Empty nest syndrome is a real thing. But it's not necessarily a bad thing.
It's been two years since my second child graduated high school with honors.
He is an amazing young man with a mind of his own and a big heart.
I recall as I sat on the back row among an ocean of other parents watching their children walk the stage I could feel the moment of life-pivot not only for these graduating seniors but for all the women who watched and cheered as our babies received their diplomas.
I can remember the day he was born with such vivid sensation it was hard for me to grasp how he was leaving the nest.
It is a mix of emotions but mostly incredible joy because I know I've done my job preparing him and encouraging him to be the independent young man he is today. It is not sadness that brings tears to my eyes, rather, a moment of recognizing that a chapter of my own life has come to a close as my son is standing on the edge of the nest about to take flight.
As a counselor and coach, I work with a lot of women who feel lost after their children leave home. Empty nest syndrome hits hard.
When your identity and role in life has been care-giving mother to your children for so many years it can be challenging when suddenly there are no baby birds to care for. This is an ideal time to discover who you are outside of this role of mother and care-giver.
Here are some key questions I am asking myself today. I encourage you to consider these questions for yourself:
What did I love to do before I had children? For me, it was theater, singing and writing. Though I write for my work as a coach, instructor and counselor, I used to write fiction and poetry. I plan to get back to that. Soon. And I would love nothing more than to get back to acting and singing on stage. That took a backseat when babies were born. What about you? What might you return to now that your kids are growing out onto their own?
Do I still love this nest or is it time for a change?We still have one more kid to see through high school so we will likely stay in this house another 3 years but with both my sons soon off to college living in their own house (together by the way... isn't that great that brothers choose to live together in college?) I have two vacant bedrooms and reconsidering the nest. How can I make this nest more conducive to my new stage in life? I'm converting one into an office of my own. You might consider if it's time to downsize or move to the beach or the mountains. Where have you dreamed of living? If you choose to stay, is it time to remodel? redecorate your nest?
How will my kids and I stay connected? What is my role now? In my case, my sons are both going to college close to home so we've agreed to designate Mondays as family dinner night. This way I can ensure they get at least one healthy meal each week and I get to hug their necks regularly. I've noticed over the past 3 years since my first son moved out on his own that when he comes to visit, my role is no longer authoritative parent (well, sometimes... but it is fading more and more as he is now 21). Our roles with our young-adult children can and should shift to open-minded listener. They are at a stage in their development where they are seeing the world through new eyes of independence and they typically have opinions about things. It's important to allow them their opinions and just be happy to see them. They need to know we are here for them but we need not load them up with unsolicited advice.
How's my marriage? Oh yeah! That guy! This is a great time to reconnect... There is more time and space in life now to turn toward your spouse and rediscover the flame that brought you together in the first place. Yea!
How are my finances? Fortunately my oldest son is fully independent and my second son has an 80% tuition scholarship to college and has a job of his own so they aren't sucking me dry in this department. I know a lot of parents at this stage are feeling the pinch of the higher education bills. It's a good time to hunker down and take a good look at the bank accounts, retirement funds, investments, expenses and re-evaluate. What can I do without now? Where might I cut back? Where would I like to spend?
Where am I with my career? For a lot of women I work with, after the kids leave the nest they are just beginning to develop a career outside of primary job as mom. For some women, like myself, who have had long established careers outside of the home and child-rearing job, it's time to reassess where we feel most passionate and where we feel tired. Will retirement be an option? Partial retirement? Career change? My own work continues to evolve year to year morphing and shape-shifting and as long as I am tuned into my heart and desire to be of service I am confident I will be led to what's next. What about you?
I see this time in life as one ripe with opportunity for celebrating a job well done as we watch the kids leave the nest and a time to begin anew and consider who we are aside and apart from child-rearing mother. We will always be mother to our children but our role there changes and it's actually feeling quite exciting to me as I consider the possibilities.
The RAIN mindfulness technique is one I have adapted from other versions and utilize with my therapy clients, my mentoring clients and my meditation students to help them with a practical way of dealing with intense interactions and situations.
So, let's take a look at how I identify the steps in the RAIN technique.
R = Recognize. Recognize the challenge or difficulty that is present.
A = Accept and Allow. This is the opposite of our typical reaction which is to resist the challenge or difficulty. Here we have recognized we have a difficult challenge here and we accept that it is right here in front of us.
I = Inquire and Investigate. Seek clarification and gather information rather than jumping to conclusions or making assumptions.
