When I started my new job in the beginning of September, I also started working on an adaptogen drink that could help with a few goals: increase resilience to stress and anxiety, bolster immunity, and help with memory and cognition. The days are also starting to get much shorter here, and I’d like to get a jump on SAD1, which I have to some extent or another every year.
My new job is a similar role to the last job I had in Colorado, but this one is a bit more complicated and advanced. Last time I was in this role, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, and I got stuck in a rut of deep anxiety, overwhelming stress, and a ragged immune system. By the time I realized I needed to pay special attention to keeping myself sane/healthy, I was already so burnt out and anxious that it was hard to come back from – especially while I was still at that job! I ended up getting bronchitis in March (second year in a row), and managing my anxiety became my second full-time job.
Luckily, I had several months off between jobs (you know, moving) to recover and rest, and I knew what I was getting myself into this time (and this company has much more reasonable expectations and work-life balance). As I started this role, I wanted to take extra care, especially as I was changing sleep schedules and jumping into the new position just as the seasons were starting to change. Plus, the job also requires a good memory and a lot of analyzing and processing information at a pretty quick speed.
Last week, we talked about how to get started meditating. In that entry, I said that you don’t need tools to meditate – and you really don’t! But, if you’re anything like me, sometimes having a few tools helps jumpstart a project, and a small (or medium) investment can make me more likely to stay committed.
If either of those are true for you too, here are the tools I’ve been using to meditate, from “essential” to “nice to have”:1
Insight Timer App (Apple & Android, free)
I’ve tried a few different timers, but this is definitely my favorite! Its main feature is a graceful meditation timer, which counts either up or down, which allows you to either pick ahead of time how long your session will last or just keep track of how long you sat. It also has groups and free guided meditations. You can also participate in the social media parts of the app, if you’d like! Tips: Search for meditation timers on your phone and try a few out! You’ll learn which one you like best after trying out a few.
Zafus are cushions that are designed for meditating. They’re (often) filled with buckwheat hulls that you can add or remove to your preference (I recommend this style). You don’t need a special cushion for meditating, but I was blown away with how much more comfortable a zafu was than the old pillow folded in half that I was using. Tips: I stopped by a local meditation center in Denver to try out different cushions and adjust it to just the right amount of buckwheat hulls – I’d recommend this if at all possible. If not, you can find cushions online at places like Hugger Mugger (the brand I have), Dharma Crafts or Etsy.
I’m trying to get back into the habit of meditating regularly and found this article I wrote in 2016. It was a good reminder of my practice, and maybe will be helpful to you! Its lightly edited to make it more current.
As someone with anxiety, I’ve always worried that meditating would make it worse – sitting, alone with my thoughts?Ugh. So, I avoided meditating when I felt most anxious, which meant it never became a regular habit.
Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong! There is a ton of scientific research showing that meditation helps reduce anxiety and stress, increase focus and creativity, and more.
So, I’ve really started to push myself to just keep with it, no matter how I was feeling – and it has helped my anxiety so much. Meditating has given me the time to slow down and just feel whatever it is I am feeling. Its my ten or fifteen minutes each day to just be – no hustle, no to do lists, no fixing things. Giving myself the time to experience and process my emotions has kept me from my usual M.O.: bottling things up until I explode. (Not healthy, I know. Working on it.)
“This is why we practice, for times like these, when compassion is so necessary.” -Dalai Lama
What IS meditation, anyway?
Since I’ve started meditating more often, I’ve had a lot of great conversations about what meditation is (and isn’t), how to get started, and what tools you need to be successful.
And, I’m here to tell you: you can mediate anywhere, without any special tools. Just get started! In the past, I’ve meditated sitting on a pillow folded in half, sitting in a chair, even while walking. Now I own a zafu, or a meditation cushion, but you don’t need one. You don’t need incense, candles, statues, or any other tools either (but you can use them if you’d like to!). The beauty of meditation is that it is a practice that is available to everyone, anywhere.
