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Sleep is Magical- Mindful Practices to Help You Sleep

Kira Elliott Sleep is Magical

“Peace is within oneself to be found in the same place as agitation and suffering. It is not found in a forest or on a hilltop, nor is it given by a teacher. Where you experience suffering, you can also find freedom from suffering. Trying to run away from suffering is actually to run toward it.” Ajahn Chah

Sleep is Magical

It is dark. I wake and awareness trickles into the warm spaces in my mind. The white noise machine on the cluttered bedside table hums. I feel the warm weight of the cat sleeping on my right foot. Sleep is a magical thing and I want more of it. Yet the core of my body is heating up like the flare of hot blue heat when a bunsen burner is first fired up. A single click and we have a roaring sharp tipped blue flame. I roll over and disturb the cat, who settles back leaning on my ankles. A prick of familiar panic forms in my belly as I lay there hoping to fall back to sleep. Hoping my mind will not turn on like my body has and  the heat from the blue flame at my core will not disturbed my mind so I can fall back asleep and dream of things that don’t make sense but then do while they are happening in my sleep.

Yet, I begin to feel it, the tightening. My thoughts are winding tighter and tighter. Looping around and around each other like a thin copper wire coiling around a small lead tube, small constricting no room to breath. So much swirls around my mind in the middle night keeping me awake. President-elect Donald Trump and what will happen, fears for my son, things I forgot to do at work, ideas for writing, thoughts of getting older, worry about the approaching winter, even parking and rush hour traffic. Everything I have no control over or can’t do anything about at 2 am. So how do I find peace from the looping intrusive thoughts that keep my mind and body awake in the middle of the night?

Many experts speak of the basics of good sleep hygiene such as keep regular bedtimes, don’t drink caffeine after 3 pm, keep a cool, dark room used only for sleep. But what if I already do all of those and I still wake up? These experts also say let things go, let thoughts go or don’t fight them.  Yet how? What do you literally do to let things go so you can sleep in the middle of the night?


After years of struggle here is how I find more magical sleep.

  1. Limit Media Input- I soak up media deep into my bones and psyche. Not only do I think about it, I feel it too. I remember during the Kosovo war in the late 90s listening to a news report on NPR and crying hard for all those suffering. It hurt so much and yet there I was thousands of miles away on a freeway in Detroit. I thought I was being too sensitive. I know accept that is just the way I am, so I have to be super careful about what and how much input I take in. Too much news or really anything and it invades my mind to replay in the middle of the night. Limiting my media includes, news (radio, tv and written), social media, movies and tv shows. I must be careful.
  2. Journal Daily- Sitting at my writing desk pen in hand with my first cup of coffee of the day helps to clear the clutter in my brain. I have crates full of journals (over 25 years worth of daily words) and let me tell you for the most part they are boring. I ramble, search and allow myself to let loose on the page. I release the worry and anxiety that accumulates inside. It is a safe space to be 100% me. If I don’t journal regularly all that stuff stays in my mind and starts to invade my dreams. I get cranky and short fused. My brain does not turn off. Repetitive thoughts loop around and around, usually at 2 am.
  3. Meditate Daily- Like writing in my journal sitting on my black mediation cushion while my honey sleeps and the cats play with each other out in the living room while I follow my breath is magic for quieting my mind and sleep. It calms the mind and trains it for space and stillness, it gets me into my body. If I don’t sit and meditate for three days, I notice a marked difference in my moods and reactivity. I will be up at 2 am if I don’t take the half hour to follow my breath and note when I am thinking or I have a pain in my right knee.
  4. Move My Body- I need to get those feel good chemicals flowing through my body. I need to get outside and breathe the fresh air, no matter the season. I need to release the anxiety by getting into my body through movement. Again, if I go too long without movement I notice I am stuck in a loop of anxious repetitive thoughts in the middle of the night.
  5. Honor Segmented Sleep- What is segmented sleep? It when you naturally sleep in two distinct chunks of time and are awake in the middle of the night. So you have first sleep, wake sleep and second sleep. Before the advent of artificial light from the lightbulb, our ancestors slept this way. Now whether I truly experience segmented sleep, I don’t know. I do wake most nights between 2 am and 3 am. Some nights I am able to fall back to sleep with ease, others not so much. Since learning about segmented sleep I no longer fight being awake in the middle of the night. I honor my wake sleep time to develop more mindfulness in my body and mind. If my mind is out of control and my belly is clenched tight with anxiety, I practice self-compassion by treating myself as I would a fussy colicky baby in the middle of the night. I treat myself with gentle kindness by not yelling at myself for being awake, which only creates more tension in my body. I lay in the darkness, go back to my breath and focus on how the softness of the bed is cradling me, how warm and cozy the quilts are, how soft the pillow is under my head. I practice progressive body relaxation. I use my wake sleep time to deepen my mindfulness practice. Since I have started doing this I have notice how much deeper my mindfulness is during the day. How much more I notice the movement of my thoughts. It is interesting how a shift in how I utilize that time in the middle of the night can have such a huge impact on my life. I am calmer and feel more rested. I think I am nicer too.