N = Neutral. Rather than fighting, resisting or fleeing the scene, you shift into neutral gear which is more easily achieved after completing the first three steps of the RAIN process.
I appreciate the acronym RAIN for this practice because there is an element of knowing and accepting that it will rain some days in life.
Sometimes the rain is a soothing, welcomed nourishing experience and sometimes it comes with a storm that can even be destructive.
Overall, when it rains our outdoor activities and plans may be necessarily altered and yet we find way to make the needed adjustments.
The RAIN mindfulness technique practice is incredibly valuable during times of turbulence whether in personal relationships or political unrest. Rather than reacting and contributing to polarization, this technique can help carve out a space for you to give consideration with use discernment as to how your most centered self wishes to respond.
The RAIN technique does not preclude action. Rather, this technique is a way of lining up your wise mind, your feeling heart and the spirit of your highest self in order to take action in the most effective way without causing harm to yourself or others.
The word “meditation” means a lot of things to different things to people.
There are “guided meditations” where a teacher or a guide provides either a live or recorded verbal sequence of visualizations to help your mind and body align and go to a state of focused relaxation.
For some, the word “meditation” means to contemplate, to consider a concept, idea or issue with mental focus.
Meditation, as I understand it and practice it, is a bit different than these definitions. For me we can observe meditation through seated practice, walking practice and moving practice. For these purposes, I want to introduce you to the art and practice of “seated meditation.”
“Seated meditation” is an art and a practice. An art because it is an experience, a process and an expression of who we truly are in any given moment without prescribed, exact, predictable outcome. A practice because it is an act we must choose to engage in regularly in order to realize the benefits.
Seated meditation is the practice of coming to a comfortable seat with spine erect and willingness to just sit and be with your whole self.
Seated meditation is a practice of allowing what is to just be without action.
Seated meditation is an opportunity to cultivate our relationship with what I call “the gentle observer.”
The “gentle observer” is an aspect of Self that is able to notice without judgment and without action. I find that most humans have little if any connection with and awareness of this part of themselves; therefore, it requires a dedicated practice to cultivate this “gentle observer.”
“Mindfulness practice” is when we choose to notice, to pay attention without jumping to action or judgment.
We bring mindfulness practice into seated meditation in order to practice, to cultivate, to nurture, to expand the aspect of Self I refer to as “the gentle observe.” This is the part of us that can simply BE. This is where we find peace.
Now, let’s be clear… We don’t start sitting in meditation and instantly experience peace… Nor is there always peace in meditation even after years of practice.
There is a process and a practice that must be observed.
In the process of cultivating this “gentle observer” and the subsequent experience of peace, we encounter all the not-so-gentle aspects of Self and the non-peaceful feelings and experiences we have in the body, mind and heart.
Seated meditation is the ideal place to practice observing these not-so-gentle, non-peaceful sensations, thoughts and feelings. By observing, by increasing our awareness without action, reaction or judgment, eventually these not-so-gentle, non-peaceful experiences begin to fall away and we are left with a delicious state of BEING with what is… This is peace.
Once we experience this sense of peace, it is like a glorious glimpse… in Japanese this is called “satori.” We experience it but do not cling to it. We do not expect it or chase after it the next time we sit. If we anticipate it, expect it or chase it the experience will surely elude us.
Instructions on Seated Meditation
In the beginning of your practice, it is important to find a certain time and place in your life that is quiet and without interruption. Early morning and just before bed at night are ideal times.
Designate a specific place in your home as your meditation area.
Some people like to set up a little table of dedication to their practice to create a sense of sacred space with a candle, maybe an item that has special meaning to you and your own personal spiritual beliefs just as a reminder that meditation is your special sacred time with your own Self. This is not necessary, however.
In the beginning, bring a timer with a gentle chime. Turn off all other sound and vibration on your device and set a timer for ten minutes. This will help you to allow the timer to “mind the time” rather than your mind worrying about how much time has gone by. Ten minutes per sitting will be enough in the beginning.
Once you have practiced daily for 2 weeks increase the time to 20 minutes.
Eventually you will no longer need a timer because as your connection to your inner Self and your inner Knowing grows stronger you will intuitively know when your meditation has ended.
Sit on a firm cushion under your tail-bone in a comfortable cross legged position OR kneel with several cushions under you like a high saddle OR you can sit on a couch, bench or chair.
Just find a way to sit comfortably with the spine straight and do not allow the back of your head to lean against anything.
You can begin by resting the backs of your hands on your legs/knees with palms softly open in a gesture of receptivity and willingness to receive whatever your meditation practice has to bring you.
