Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Beginning the Solitude Journey




I listened to the intuitive voice within and decided to stop the running and busyness to spend time in solitude as a way to begin my transition into retirement.  In a short time, to my surprise silence and solitude didn't have to be a painful time of arid meaningless stale lonely hours. In fact it became a time reflected well in Diane Ackerman’s poem, The Great Affair

The great affair, the love affair with life,

is to live as variously as possible,

to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred,

climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day.

Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding,

and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours,

life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length.

It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery,

but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.—Diane Ackerman

I hear Diane calling us to a life of exploring and risk-taking with wide awake senses.  She inspired the next step to my transition time. I decided to go on a senses journey each day and incorporated a sense awareness time to my daily practice. I wanted to experience life as a child again, stop to smell the dandelion, see its bright yellow color, hear the romantic songs of birds in spring and feel the sensations of walking barefooted along the Gulf. I focused on a sense a day with activities to enhance my awareness. I started with smell.

Smell “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.”-- Helen Keller

Diane Ackerman in her book, The Natural History of the Senses, states that smell was the first of our senses to develop.” She states all smells fall into a few basic categories, almost like primary colors: minty (peppermint), floral (roses), ethereal (pears), musky (musk), resinous (camphor), foul (rotten eggs), and acrid (vinegar).

Smell is linked to emotions and memory. The olfactory bulb is a part of the brain’s limbic system and can suddenly and spontaneously bring up memories and powerful responses. This is especially true when we have experienced trauma. The olfactory bulb has direct accesses to the amygdala and hippocampus. The amygdala can direct our mind-body awareness into fight flight or freeze and the hippocampus is where emotional learning takes place. I remember many years ago working with a Viet Nam combat veteran who suffered from spontaneous flashbacks of smelling burning flesh. It was very disturbing to him to be sitting in a meeting and suddenly smell flesh burning. When I worked in bereavement, I remember stories of how widows did not wash their departed husband’s clothing because they wanted to be able to remember his smell.

By practicing what some doctors call Scent Therapy you can create new receptors in your nose and improve your sense of smell. By choosing several strong smells that are pleasant to you and spending a few minutes every day sniffing each one, your nose will become more aware of these smells. You can google Scent Therapy for more detailed directions.

Some things you can do the day you pick smell as your sense of the day are listed:

  • Close your eyes during some daily routines or tasks to focus more on smells; taking a shower, cooking, doing laundry.
  • How does it smell when you first enter your home; what are the different smells making up that order? Try this with your basement or attic.
  • When you open a window smell the fresh air.
  • What is the smell of your lover?
  • Can you remember the smell of a departed parent or grandparent?
  • Notice the smell of your car.
  • How does the bakery smell in your grocery store feel?
  • Smell something in nature, a tree, soil, flower.

Taste—The other senses may be enjoyed in all their beauty when one is alone, but taste is largely social. Humans rarely choose to dine in solitude, and food has a powerful social component”.--Ackerman

Researchers tell us to taste and smell are connected in the sensory system. Flavor is almost entirely sensed in the nose. We often smell something before we taste it, and that’s enough to make us salivate. Our sense of taste is so integrated with our sense of smell, if we can’t smell we can’t taste; however, I have noticed that an overwhelming smell can be tasted.  

For many people, the first thing we taste is milk from our mother’s breast that comes with love and affection, and a sense of security, warmth, and wellbeing. Scientists tell us that is our first feeling of pleasure. This helps us to understand why the association of pleasure and food is very powerful. It is a pleasure we can savory when we practice mindful eating. We get into trouble when it becomes a mindless compulsion.

Ayurveda teaches that all six tastes should be eaten at every meal for us to feel satisfied and to ensure that all major food groups and nutrients are represented. The attached chart list each taste, food source, and effect on Mind Body Physiology.

Some things you can do the day you pick taste as your sense of the day are listed:

·        Try to eat something from each of the six tastes.