So none of these approaches are a quick easy fix. They all take time and dedication but I can tell you for me it worth it. Sleep is magical. It is a balm for my soul when I get enough. Plus every single one of these practices provides me with other benefits aside from a better night sleep. They enhance the quality of my life. I might even say they make my life possible. They allow me to function, be kind and present, not just in the middle of the night, but throughout the day too.

May you honor your needs and find rest and deep magical sleep.

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A Quiet Revolution

Kira Elliott Quiet Revolution

“Just because we are working hard does not mean we are making anything happen.” Wayne Muller

It is cold. Cold enough to turn the furnace on. The leaves on the maple in the backyard are turning yellow. My neighbors maple is blazing red. The oak and walnut trees have shown their brilliance and released their little yellow leafs to the wet pavement. I am wrapped in my thick fleece bathrobe with a black knitted cap pulled down over my ears. I sit in my little writing studio watching the sky unfold from the east. Golden light gently moves across the treetops and frost covered roofs.

A part of me is startled by this inevitable transition. I am not ready. Where did the long summer days go. Days when I could linger, not rush. Days that seemed endless, despite the nights that always came. Days I could ride my bike through the woods and down by the river after work and stay there until the moon rose. Days I could immerse myself in nature, the ultimate healing balm for my soul.

This has been a good summer. A calm summer. Peaceful and centering. This has been the kind of summer I dreamed of when my son was young. When I was unrelenting in my unconscious quest to prove my worth by the measure of my outer accomplishments. When I blindly flung myself forward to stay ahead of my fear of not being good enough. When the pace of getting it all done was soul crushing.

I remember that time as rushing, running, constant motion, even when I slept it seemed I was in motion. I would wake at 4 am to diligently write my morning pages, my only moment of reflection and stillness. I wrote of my longing for space and time to be still. To not be responsible, to not have appointments or a schedule I was chained to. To say a firm no and then go lay on the couch to read a good novel or simply stare out the window and watch clouds drift by. I dreamed of going for a bike ride or a hike to smell the damp earth and hear the woods whisper to me. I dreamed of breaking my leg, getting sick, something to give me a break. I didn’t know I could simply make the choice to stop, let go and be still.

I longed for less back then and had no idea that less would mean so much letting go. So much confronting my internal feelings of worth and the accompanying anxiety. I now know that I ran, rushed, and stayed in near constant motion in an attempt to stay ahead of looming anxiety that dwelled in my belly. I also know now that the running, the rushing and constant motion was feeding that anxiety in my belly. I was feeding the monster I was running away from. I was keeping myself in a constant loop in which I felt powerless to stop.

A revolution has been happening in my life over the last 6 months. As I wrote a few months ago, I was challenged by my therapist to take the summer off from everything but my day job (still have bills to pay). No projects, no teaching, no side hustle. Just me waking up and asking myself, “What does my heart need in this moment?”

When I think of revolutions I think of violent, loud chaotic scenes filled with bloody carnage—change that is messy. However, my revolution is quiet. It is what I dreamed about when I woke in the early morning hours and stole moments away from the rushing, running and doing that kept me at a distance from my heart. In the darkness at my kitchen table I sat and dreamed of a time when I could simply follow my delight, be still and watch the vibrancy of summer green transition to the brilliant gold of fall.