Some people like to observe a bow of respect by bringing palms together, aligning thumbs at the forehead or the heart and bowing forward in the tradition of the East – a way of saying to your own Self and what you believe in spiritually, “I am here, I respect, I enter this practice with reverence for all of Nature within me and outside of me.” (if you have a particular religion you observe you can include here what you believe in, i.e. Jesus, God, Allah, Divine, Kuan Yin, Saints, etc.) This is not necessary, however.
In this practice, I recommend you close your eyes in order to bring all the mind’s focus inward.
As soon as you close your eyes it is as if you have entered a new room and for many they immediately become aware of discomfort.
The body may be uncomfortable.
The mind may seem to race about.
You may have feelings or thoughts of urgency to get up and stop doing this.
You may have feelings and thoughts of judgment about what this is all about, how boring it is or how you just “can’t do this.”
I encourage you to sit THROUGH those feelings and thoughts. Notice them but do not allow them to hook you and pull you away.
Instead, gently redirect your noticing mind to how the breath flows in and out of your body so automatically.
Choose to be fascinated with the flow of your own breath. Watch it. Notice it. Focus your mind on the flow of your breath. Feel the sensations in your body as the breath comes in and out. Allow the natural breath to be your anchor, your home-base, your touch-stone in your meditation practice.
Each time your mind drifts away and you notice it has drifted, feel encouraged because as soon as you notice you have drifted away you have returned to the present moment. At this point, gently redirect your mind back to focusing on the flow of your natural breath here and now in your body.
You may find your mind drifts 1000 times. It is not how many times you drift away that matters, however. It is the returning to the present moment 1000 times that helps you to grow your connection to your inner Self and cultivate the gentle observer.
Neuroscientists have discovered, through various technologically advanced means of assessment, that meditation stimulates increased activity in several parts of the left prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain associated with desirable emotions, such as happiness, enthusiasm, joy and self-control.
Interestingly, these same studies demonstrated a decreased level of activity in the parts of the brain related to undesirable emotions, such as depression, selfishness and a lack of happiness or satisfaction.(http://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16369.full)
Meditation also produces a calming effect in the amygdala, that walnut sized part of the brain that acts as an alarm and trigger for fear and anger.
Meditation and mindfulness techniques are used by an expansive variety of people now that Science has proven its benefits. Corporate leaders are meditating and encouraging employees to meditate now. Medical professionals are more and more embracing meditation as a practice recommended for their patients. Many schools are beginning to encourage children to meditate. There are meditation classes taught in prisons now. Athletes often meditate to help with their sports.
The US military has been offering mindfulness training to personnel returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to help them cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the psychological after-effects of combat.
Now… it’s your turn….
So, now that you’ve read about this and perhaps watched my video, I encourage you to dedicate time and space in your life every day to begin your own practice of seated meditation. Allow this to be your quiet, sacred time.
After you practice for a while and get beyond the initial bothers of “the monkey mind” you may find that during your meditation practice you experience emotion or even spontaneous movement in/with the body. If this happens, just feel it, allow it to be there and keep focusing on your breath. Do not give in to the curiousity that will arise. It is simply another level of awareness, acceptance and allowing. This will produce healing for your body, mind and heart.
In order to feel fulfilled and content in your life a regular practice of self love and care must be in place. In order to be able to love and serve others, we must first love and care for ourselves.
Here are 54 self care tips
1. Write "lunch break" on your calendar and take them.
2. Eat slowly. Chew and really taste your food. Don't eat on the run. Sit down and savor
Take time between appointments to close your eyes and take 4 slow cycles of deep, full breaths.
Upon waking in the morning, get up slowly, put your feet on the floor and take a few minutes to sit and be with the new day and your breath before jumping up.
Drink 8 ounces of water each hour of your work day.
Drink 8 ounces of warm lemon water upon waking each morning. It will help with digestion.
Walk briskly for 15 minutes every day. Swing your arms. Look up at the sky and the tree-tops.
Practice some gentle, simple yoga postures and stretches throughout the day. Take an intro yoga class.
Avoid processed or "fast" food. Eat whole foods.
Buy local and organic. Eat seasonally.
Skip sugar and white flour.
Consider giving up cocktail hour. If moderation is possible, no problem but be honest with yourself...
Learn to say no. Take a moment to ask yourself if you really have the time and energy to do what you are being asked to do.
Use that gym membership you have. Try a new class, go for a swim, join a basketball league.
Take your shoes off and walk in the grass. Feel the earth beneath your feet.
