system to be more stress-reactive, sparking a state of chronic low-grade neuroinflammation for life. I want to help readers understand how the stress we meet in childhood can determine our lifelong “set point” for emotional reactivity, inflammation, disease and depression – and what we can do to reverse the impact of early adversity and trauma years later, in adulthood, to regain our physical and emotional well-being.
How long has the Baltimore area been home to you? What do you like best about living in this area?
My family moved to Baltimore four years ago from Annapolis; my mom and my husband’s parents were already living here, so it just made sense. What I like best about Baltimore is its people. Baltimoreans are real, genuine, honest, intellectual, creative, smart and energetic. They’re committed to their community and engaged in making this a better place to live. We love it here. It’s a vibrant place to be.
Thank you readers, I just found out that last night THE LAST BEST CURE hit #10 on AMAZON in BESTSELLING BOOKS IN HEALTH MEMOIR! That made me smile, and I realize I have all of you to thank for spreading the word, one woman, one reader at a time! In gratitude, I thank you.http://amzn.to/1dIIyVd
I really enjoyed a great discussion today with Dan Rodricks, the host of the NPR show, Midday, on WYPR, Baltimore’s Public Radio station. Dan is smart, genuine, and asks great questions. We really delved into why I wrote The Last Best Cure, the science behind it, and how I hope it can help readers with chronic conditions. You can listen to the entire show by clicking on the podcast at this link:http://wypr.org/post/last-best-cure.
This photo has nothing to do with this show — I am just reposting it here because I like it and it makes me smile!
I spent this weekend at a two day meditation event with one of my dearest friends, and together we soaked in the amazing wisdom of Syliva Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg, who came together to teach as a duo on this snowy, rainy weekend in Washington DC.
My favorite nuggets:
Sylvia Boorstein’s teaching, “May I meet this moment fully, May I not complicate it, May I meet it as a friend.”
Sharon Salzberg’s teaching: “The most important moment of meditation is the moment you sit down to do it.”
And Syliva Boorstein’s teaching about how to handle being in busy, harried family life and not lose one’s hard won peace in the midst of it: “Try not to fall into other people’s states of mind.” I find this really wise as I raise teenagers…
My deepest gratitude to these two wise teachers.
I am particularly grateful that at the end, I received the joyful gift of a warm hug from Sylvia Boorstein, who was so kind to say such lovely things about The Last Best Cure when it came out last spring. As I told my friend Elizabeth, who is one of those wonderful kinds of friends who always keeps me honest with myself, as I grow older, I hope to become more like Sylvia Boorstein — she pretty much glows with metta. And to please remind me, when I am overreactive and small of mind, by saying, “Remember, you want to glow like Syliva Boorstein.”
Sometimes, just to meet someone whom you admire so much, whose teachings you follow, and to see how their presence changes those around them — because their compassion and loving kindness comes from such a deep wellspring the whole room can sip from it — well, that is a teaching in and of itself. Thank you Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg (whose fabulous new book is just out, Real Happiness at Work).
I’m just about to announce my next book project — which I’ve signed for with Atria/Simon & Schuster. I’m going to be looking for interviewees for this one! So, stay tuned…I’ll be reaching out to you, my amazing, faithful readers.
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Yesterday I was struggling to manage a few swirling mind states — you know, those fears, resentments and regrets that well up, or at least they do for me. I just could not find any inner compassion for my own life mistakes. My suffering was mind-wrought, and doing me no good, but even knowing all that I could not manage my thoughts.
Then I remembered a type of meditation that has helped me get unstuck in the past. It is taught by many but my favorite version is by John Makransky. It’s called “Identifying Benefactors and Receiving Love.”
So I got it out again, that tape, as a rescue remedy (you can listen to his free 13 minute audio version at this link).
It’s pretty healing stuff. Here’s how a “receiving benefactors” meditation works, in case you feel inclined to give it a try.
Makransky asks us to first think of people in our lives whom we might think of as benefactors, those who have wished for our “deep well-being and happiness.” Often, these are, he says, the people we most liked to be around at earlier points in our lives. A dear aunt or grandparent, a friend of our parents, a teacher or professor or coach, someone whom it feels good to remember because we knew in our hearts that they wanted the absolute best for us. We felt safe by their side.
Thinking of my Own Benefactors
I think of my Dad, of course I think of him. I think of how one day, when I was 11, a year or so before he died, we were sailing. As I took the tiller on that blue-green Chesapeake day, my Dad turned to my mother and asked — despite my buck teeth, my horn-rimmed tortoise shell glasses, my frizzy blond hair that inspired my brothers to call me “lampshade head” — “Isn’t she just so beautiful?” As if he saw something incandescent beneath my profound gawkiness.
Someone who believes we are beautiful, even when we are gawky and awkward, and who knows we need to hear it precisely because we are gawky and awkward, that is a benefactor.
I think, too, of my father’s mother, whom we called GranMary. GranMary always called me “my darling girl,” no matter how old I was. The last time I saw her shortly before her death, she patted my hand between her palms, and, caught in a moment of dementia, asked, “You are going to Jay’s play tonight, aren’t you?” She was talking about my father, who had been dead for 30 years. She was reliving one of those buoyant, excited moments of mothering: the opening night of the school play her son had written and directed — albeit half a century after the fact. “Jay and I have been rehearsing his lines all afternoon!” she said with pride, leaning toward me, our knees touching between the sofa where she sat and the ottoman on which I perched. “He has his lines down,” she said proudly, patting my knee.