When confronted with the desire or request to do more my revolution is asking myself these simple questions from the book A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough by Wayne Muller (which I highly recommend), “Am I truly able to say I really love this? Or is it more honest to say that I can handle this?” These simple questions always point to what is important, what my heart needs for nourishment.

As the cold sets in and the days wane I am not willing to give up this new space in my life. I think I am going to stay the course for now and continue my quiet revolution.

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This is What I Know

Kira Elliott Swinging

“And how do we learn to assert the authority of our own clarity and reclaim an unshakable trust in our own wholeness and deep inner sufficiency?” —Wayne Muller

This is what I know. I am not sure where to start? I have months of journals stacked next to me. Me waking early, coffee in hand, encountering myself on the page. Messy loops and marks slanted across the white blue lined paper. The last 5 months well documented. 5 months of grief. 5 months of anger. 5 months of quiet. 5 months of rest. 5 months of letting go. 5 months of accepting my limitations. 5 months of listening to my heart. 5 months of finding courage. Did I mention the joy? Yes, 5 months of finding joy. So much joy.

Summer has been thick and hot in Detroit. Just like when I was a little girl and the seemingly endless days were filled with bare feet on hot black asphalt, sticky grape jelly and butter sandwiches and sprinklers methodically waving back and forth across the dry grass. Only now my days are filled with bike rides down wooded trails, cucumber and Kalamata olive salads with fresh mint and lemon dressing, air conditioning and long afternoons on the couch reading. I have been busy doing nothing, just like when I was young. Open endless days to wander.

Back in April I was challenged by my therapist to take the summer off from everything but my day job. I gasped. I protested. I justified my busyness. I felt panic rise from deep within at the thought of no projects, no teaching, no side hustle, no deadlines. Nothing, I learned, to distract me from listening to what my heart truly desires. Nothing to distract me from learning how to honor and love myself.

My summer has been go to work at my day joy, come home and do what I want. I can’t remember when I had so much open spacious time in my life. Idle time to fill with what brings me joy. Space to ask myself what I want to do and then time to do it. Whether it was ride my bike, take a nap, read a book, or binge watch Madame Secretary. I think the last time I had this much space and freedom was when I lived and worked on a tobacco farm in Kentucky in the early 90s before my son was born. We worked hard in that steamy brutal sun but then it was long open hours to sit on the front deck drinking ice tea and watch the wild grass sway over the rolling hills.

Accepting the challenge to take the summer off I realized just how compacted my life over the last 25 years has been. How I was literally suffocating my soul with demanding every single moment of my life be productive, or more aptly put, striving to be good enough. There was literally no room for me or spontaneous joy to exist. Even the things I did for self-care, like meditating and writing each morning, where solely for the purpose of keeping me going so I could be productive, aka good enough. This hyper productivity also served another larger purpose aside from trying to prove worth, it kept me severed from my heart, from being kind and compassionate with myself.

This is what I know after 5 months of slowing down. 5 months of space and time to hear my heart—I feel good enough when I make space for my yearnings. I know I feel good enough when I am not constantly striving to better myself, or be in continuous service to others. I know there is no righteousness giving from an empty vessel, only depletion. I know anxiety is not my constant companion broiling in my belly as I have lived with so long. As a matter of fact, joy and peace reside in my bones, always has, I just couldn’t feel it. I know stillness is power for my heart. I know striving and doing is the near enemy self-compassion and kindness. I know loving myself is easy, and in turn, loving others is easy too when I have space and time to open my heart and not have to worry about the next task on my to-do list.

I know I started painting again after almost 4 years away. It feels so good to be back in my studio again making marks and exploring nonverbal expression. I know my days are spent riding my bike, and delighting in my new kitty Neko who is now 4 months old, curious and into everything. I can’t begin to explain the hours spent just playing with this creature or the belly laughs I have watching her. I know I feel joy, real joy, not forced manufactured joy that is fleeting. I feel joy that dwells deep in my bones even when sorrow and pain come by for a visit as they surely do.