In my experience, mediation isn’t about having an empty mind or sitting perfectly still for hours at a time. I was scared off from practicing for a long time when I read about some Zen meditation traditions where you get tapped with a stick if you shift position or don’t sit perfectly still! I thought I wasn’t doing meditation “right” if I couldn’t sit still and stop thinking.
As you practice more, you’ll start learn what works best for you through trial and error. What my practice looks like won’t necessarily be what works best or feels right for you. I don’t really like guided meditation, for example, but others love it! When you’re starting, try meditating at different times of the day, for different lengths of time, in different spaces, and see which feels the best to you. Just because one method doesn’t work best doesn’t mean you should stop meditating!
This is what my practice looks like:
Signal the start of my session. I light a small piece of low-smoke incense to signal to myself that the meditation time is starting.
Set a timer. I set my meditation timer for how long I am able to sit – if I have time, I try for 15 or more minutes. If not, my minimum is 10 minutes – it usually takes me at least 5 minutes to settle in, so anything less doesn’t work for me. Also, I prefer to sit in the morning or early afternoon – meditating at night doesn’t work well for me.
Sit. I sit on my zafu, which is placed on a rug, for at least 10 minutes. Sometimes I sit on the zafu cross-legged. Other times, I kneel with the zafu between my legs, with my weight resting on my tailbone. Whichever way you sit, make sure your hips are rolled back so that you are resting your weight on your “sit bones” and back is relatively straight. I usually just rest my hands on my knees, but sometimes I will have my mala or crystal in one hand. Finding a comfortable spot can be one of the hardest parts of meditating – getting formal instruction on the best way to sit was extremely helpful for me!
Look ahead. Sometimes I keep my eyes open, and sometimes I close them (as long as I am not falling asleep!). If my eyes are open, I gently look at whatever is in front of me.
Count my breaths. I count my breaths from 1 to 10, then start back at one again. One complete breath is one inhale and one exhale.
This helps me keep my attention on breathing.
If I find myself at 16 or 18 or 23 or whatever number, that is okay! I just start back at one again.
I breathe normally, just paying attention to how it feels. Things like:
Which parts of my body are moving with my breath?
Does my breath feel hot or cold as it comes out of my mouth or nose?
I had lived in Colorado long enough that things become familiar, and Colorado had become my touchstone for “home.” I had favorite restaurants, shops, parks, views, hangouts. Sometimes, it felt a bit boring always going to the same place, but it also felt comforting. Daily life felt more routine (and more routine than not helps a lot with my anxiety). If I was driving around and was hangry, I knew where to go to get a quick meal (and, having food allergies, I knew where to go that was safe). If I needed a particular ingredient for a recipe, I knew just the shop to go to. When I was feeling down, I had places to go for pick-me-ups. The views I saw helped anchor me to my “place” – mountains always to the west, visible for quick navigation and grounding; the glimpse of the city skyline as I would drive down certain streets; landmarks that jogged memories.
Since moving to Minneapolis, its been difficult for me to find my sense of place. I am still looking for a job, so routine is hard to come by. I am still learning the area, and get frustrated that I don’t know where to go for most things. On one hand, the newness is fun and a bit of an adventure – I love stopping into a new bookstore or trying out a new restaurant! But, adventure every day gets exhausting. Its humid and hot and I don’t remember how to deal with it. Food goes stale so fast. There are bugs – mosquitoes, fruit flies, gnats. My mountains are gone.
Its hard to adapt and adjust. Its lonely and tired and sometimes sad. I see things and wish I could show it to a friend from Colorado, but I don’t know that I will see them again. I want to ask someone to join me on an adventure (which, as a introvert loner, is quite the thing), but I don’t know people here to ask. Andrew is busy working so much of the time, and I don’t have (much of) an income, so I can’t really tell him to work less.
Of course, it is also fun and exciting. I really do love Minneapolis as a city, so far. All the neighborhoods are named and there are countless small neighborhood shops on corners. It seems like every neighborhood has it’s own small farmer’s market, and they mostly sell fresh vegetables instead of food products or crafts. The mid-priced-range food scene here is amazing, and represents so many different cuisines.