·        Hold your nose to see what effect not smelling has on taste

·        See if you can also be aware of where on your tongue you are experiencing each taste. We know that at the tip of the tongue, we taste sweet things; bitter things at the back; sour things at the sides; and salty things spread over the surface, but mainly up front.

·        Try to focus on where you experience pungent and astringent tastes.

·        Try planning a meal with all six tastes and notice if you do feel more satisfied.

·        Become aware of the strong association of food and pleasure without judgment but rather with an attitude of savoring.

·        Have a savoring experience this week with a special food you love.

Hearing—“There’s music in the sighing of a reed; There’s music in the gushing of a rill; There’s music in all things, if men had ears: Their earth is but an echo of the spheres.”—Lord Byron

“Music heard so deeply that is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts.—T.S. Eliot.

Hearing, in general, is still very mysterious. Scientist understand the basic concepts that are fairly simple, but the specific structures are extremely complex. They state that it is astonishing how much is involved in the hearing process and that all these processes take place in such a small area of the body. They discover new hearing elements every year.

We can appreciate how extraordinary are our ears when we realize they pick up sound around us and then translate this information into a form that the brain can understand. This process is described as being completely mechanical whereas our sense of smell, taste, and vision all involve chemical reactions, hearing is based on physical movement. Sound travels through the air as a vibration in air pressure. To hear the sound the ear does three things; direct the sound waves into the hearing part of the ear, sense the fluctuations in air pressure, and then translate these fluctuations into an electrical signal that the brain can understand.

Humans like animals use sound for many things. It gives us information about our environment to enhance our safety and security. A loud sound can alert us that we are in danger. We use it to communicate. It is an important sense as we make our way through the world for experiencing emotions, religious ceremonies and celebrating. Chanting “om” creates a vibration that you can feel in your head and the cartilage of your bones as they vibrate. Ackerman calls it a “massage from the inside, very soothing.”

Ackerman calls music the perfume of hearing. She researched the history of music and found Mesopotamian instruments dating back 5,500 years. The found pipes, triangles, stringed instruments, and drums; they even found how they devised a method of musical notation. They Mayans played an array of whistles, flutes, recorders and ocarinas. Oriental music began around 2700 B.C.  Historians tell us that if we contrast 2,400-year-old Chinese bells with present-day Chinese flute, we find that the tones are similar and nearly match on an oscilloscope. It seems from the onset our brains and nervous systems prefer certain intervals between sounds.

Ackerman describes how music and emotion; “like pure emotion, music surges and sighs, rampages or grows quiet, and, in that sense it behaves so much like our emotions that it seems often to symbolize them, to mirror them, to communicate them to others, and thus frees us from the elaborate nuisance and inaccuracy of words. Most often, our emotions are private things. We bottle them up like so many jars of peach preserves that we store on a top shelf in a hidden pantry; then, in a crisis, we reach for them, often taking off the lids on our emotions through song.”

Music is used in the medical field with dementia patients, autistic children, and others who have trouble with communicating. Comatose patients will respond to music. They have used music in psychotherapy and addiction fields calling it music therapy. Music is also helpful to encourage longer exercise sessions.

Some things you can do the day you pick hearing as your sense of the day are listed:

·        Try to pick out the details of what you are hearing; for example, if you hear construction pick out the different sounds that make up the generic sound of construction.

·        Listen to a multi-instrument piece of music. Try to identify and focus on the different instruments.

·        Sit outside and try to differentiate close sounds from far sounds. It may be easier to close your eyes.

·        Sit outside or inside and try to differentiate sound by volume. Identity which sound is loudest and then continue to the quietest sound. You may hear subtle sounds you did not hear before.

·        You can also gently pull on your ear occasionally and notice how it improved your hearing.

·        Listen to an emotional piece of music and become aware of how the ebb and flow and subtleties of the music match your emotions.