I know I that as summer is dwindling and golden leafs are appearing on the trails, I can not return to the siren call of busy. I know I have to let go of my side hustle for now. Allow myself to rearrange my priorities so that they include me and my heart—my joy.

Now I am off to sit with my honey on the couch to drink coffee and talk. Perhaps we will go ride our bikes, or perhaps I will paint in the studio, or perhaps I will simply sit and the watch the cats play.

May your week be filled with space and time for your heart to open.

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Depression Sucks

Depression Sucks

 “When you’re lost in those woods, it sometimes takes you a while to realize that you are lost. For the longest time, you can convince yourself that you’ve just wandered off the path, that you’ll find your way back to the trailhead any moment now. Then night falls again and again, and you still have no idea where you are, and it’s time to admit that you have bewildered yourself so far off the path that you don’t even know from which direction the sun rises anymore.” Elizabeth Gilbert

My first thought this morning was, depression sucks and can I get up out of bed? Or is my brain weighted down by fog and darkness?  

Now a hot cup of coffee sits on my cluttered desk. My desk that no matter how much I try to put away the stacks of books, the random post it notes reminding me of thoughts I scribbled during a conference call, or pens (lots of those, for whatever reason I like to use a different type of pen for different journals and writing activities), is always a mess.

The door behind me is open to the back yard teeming with bird song and squirrels who run, no leap, through the wet grass in search of little morsels to nibble on. The air is thick and dampness from the thunderstorms last night permeates everything. It is warm, hot really. It seems that mild spring temperatures bypassed Detroit this year. Instead we literally went from snow one weekend in May to 85 degrees and sunny the next. And it has stayed in the 80’s for the last few weeks.

To which I say thank goodness. The warmer weather, the longer days, the sunshine has been a balm for my soul and mental health that I needed. The last 5 months have been a long, slogging drudge for me. Heavy depression snuck in around the holidays and settle in for a visit. I know depression well, and for the most part I am able to work through it, or more like with it. I know I don’t have to listen to it’s siren call to lay on the couch all day watching tv to numb out. I know I will be feel better if I stay in a routine— get up and write in my journal, sit on my meditation cushion, work out, go to work. I know I need to try to stay involved as much as I can with life. This is not always easy.

I know writing in my journal, meditating and working out are my most important and power medicine. For the past 20 years these have worked most of the time. I stay functioning. The darkness stays in the background. Expect this time (well okay also after D died, I fell into the dark vat of depression too but that was different, I could attribute it to the extreme grief that swallowed my life whole).

The last 5 months have been difficult. No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake the heaviness. I forced myself to rise each morning and write in my journal and sit on my meditation cushion. I often felt these were the only moments of reprieve, but when I had to leave the cocoon of my little office, the darkness still loomed. The loss of interest in anything creative took away my motivation and joy. It was like all my systems powered down and I only had energy for a few essentials and barley those.

I felt panic as I tried to figure out what to do, or how to feel like something matter, or how to feel vitality about something again. It was all I could do to get work (where I was barely productive and my mind a mushy soggy mess) and home to the couch so I could zone out. As I sat in the darkness each morning writing in my journal, I tried to figure out why I was so uninterested, unmotivated, and what I could do to change things. It took me a while to figure out it was depression. I of course blamed myself. In my mind, I was depressed because I didn’t do something right, or I wasn’t thinking something positive. In my mind, no matter what, I was to blame and I had to figure out how to fix it. Unfortunately, I am inclined to blame myself, as if there is something wrong with me, rather than I simply am dealing brain chemistry that is off and inclines me to feel darkness and hopelessness.

Despite my attempts to blame myself, I know that sometimes we are just powerless over this stuff—there is no one to blame. I just happen to have the perfect conditions for depression to rise up and take hold. I come from a seemingly endless line stretching back generations who grappled with depression. My mother, her mother, her father, my great-grandmother and father and I am sure there are more back there. So there’s that. Also, according research, my chaotic childhood created neural pathways (I have an ACE score of 9) which predisposes me to depression and other fun stuff (hello anxiety and panic).