Find ways to laugh. Comedy radio or tv. Hang out with funny people. Seek the humor in all things.
Build in slow down time so you can move from activity to activity or issue to issue with pauses in between.
Keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day reflect on what small or large parts of your life you can feel grateful.
Snuggle with a furry baby. Animals help open our hearts. Take time to nurture and care for a pet or volunteer at the Humane Society. Loving an animal will open YOUR heart.
Clean out a closet, a cabinet or a drawer each week. You'll feel lighter.
Plant flowers near your door and notice them with a smile everytime you leave or come home.
Plant an herb garden in your kitchen window. Cook with fresh herbs.
Find out how to use essential oils in everyday life. Aromatherapy is good for mood and a natural replacement for many of the toxic cleaning products.
Take care of your skin naturally with castile soap, baking soda, witch hazel and coconut oil. Save money and nurture your skin naturally.
Set firm and loving boundaries with others. Respect your own time, space and emotions. Don't let others run all over you.
Clean out the fridge monthly. Get rid of expired items and wash down the surfaces.
Connect with people you care about. Reach out to people you haven't spoken to in a while and tell them how much you appreciate them. Loving others is a way of loving yourself.
Keep indoor plants throughout your house and office and nurture them. In turn they will clean the air you breathe.
Floss daily. So important but often neglected, this task will prevent painful, expensive dental issues down the road. Love your gums.
When you hear someone speaking degrading, derogatory or deprecating things about others, stand up by pointing out the positive and the beauty. Shining light where there is darkness will expand your spirit.
Learn to meditate and meditate daily. Just 10 minutes each day over the course of a year will transform you in wonderful ways.
Listen to the audio version of the book Wherever You Go There YouAre for free by Jon Kabbat-Zinn and do the little exercises after each chapter. It will change your life for the better.
Have a good cry. Breathe into the sadness and breathe out the tension.
Feel your angry feelings while walking briskly. Swing your arms. The bilateral stimulation of the body and brain helps even out the emotions in a healthy way.
Go to counseling. Counseling is a place to process what you are unclear about and feel supported and often guided when you're lost.
Connect with a spiritual practice. Regardless of religion or tradition, go within and connect to what you believe in.
Give away clothing and items you no longer wear or use to a local shelter or charity. It will help you lighten your material load and provide for someone in need.
Hire a life/wellness coach to help you get clear on specific goals, learn some new tools and skills and create accountability for yourself.
Play with little children. Rediscover your inner child.
Paint a room in your house or office. Bring in some color.
Keep fresh-cut flowers in your space. It will remind you to appreciate the beauty and the delicacy of life now.
Light a candle. It is a ritual that signifies a beginning, an opening, a special and/or sacred moment.
Write love letters by hand to all the people you love.
Write down your personal memoirs. Recount childhood memories honoring your past.
Leave "white space" on your calendar for unprogrammed, unplanned, spontaneous experiences.
Make pottery, paint on canvas, sketch, crochet... it's meditative and good for the soul to create...
Go for walks in nature often. Connect with the trees, mountains, beach...
Smile at yourself when you pass a mirror.
Lie down in the grass and watch the clouds.
Play soothing music in your car, office and home.
Use soft lamplight and forgo flourescents.
Hug 3 people every day. Feel the connection.
Compliment yourself in your own mind as often as possible.
Know that you are MORE than enough just the way you are.
I pledged on September 6, 2016 that I would devote myself to a simpler life on a daily basis which requires practicing mindfulness in daily life.
I have a reminder that pops up on my phone at 6:50 am every day that says "A Simple Life Project." By committing to daily reflection as to how I might simplify my life this day, I have noticed how important it is to be a gentle observer.
What is a gentle observer? The practice of mindfulness in dailylife requires we practice observation without judgment.
If we dedicate ourselves to this mindfulness practice we have to learn how to observe in a gentle way. In other words, we notice what is happening inside of us and outside of us with a bubble of awareness between what's happening and any internal reaction we may have.
If we can manage to just be and breathe with what we observe including the internal reaction, we create a soft, gentle space where we can discern how or if we wish to respond rather than react.
Mindfulness in daily life is key to creating a simpler, more vibrant life. Here are 4 tips to being a gentle observer:
We must become aware of how hard and tense we are in our expressions, our voice, our posture, our manner in order to become softer. There is tremendous strength in being soft.
Mindfulness in daily life invites us soften into ourselves, our relationships and whatever is happening around us. Try right now. Notice what happens if you just think about the word SOFT and allow your facial muscles to grow soft, your shoulders to soften down, your breath to flow softly.