The park system here is incredible, with miles of paths to explore. There are gardens and nature preserves and even a free (botanical) conservatory in St. Paul. And the lakes! The lakes. We live near several of the beautiful lakes and it has been such a balm for me to be able to walk to them. People seem to take such pride in their landscaping, and so I have gleefully enjoyed watching all of their plants grow. Clematises (clemati?) and lilies and bee balm and hostas and ferns all seem to do so well here – plants I didn’t see much of in Colorado and am enjoying learning about.
I’m starting to feel out some things that I’d like to try: the Minnesota Zen Center (also within walking-ish distance of our home); an herbal immersion course (starting next year); ceramics classes (through the local rec center or maybe at a local pottery place). A routine is starting to develop, somewhat – though its hard to stay motivated to get things done by any certain time when I have so much free time. I am starting to get back into habits that I had and dropped, like meditation and language learning (which I want to write more about soon).
I keep reminding myself that its okay to feel sad (or excited!), and to have patience and kindness with myself through the transitions. I know it is a process. I know that one day I will wake up and realize everything has become familiar and routine and a part of me will be annoyed that I don’t have more time or inclination to explore and adventure – and so I am doing my best to enjoy the process now, too.
Preparations: tea, tincture (M. Wood states fresh leaves preferred), culinary, salves/ointments; dried leaves and tinctures lose potency quickly (Noël Groves, 2016). G. Masé and J. King suggest tincturing 60g recently dried lemon balm leaves in 12 oz 150-proof alcohol for one week (2016).
Cultivation and harvesting: Everywhere, particularly good in USDA zones 4-8; prefers moist and fertile soil; tolerates drought, crowding, and poor soil; adaptable. Can be grown in containers; can reach 2 feet tall. Self-seeds. Water stress increases medicinal constituents (Hobbs and Gardner, 2013). Frost hardy. Stratify seeds and sow in early spring in cool soil (or start from cuttings/division). Essential oil content highest in late bloom. Leaves bruise/blacken easily when harvesting. Harvest carefully in midsummer and again in late summer/early fall; dry in darkness (Hobbs and Gardner, 2013).
General notes: M. Wood states Melissa is particularly good for instances of “sympathetic excess,” especially related to the stomach or heart; specific for nervousness, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, heart palpitations, rapid pulse. R. Gladstar states lemon balm is good for “heartache and depression,” SAD (seasonal affective disorder), soothing “stomach distress and nervous exhaustion,” and is effective in treating herpes and shingles. C. Hobbs and L. Gardner highlight the antiviral activity as well, stating drinking lemon balm tea throughout the day may help with herpes (cold sore) outbreaks (2013). Gently simmering the whole herb for 40-60 minutes can release “phenolic fraction,” which can help relieve the “pain and duration” of a oral herpes (cold sore) outbreak (C. Hobbs and L. Gardner, 2013). Lemon balm is also helpful for colic. In addition to previously mentioned indications, M. Noël Groves (2016) also states that lemon balm can be helpful for hyperactivity in children, as well as help with memory and hyperthyroid diseases.
Safety concerns/contraindications: None known; safe for long-term use. M. Noël Groves (2016) states it may rarely aggravate hypothyroid disease.
2/26/17 – I’ve been enjoying a cup of lemon balm tea nightly(ish) for a month or so now and it has really helped lift my spirits during winter, as well as help calm some of the anticipatory nervous/anxiousness I feel towards work, helping me get to sleep at a reasonable time. I originally came across lemon balm in the Republic of Tea’s Be Happy blend several years ago, but prefer now to buy lemon balm in bulk now and just steep it by itself or mixed with another immune supporting tea blend. It also mixes well with oat straw! I have some ideas for a lemon balm + lavender tea I’d like to try next…
7/6/17 – In mid-March, I got into the routine of bringing a thermos of lemon balm/oatstraw tea with a pinch of valerian root to (very stressful) work, which worked calming magic. Since then, I’ve continued to enjoy lemon balm tea fairly regularly, and like to keep the dried herb in a jar handy in the kitchen. Since it has gotten so hot, I’ve switched to making iced tea (sometimes mixing it with hibiscus or rooibos). It does seem to be a tea that is (for me) best enjoyed regularly to really feel the general uplifted feeling – when I only have a cup now-and-again, it doesn’t seem to have the same longer term effect.