And finally, hormones. Can I say holy shit? My hormones are powerful little devils if you ask me. I am 45 years old and struggling as my hormones shift and wane towards menopause. For whatever reason I am abnormally sensitive to hormone fluctuations. Every micro movement feels more like a 8.9 earthquake in my moods and body. I have learned how to deal with the monthly fluxes of PMS but now things are different—way different. I feel like I am rag doll being tossed around harder and farther than ever before.

If I look back at other pivotal moments when my hormones were in extreme flux—puberty, pregnancy, and postpartum—I can see that I fell into deep depressions also. Only back then I didn’t have tools, wisdom or compassion I now have to deal with it. After these last 5 months I realize I am going to have to be extra mindful as I traverse the journey towards menopause and give myself extra support.

On top of all everything it was the anniversary of D’s death and I had to put my 18-year-old cat Lupe down (that was super hard) last March.

I am beginning to feel better (I am actually writing a blog post). The weather is finally nice and sunny so I am getting out and riding my bike in the woods. Fresh air and nature always help. I am still writing in my journal, mediating and working out most days. I am seeing my therapist to sort out false irrational beliefs and to untangle how I have my self-worth wrapped tight around my doing and busyness. I am going to acupuncture to balance my hormones and taking new herbs to help with the depression. All of this is helping.

I think more important, I am also painting in my studio again, which is really helping. When D died I stopped painting and drawing. Sure I had a few fits and starts over the last 4 years but nothing that stuck. I would start a painting and be stuck, anxiety and negative self-talk overpowering me. As I have been grappling with heavy darkness the last 5 months, I have also been evaluating how I am spending my time, what is it that I really want to be doing, how I am supporting my creative self.

My therapist challenged me to take the summer off. To not teach, to not have goals, to not have projects but rather rest and do nothing. To follow my inner desires. I ask myself, do I want to read a book? Take a nap? Ride my bike? Than go do what I want.

As uncomfortable as it makes me feel, I doing it. I am not teaching writing workshops this summer. I haven’t blogged in over 2 months. I am evaluating my side hustle. I am reading a lot of books, riding my bike and painting. I am learning how to untangle my creative work from proving I am good enough. I have a lot more to say about this but for now, I am adjusting to this slower pace. To not having everything single thing I do be about being helpful to others (another huge insight for me).

Depression does indeed suck and I am not to blame. I need not feel shame about something that I am utterly powerless over. I am doing what I can and there is a lot of support and love out there to help. One awesome thing about this bout of depression is that it is realigning my life. It is slowing me down and getting me back to what I really enjoy, to what my real zone of genius is, painting and drawing. Things are looking up for me and I am grateful.

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A Good Death to a Good Life

Kira Elliott Lupe

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. ” – Anatole France

I lost last week. Well, I lost my productivity last week. By choice mind you, but still as I sit here at my cluttered desk in the early gray morning, the furnace still clicking on even though it is early April, I am feeling that slight tug in my belly that says, you suck, you didn’t get all your shit done, you are behind now. I know this voice, it is my habitual taskmaster that keeps me tethered to feeling not good enough. It is the seeds of constant anxiety I battle with everyday to not grow into full on panic. Panic that can paralyze me and render me obsolete on the couch for days at a time.

My choice last week was to choose love. Instead of filling my life space with doing, or as Brene Brown says, performing, perfecting, pleasing, I turned my back on my habitual taskmaster and my never ending quest to prove I am good enough. I put everything I could on hold to be present with my dying cat, Lupe. On Monday, I finally had to call pet hospice to have them come and put Lupe down. I knew this time was coming. Lupe was 18 years old and declining rapidly. She had, what we think was a brain tumor, that finally was too much for her little body to handle.

So I did things differently than I normally do. I stopped and spent every free moment I could last week sitting with her on the couch, gently petting her, bringing her treats and water. I let go of my task list so I could let go of this cat who has been with 14 years. I picked up her frail body and held her close and tight, not wanting to let go but knowing the time was coming. Knowing the kind thing for Lupe was to let her go. On Thursday Lupe died peacefully curled up in her favorite blanket on the couch. It was a good death to a good life.