Next, before you speak aloud, intentionally soften your voice and your mouth. Try walking softly rather than stomping about unconsciously.
Breathe with awareness.
We are all breathing automatically but when we bring awareness to the breath we step into the practice of mindfulness in daily life.
Begin by making it a habit to NOTICE your natural, automatic breath. Notice how it feels as it enters and exits your body.
Befriend your breath by checking in ongoing throughout your day. Play with deepening your inhales and extending your exhales for instant calm to your tense body and mind.
Feel and express gratitude.
At the end of all of the thousands of yoga classes I have taught over the years, I always guide students to bring hands together in the "prayer position" at the center of the chest and with eyes still closed in a relaxed seated position after deeply resting in savanna.
Next, I suggest we seek a palpable sense of gratitude for the breath, the body and this day of being alive. Mindfulness in daily life is a practice that is enriched when we seek opportunity to feel and express gratitude. It might be gratitude toward the cashier at the grocery, or gratitude for the vibrant colors in nature out in our front yard, or gratitude for the opportunity to help someone who is struggling, or gratitude for a comfortable bed.
If we can adopt a habit of feeling and saying "thank you," we begin to marinate in gratitude all of the time. And if we can marinate in gratitude all of the time we naturally experience a simpler life and the practice of mindfulness in daily life.
I was leading a meditation class one Sunday and a long time student was expressing how hard it is to let go when she is so worried about her son who is making poor decisions as he prepares to leave the nest. I leaned in softly and replied, "This is letting go. . ." and I lifted my gripping fists and opened my hands and softened my fingers and wrists. I said, "Just release the grip."
Her whole body and face softened in that moment as she realized she was creating her own suffering by gripping so tightly mentally, emotionally and physically.
Letting go does not mean that we give up on our loved ones. Letting go does not mean that we become numb to the suffering of others. We can be dedicated to a project without gripping tightly. Mindfulness in daily life requires a regular practice of releasing the grip.
My own spiritual teacher told me many years ago that clasping my child to my chest in a tight grip of worry is not love rather having arms wide open for the child to come to me if and when he chooses is love. We can adopt this same practice for ourselves in our daily life.
By softening, breathing with awareness, feeling and expressing gratitude we are more able to release what no longer serves us and let go of the tight grip of anxiety. Practice clenching your fists very tightly - hold on for dear life! Now, release. Let go. Soften your hands and fingers.
Being a gentle observer is a practice of noticing with softness and then consciously choosing to continue to soften, breathe withe awareness, feel and express gratitude and let go of what you do not need to hold onto. This is the essence of mindfulness in daily life and key to having a simpler life.
Conflict happens. A disagreement with a spouse. A run-in with a neighbor. Opposing political views. Torn within your own mind and heart about what decision to make. It is an unpleasant experience and yet it is inevitable. It is when we allow conflicts to become bigger and more complicated than they need to be that we find ourselves in a bind.
Here are 8 steps:
Breathe. When you realize you are in the midst of a conflict our brain typically tells the body it's time to tense up and our breathing becomes short. Soften your belly. Drop your shoulders down away from your ears and take a deep full breath in. Release the breath slowly through your mouth. Ahhhh.
Identify the conflict. There is power in naming it. What is happening? Where is the conflict's origin? Take a step back into neutrality and just notice what's going on.
Own your part. If your conflict is with another person, be sure to look at how you have contributed to this conflict or caused it to escalate. Be willing to own that and if needed to sincerely apologize for your part.
Listen and reflect. Even if you don't agree with what you are hearing it can go a LONG way for the other person to feel heard. Listen for content and reflect back (out loud) what you hear the other person saying. Here's an example: "So, what I'm hearing is that you really believe strongly that all children should be vaccinated and that parents who don't vaccinate are neglecting their children's wellbeing. Am I understanding you correctly?"
Empathize. Even if you don't agree with what you are hearing, seek the place where you can empathize sincerely and this will help to soften the conflict. Here's an example, "I can hear that you feel strongly about this and I can understand that for you this feels like a really important issue. I get that."
Pause and breathe again. Repeat number 1.
Respond softly and respectfully. After you have helped the other person feel heard and understood and you've take a breath break, it's your turn to respond. Soften your tone and choose your words carefully.
Agree to disagree. Not all conflicts can be resolved with compromise or direct solution. Sometimes you can simply make peace by agreeing to have opposing views and walk away peacefully.