Seeing—“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something.… To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, all in one.” John Ruskin

We know our eyes are light gathers. When light rays reflect off an object and enter the eyes through the cornea which is the transparent outer covering of the eye, we can see that object. The cornea bends or refracts the rays that pass through the round hole of the pupil. The iris opens and closes, making the pupil bigger or smaller. This regulates the amount of light passing through. The light rays pass through the lens to the retina which converts the light into electrical impulses. The optic nerve sends the impulses to the brain, which produces an image. The eye’s lens stiffens with age, so it is less able to focus when you view something up close. Have you thought maybe this is a good thing for as we age we grow in wisdom and know that it is the big picture that matters?

Another interesting finding is that men and women do see things differently. Research has shown that male and female brains process colors in slightly different ways. For example, if both sexes look at an orange, it will appear redder to the man than to the woman. Similarly, grass looks yellower to a man than to a woman. Women are able to see variations in color better than men. Scientists speculate that the enhanced color perception was important when women were the primary gathers and need to distinguish among fruits, foliage and insects. While men show significantly greater sensitivity for fine detail and rapid moving images thus enabling them to detect possible predator or prey from afar and be able to distinguish between these objects more easily.

While the ageing process changes how we see things up close, it does not change our ability to appreciate color, design, shapes and textures. It doesn’t interfere with our ability to see in our inner vision. We don’t need our eyes at all to remember beautiful scenes from that day or from the past. I can close my eyes and see the beauty of the beach with shorebirds scurrying to find food before the tide comes in. I can picture complete detail the memory of my granddaughter as she dances in the Nutcracker. We can see surprising detail when we dream.

Some things you can do the day you pick sight as your sense of the day are listed:

·        Go through the day observing your surroundings and the richness of color and textures. Look with more awareness to see things that you may not have noticed in the past. Maybe you will notice the richness of eye color in your beloved in a new way.

·        When you lie down at night and close your eyes see an intense beautiful landscape or beautiful tree from your inner vision.

·        Look at clouds and find the variations and differences. Note all the different parts of the clouds, their shapes, sizes and colors.

·        Look at something beautiful and pick out the details of what makes it beautiful.

·        Go through your day noticing minuscule details that you would only be able to pick out by being mindful.

Touch-“That’s what it feels like when you touch me. Like millions of tiny universes being born and then dying in the space between your finger and my skin. Sometimes I forget.” –Iain Thomas.

Our skin is the largest organ of the body weighing from six to ten pounds and gives us the sense of touch. Touch sensitivity varies as the fingertips, tongue and genitals are much more sensitive than the back. Some parts of our body respond to touch in different ways when we have an itch, shiver or get goose bumps. Scientist say that touch is the first sense to develop as fetuses we begin to explore our world through touch. Soon after being born we instinctively begin touching. Touch cells in the lips make nursing possible. Touch teaches us the difference between I and other.

Touch is a sense with unique functions that affects our whole body; it has a much stronger influence than smell, taste, sound or sight. Touch is the sense that has a great potential for increasing our awareness and tuning into our environment. By bringing your attention to the sensations of skin contact with your environment and noticing the temperature like the warmth or coolness on our face or hands; you can become more present in the moment.

Some things you can do the day you pick touch as your sense of the day are listed:

·        Feel the textures of everyday objects in your environment to focus your attention in a way you haven’t before.

·        Really feel an itch before you do something to relieve it. Analyze all the sensations involved in an itch.

·        If you get goosebumps focus your attention on the sensations. Where do you feel the goose bumps? Do you feel chilled?

·        Find a surface that is for the most part smooth but has some irregularities. One at a time slowly move each finger and thumb over the surface. See if you can feel irregularities differently when felt by different fingers or thumb, right hand or left hand

·        Find something that feels very soft to touch like a stuffed animal or piece of soft cloth. Touch your face, hands, feet, forearms, legs trying to discern the similarities and differences between the body parts experiences of touch.

·        Walk barefoot over different surfaces, textures, and temperatures. Focus on feeling the surface with your feet.