8/21/17 – I found some fresh lemon balm at the co-op – holy moly is it delicious! Up until this point, I had been brewing tea from dried lemon balm. Fresh is an entirely different taste! I also found some at my farmer’s market (every few weeks a local herbalist has a booth). Even just picking the leaves off the stem is a heavenly experience – lemony and fresh. I would love to grow some so that I can have a constant supply of fresh lemon balm, but I don’t think I have enough light in my apartment (and no yard/balcony) to grow some. Working on a few other ideas. Anyway, fresh lemon balm is where it is at.
Gladstar, R. (2012). Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginners Guide. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
Hobbs, C. and L. Gardner. (2013). Grow it Heal It: Natural and Effective Herbal Remedies From Your Garden or Windowsill. New York: Rodale.
Masé, G. and J. King. (2016) DIY Bitters: Reviving the Forgotten Flavors; A Guide to Making Your Own Bitters. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press.
Mountain Rose Herbs. (unk). Lemon Balm. Retrieved from https://www.mountainroseherbs.com/products/lemon-balm/profile
Noël Groves, M. (2016) Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self-Care. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
World Health Organization. (2010). WHO Monographs on Medicinal Plants Commonly Used in the Newly Independent States (NIS). Retrieved from http://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/documents/s17534en/s17534en.pdf#page=249
Wood, M. (2008). The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
For 2017, I want to work towards doing more – more of what I enjoy, more dedication to my paths, more sustained interest in my hobbies.
Usually, I have two ways of operating: quick, deep diving obsession with new things and complete lack of interest in most things. On one had, I have many interests and love to jump in head first when I discover something. However, I quickly find myself burning out on it and moving on (usually coming back around at a later day). This can look a lot like taking three years to make a scarf, or moving around with boxes of art supplies that I haven’t used even remotely recently.
On the other hand, I tend to spend a huge amount of my time listlessly wasting time in between things I “have” to do (usually work…), not pursuing anything I particularly care about. This looks a lot like rewatching the same TV show enough times that I can pick out when memes with quotes and images from the show don’t correspond (looking at you, Downton Abbey) or scrolling through Facebook for hours.
Yet, every year, when I look back at the previous year, I wish I had spent more time focused on the things I set out to learn or do. I never wish I had spent less time hiking or reading or learning something new. But, I rarely look back fondly on the (literally) hundreds of hours I spent watching TV and reading social media (and all the other useless things I do to fill my time).
So, this year, I’m working on doing more of the things I am passionate about (and correspondingly, less of the things that just to fill/kill time). So far, I’m:
Studying herbs in an organized way. I’ve studied them off-hand for years, but I want to begin to organize my knowledge better – take notes, study one herb at a time, begin creating my materia medica, and complete the courses/books I’ve started. This is the year!
Meditating and studying mindfulness. Again, something that I have done for years but never in a systematic or disciplined way (or a mindful way, I guess you could say). This looks like: meditating every day in 2017, as well as committing to attending monthly weekend meditation retreats when (financially) possible. I’m trying to push myself to go to weekly nightly meetings as well, but that is a bit more flexible. I’m also reading books related to meditation and mindfulness.
Learning Swedish. Why Swedish? I’m not really sure. It’s fun, it’s hard, it’s free on Duolingo. Andrew and I are learning together, which is also great. I have been walking around the house quietly muttering Swedish words to myself, so something must be working!
Part of my drive for wanting to be more purposeful in how I am spending my time is that I am so glad to finally have free time after graduation – its almost as though I don’t want to waste it! But, I also realized quickly after starting my new job that the stress of the job was eating me up and I was just coming home and binging on TV until I passed out and started it all over again the next day.