I recall how she turned and glanced around the room, as if expecting her son to come through the front door of her assisted living apartment. How she somehow seemed to know who I was and yet not understand that I was also her dead son’s now grown daughter.
“My darling girl. You are coming to Jay’s play? Oh, you must!”
I wanted to go to my Dad’s play, yes. See him as a 17-year-old, directing, acting, taking his curtain call via some kind of magical time reversal. Or see him on any single day of his life – still alive. But there is no such magical clock. I think of how much my father’s mother loved him, how it broke her heart to lose her son without warning. “The worst thing,” she once told me, in her earlier, lucid years, “is to lose your child while you still live. It’s an unnatural pain.” How she loved us all. How she would tell us at the end of every family party or dinner or day, just that: “I love you all.”
I think, too, of the aunt who comforted me through the years after my father’s death. My Aunt Nan wasn’t related to me, she was my parents’ best friend and our neighbor. When he died, the summer I was twelve, I began spending Saturday mornings at her house, making pancakes, and school day afternoons climbing the pine trees in the field in front of her driveway. We’d run around in her yellow Volkswagen Beetle; the same one in which she’d driven me to kindergarten seven years earlier — she’d also been my kindergarten teacher.
She’d leave surprises for me in the mailbox, knowing I picked up the mail when I got off the bus. One day there was a small toy Leprechaun sitting in the mailbox, his pliable legs and arms crossed, as if he’d been waiting patiently for me.
Years later, when I moved to New York, Aunt Nan tirelessly helped me to find my first walk up apartment. She’d moved to Connecticut, and on weekends I’d recover on her couch in the country in front of her fireplace. We often had a cup of tea together as she listened, patiently, dearly, to my stories of work and love in the city. One day I gave her a porcelain tea cup.
When she died a year ago, her daughter said she had wanted me to have that tea cup back, and gave it to me.
I keep it on my desk beside me and I always think of her when I see it, every single day.
I think of my mother’s mother Gammer; how she was there to hold me with open arms the day my mother broke the news to my brothers and me that my dad had died. I think of the New Year’s Eves I would spend with Gammer well into my twenties if I didn’t have a boyfriend. Each time I ditched or got ditched by a guy, she would send me another small tiny ceramic frog with a hopelessly beautiful cliché note that simply read,
“Dearest Donna, I guess you will have to kiss a few …” After a while frogs began to appear with no note at all whenever a relationship bit the dust. Her collection still makes me smile.
I think of them all, my father, my two grandmothers and my aunt.
“Bring them to mind,” Makransky says. “Imagine their smiling faces before you. Envision your benefactors sending you the wish of love, the wish for you to have deepest well being, happiness and joy.”
It is enough to make my breath slow, my throat catch.
I try not to think of whether I deserve their love, or whether those I’ve loved and lost would in fact be proud of me, when I haven’t done half of what I thought I’d do in my life, have been cranky too often and selfish and have my share of regrets and resentments that are, well, the reason why I am doing this meditation.
They were all so resilient, so upbeat despite the sorrows life threw their way. I am not as resilient, I fear, as the ones who came before me.
The Benefactor Meditation
“Allow the soft healing energy of their love into every cell of your body and every corner of your mind.” Makransky’s voice continues. “Bathe in this. Heal in this. Rest in this.”
He suggests we bring one benefactor more to mind than the others, and let that connection “energize the magnitude of the radiance we feel ourselves receive.”
I imagine, of course, my Dad. He is standing before me. I try to brush aside the worry of whether he would be proud of me or not so proud.
“Join your benefactors in their wish for you while receiving the radiance of their love, repeating the wish for yourself in your mind,” says Makransky. May this one have deepest well-being, happiness and joy.
I can’t help but think of the scene where Harry Potter gazes into the mirror of Erised — the name backward for desire — which shows the deepest wishes of one’s heart. How he saw his dead parents waving to him, their heads nodding.
“This one,” I hear my father say. “May this one have deepest well-being, happiness and joy.”
My eyes prick with tears.
I hear Makransky’s voice: “Rest in this love until you feel complete, whole.”
Sometimes, I have found I can’t recall the exact contour of my father’s face; the crevices, the smile lines, the five o-clock stubble. But in this moment I see my father with utter clarity. He is smiling at me, as if to say, Remember what I taught you as we sailed together, as we took in the whole wide sky and bay. Remember that this world is a magical place. Remember to be amazed.
I imagine the love of my dad and the beautiful women whom I have been so blessed to be loved by, how they loved me. How I want to carry that love forward, pay it forward, in the way I am in the world.
As I open my eyes, I feel washed of something. Of all the swirling fear and regret that consumed me just fifteen minutes earlier. I feel a compassion for myself. For all beings.
And I am okay with what is. I trust in my capacity to be here, with what has been, what has not been, and what is.
Try the Benefactor Meditation for Yourself — It’s Worth it
Who are your benefactors? Can you imagine them standing beside you, sending you so much love and well-wishes? How does that feel? Give it a try.