·        In the morning when you first wake up, rub your feet together over and over to simulate touch awareness.

·        As often as you remember, as you go through the day bring your attention to the sensations of skin contract with clothing, furniture, keyboard. Feel the pressure on your skin when your body is resting on a chair or in bed. Feel the temperature of the air on your face when you first step outside.


As I continued into this journey of solitude, I used the time to enhance my senses and found a beauty around me I failed to experience in the past. Busyness distracts us from facing reality and it seems to be the easiest way to handle our deepest fears; it also hides the beauty around us.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Growing Old Alone

I was terrified when I turned forty and my eighteen year marriage ended. There were big financial concerns and concerns about my children's welfare. The biggest fear was what if I grow old alone. I feared my life could become arid and meaningless and I would have non-stop loneliness. For several years I managed to go on with life by ignoring these fears. My implicit goal each day was to reach exhaustion so as not to experience the silence of being alone. Silence, that huge empty space where there are no distractions, no cushion against attacks from within. Today I am still single and turning 70. I am growing old alone!

December 2016, I counseled my last client, sold my house, and moved to Florida. I retired! The trip
down to Florida distracted me with ice storms and scary hotel stops with  my dog and cat. When I arrived in Florida I was busy settling into a new state and a new home. I found new tasks to stay busy. I wanted to meet new friends, find a comfortable church, and teach Mindful aging classes. I went to meet ups, attended four different churches, started a Mindful aging meet up. After six months of non-stop distractions, I realized there was something wrong with this plan. Every meet up, church activity, and social gathering felt like a collision. I came home feeling like a wreck, on empty and very alone. I don't think there is anything lonelier than feeling alone when you are with a group of people.

I was starving for real connections. Avoiding talking about politics or anything controversial seemed empty, passionless, and a waste of time. I longed for meaningful authentic discussions. I missed lunch with close women friends; long lunches lasting several hours talking about what we loved, what we believed and what was happening to better understand life. I missed close responsive and sensitive women friends who knew how to share without protecting whatever came to mind.

My life was in limbo. How do you go from a carefully scheduled life of a small business owner, psychotherapist and Mindfulness teacher to days that have no design or order? I spent weeks, months, with few social outings. I would ask myself about isolating and depression and the answer would be, "sometimes a person has to simply endure a period of time alone." I renamed this time as silence with a purpose, solitude. Solitude is a place to find ones self even during the arid and meaningless times. I believed it was a place I needed as I transitioned to a new stage of life.  I was right!


Restorative Solitude
“Alone time is when I distance myself from the voices of the world so I can hear my own.” –Oprah Winfrey
I have to admit when I started my journey with solitude, it was to avoid emotional pain of confusion and fear. One month I was a psychotherapist living in Wisconsin and the next I was living in Florida and retired. What was I thinking? If I were my therapist I would be saying’ jumping into retirement without creating a space between the old and new will create chaos and is just another way to run from self. You need time to transition. Pregnant emptiness created in transitions has always been difficult for me. I have had the busyness habit for a long time. I was retiring alone; it was time to face that old fear of growing old alone.
The first few months in Florida I spent with my busyness habit, disconnected from feelings and inner self. I was trying to run away from the emotional and spiritual work facing me. Gratefully I continued another habit, a long standing daily practice of meditation and journal writing. Meditation was a peaceful time without judgment and journal writing gave me insights and clarity. Both helped me to surrender to the challenge at hand. The direction toward silence turned painful loneliness to restorative solitude.
My first discovery in silence was the peacefulness of doing nothing; waking up without an alarm clock. I questioned if all of this free time would lead to laziness or I would feel guilty because I wasn’t using my time well. Then I laughed at myself and my inability to enjoy retirement. My meditation and journal writing reflected the journey to a new way to be.
Questions I asked myself:
  • Who decides what a meaningful life is?
  • What is my purpose and how can I use my experience, education and passion?
I spent time listening and believing I was on the right path through solitude. I was right!