That’s not how I want to spend my days.
I don’t have too many options at the moment, work-wise, and I get paid pretty well for what I do – but the stress and my reaction to it don’t have to be my entire life. I want a life outside of work, too. I want to have more of a life than work and numbing my brain on TV. And, I’m tired of looking back at the day/week/month/year and realizing I wasted so much time doing absolutely nothing. I’ve always wanted to study herbs, learn more about meditation, and learn a new language – so I decided to just do it.
They’re not resolutions – more like dedications – and so I am keeping the list short for now. I’m sure 2017 will bring more more – I see hiking and photography down the road, too. For now, these are my dedications.
Want to follow along? (or join in!)
Meditation: I’m keeping track of my meditation sessions on the Insight Timer app – I’m hellokatelandia there.
Language learning: I’m using Duolingo for Swedish – I’m hellokatelandia there too. They have 21 languages for English speakers! Pick one!
Herbal studies: Look here for my materia medica – I’m planning on keeping monographs here.
The Internet has been (rightfully) collectively moaning about how terrible you’ve been – and, from the outside, it has been an admittedly rough year. Deaths of well-loved celebs only begin to scratch the surface – civil wars in Syria and South Sudan, continued attacks on Palestine, repeated killings of black men and women by police in the US, reproductive rights being rolled back in the US, continued violence against trans and LGB folks, Trump (and the worldview his followers represent) winning the US election…and on and on. You’ve been bit of a gut punch, over and over. Particularly since the election results, I’ve had to really pull back from the Internet and reading the news, in hopes to help calm some of the constant low-grade anxiety I have been feeling so I can continue to function day-to-day.
But! As a bit of confusing contrast, you have also been a year of wonderful personal beginnings for me.
In May, I graduated from college, nearly 10 years to the day from graduating high school. It was a hard-fought victory – I don’t remember a moment of it being easy, even though I enjoyed a lot of it – and I knew then that it was the hardest that I’ve ever worked in my life, between working several jobs, going to school full time, overachieving in my extracurriculars, and somehow trying to balance my personal life (college life is definitely not designed for people over 22!). I also know it tested me – and my relationships – in a way I never could have anticipated. Ultimately, graduating showed me my ability to persevere (or maybe just be incredibly stubborn), as well as revealing an amazing support system.
In August, Andrew and I got married. We didn’t have a wedding or even a party – a quirk of Colorado marriage law doesn’t even require an officiant or witness, just the two of us signing the marriage certificate. We had decided earlier in the summer to get married and told our families and friends, then waited for a good time to make it official (between all the summer birthdays and other anniversaries!). So, he and I left town for a long weekend in the beginning of August, signed the paperwork, and made it official. It hasn’t felt all that different in the nearly-five months since – but at the same time, each day feels a little bit new. Magic.
In September, I participated in my first meditation retreat. Though I had been trying (and doing fairly well!) to meditate every day this year, going to the meditation retreat really helped me set a course, and has helped provide more direction to my practice. Though I still don’t manage to meditate every day (though I plan to in 2017!), I get pretty close. And, even on the days that I don’t meditate, I can still feel its impact on my life in increased patience, more awareness, and even a bit more compassion.
Also in September, I started a new job. I’d been a bit nervous about it, because it wasn’t remotely in my field of interest and I wasn’t sure I would learn the information quickly enough to do well at the job. But, I’d spent most of the summer since graduating un- or (drastically) under-employed, so I was game; the main draw to the new job was that it paid a real, sustainable salary, which is not something I’ve been able to have since moving to Colorado in 2010. Honestly, I was just bone tired of constantly struggling to pay the (ever increasing) rent and bills, and relieved to have found a position to allow me some room to breathe. And, through the struggles and frustrations of this job (of which there are…quite enough), that shining point has remained true. For the first time in many, many years, I can pay my bills, get my groceries, and have money left over to save (and, realistically, spend on books!).