I adopted Lupe in 2002 from our local shelter. When I went to the shelter I specifically was looking for a cat no one else wanted and was least likely to be adopted. Lupe was 4 years old at the time and was surrendered because her owners had moved. She was a tiny light gray cat with whispers of orange tabby. She was unresponsive sitting in the cold steel cage, a water bowl and some food next to her. In the get acquainted room, she sat on my lap unfazed and unimpressed by my hand gently petting her tiny body. She didn’t seem to care about a single thing. When I brought her home she hide under the bed and in the back reaches of the closet for about 6 months before she started to come out and trust me. I don’t know what happened to Lupe before she came to live with me, but I am so glad I got to make a difference in her life. I was able to give her a warm, loving home in which she thrived. For Lupe, I was always enough.

I woke early this morning startled from a dream. In my dream, I was in a co-worker’s apartment in Brooklyn after a work event. I was hiding in the bathroom because the meeting I was suppose to lead flopped and everyone else took over. I failed at my duties. I was not good enough. As I stood at the sink looking in the mirror, Lupe my cat, jumped up on the vanity and pushed her tiny gray head against my hand for a pet. In the dream I knew Lupe was dead. Just three days before I knew I had carried her limp, still warm, body to the back room so my other cat Riggins could smell her body and know she was dead.

But there in my dream, Lupe was vital, warm and living. I remember all I wanted was to hold her tight to my chest one more time and whisper I love you over and over. I wanted to feel her purring body that was soft as bunny clinging on to mine just one more time. As I picked Lupe up and held her I woke from the dream confused and sad—shrouded in grief.

The dream felt so real, I wanted to linger in that dream space and yet, I also felt betrayed. I had already said good bye. I had already done so much of the hard work of letting go of a loved one. I had buried her in corner of the backyard under the young maple tree. I had wrapped her tiny frail body in a white cotton pillowcase with petite pink flowers, laid her gently in a shoe box and tied it with twine.

I had done some much hard work. I laid in the darkness thinking I didn’t want to have to do it again. I couldn’t do it again. The hardest part of being a loving pet owner is giving them the best gift we can, a good death. If we are lucky enough to have a long life with our furry loved ones, most of us will come to the moment where we will have to give this most selfless gift. We will have to let them go in love and dignity, peacefully to reduce their suffering. It is a honor and privilege—and it is hard.

So no I didn’t get my Open Heart Letter out to my email list, I didn’t answer all of my emails, I didn’t participate in the painting class I am taking. Instead I choose to give myself time to be with my cat in her final days. I choose to love. It is what made last week more than good enough. This is the stuff that really matters and I am thankful I am wise enough to know it.

Here is this week’s Inspiration to Open Your Heart

8 Ways You Can Survive and Thrive in Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty- So last month I officially enter mid-life, or can we say early mid-life. I find so many things shifting inside about what next and reevaluating every aspect of my life. I love this list of ways to thrive in midlife. It is about slowing down but staying engage. It is about owning limitations and embracing the vitality of life. It is about saying no to striving for more to make room for what I want.

True Story: I’m a Cat by Sarah Von Bargen- Holy crap this is just what I needed to read this week. I was laughing so hard. For anyone who has a cat, you must read this.

Meditation on Loving Kindness by Jack Kornfield- Here are the basic instructions for practicing Metta or loving kindness meditation. This is the first form of meditation I practiced before moving into a vipassana practice and I can say it changed my life. Still is.

Zen Calligraphy: the Creativity of Non-doing by Alok Hsu Kwang-han- A beautiful meditation on creating and non-doing.

Love Obsessive Organization? So Does Austin Radcliffe– Love these photographs. I, on the other hand, am not obsessive about organization but I appreciate it.

And finally, Lap of Love Pet Hospice Service– I can not thank the folks at Lap of Love enough of helping us through this difficult time. Dr. Courtney Brookens Graham, DV came to our home so Lupe was not stressed out by traveling to the vet. Thank you Lap of Love.

P.S. You might also like The Treadmill of Not Good Enough, Accept the Goodness, and Dreams of Good Enough

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