There have been countless smaller things to celebrate about you, too, 2016. Andrew and I found an apartment we really enjoy, with a kitchen large enough to contain our cooking adventures. I’ve decorated the apartment with an abundance of cacti, succulents, and houseplants and have gotten so much joy from tending them and watching them grow. Andrew and I took our first vacation together ever – a long weekend, really – that was just he and I, no family involved. I semi-solo road-tripped through western Colorado, seeing monumentsandparks that I had been wanting to see since moving to CO. I joined the botanicalgardensin Denver, another longtime goal. I reconnected with several friends from Wisconsin, who all happened to be passing through CO this year. Andrew and I have played many board games – sometimes even roping in friends to join us – which is easily one of my favorite past times. I finished my first major cross stitch project.
I know sometimes it feels like the world is crumbling around us (and, really, I swing between thinking the world is falling apart and believing that people and institutions are far more resilient than we think). But, looking back at what happened in my own life, I am deeply grateful, proud, and happy for everything that has happened. Thank you. Thank you.
To more growth, progress, and contentment in change in 2017,
I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over my experiences in the week that has passed since the meditation retreat. Lucky for me, I am between jobs (new job starts on Monday!), so I had plenty of time to consider and journal and meditate more and read a bit…and think some more.
During the second day of the retreat, Saturday, I had an unexpected experience: I felt so frustrated, almost mad, that there were so many people there, meditating. I wasn’t annoyed with meditating so long, per say, or that it wasn’t going a certain way. Honestly, my only expectation for myself was to just show up and sit (or walk, as I discovered) and meditate for the day.
At one point during the morning meditation, I looked up and thought something along the lines of “there are 40 goddamn people paying to be in this room to just sit here and do nothing” – annoyance that we weren’t doing more, that we were spending our time (and money!) not doing anything. I couldn’t pinpoint my irritation at the time, and expressed it pretty badly to the meditation teacher I had a one-on-one with, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there needed to be a larger, greater, more helpful (to the world) purpose to meditating for an entire weekend than just “I want to feel less stressed” or whatever.
I talked to another attendee on Sunday, who had more experience both with meditation retreats and Shambhala specifically, and again tried to express this feeling that we all needed to be doing something (and mostly failing), and he mentioned a few Buddhist practices that are a bit more outward focused (tonglen, for example). Helpful, but I was still unsatisfied.
I went to the introduction session for the Shambhala Level I training tonight. We took turns explaining why we were there, passing around a microphone. I made the mistake of making eye contact with someone holding a microphone, so I tried to sum up why I was attending my first meditation retreat to a room full of strangers – awkward at the best of times.
How could I possibly sum up for strangers what brought me there? A process of years, all leading to that moment. Books I’ve read, especially Pema Chödrön’s work (which, as it turns out, is many of the participants’ introduction to Shambhala). Time I’ve spent sitting in meditation (though, admittedly, not as much time or as regularly as I’d like). But, most importantly, how meditation and mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy has wound its way into my life and become a part of (and helped me through) every single event that has happened to me. Moments of clarity, pockets of awareness, time spent sitting and just crying (both happy and sad tears) on my cushion.
In particular, the awareness I’ve gained from even the sliver of meditation that I’ve tried has been invaluable to me in working with and on my anxiety and depression. There’s no doubt that I have become much more able to process and manage both of these things because of the time I’ve spent learning about meditation. When Things Fall Apart is my balm in difficult times. I am who I am today because of the books and teachings and meditation sessions. But, ironically, few people in my life realize how much the philosophy and teachings have impacted my life, because I almost never mention it. So – to try to sum this all up to a room full of strangers, when I barely even mention it to those closest to me, was a bit nerve wracking.
Part of what brought me there, though, was realizing I am looking for more. I’ve used meditation in crisis and rough times, and now it’s time to bring it into the rest of my life – into the good times, into the celebrations, and into the “everyday.” I want to develop a regular meditation practice – and, to be honest, have always intended to – but always feel a bit like I am making it up as a I go along. I wanted “official” instruction, even structure – and Shambhala provides that. I was looking for community, and they also provide that.