Winter: A Season for Patience

20191217_165642Winter solstice 2019 in the Northern Hemisphere occurs on Saturday, December 21. It’s the day with the shortest period of daylight, the longest night of the year, and the sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky.

Typically by March, I’m counting the days until the end of winter and the return of life in spring, the signs of hope, change, and renewal. I’m going to try and be more patient with winter and take a more mindful approach to it by noticing all the good things that winter has to offer.

Through my Horticultural Therapy practice, I’ve discovered so much can be gained by being more mindful as we move through the natural cycle of the year. As each change of season approaches, I encourage us all to slow down and notice what’s happening in nature. Is there anything we can learn from nature’s adaptation process that can help us through our own transitions?

To foster my own patience with winter, I reminded myself of what I liked most about winter. I came up with more than a few including:

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  • noticing the return of bald eagles to their old nesting sites to re-establish territories and Barrow’s goldeneye ducks are back in Burrard Inlet
  • looking forward to our first local snowfall of the season and feeling the peace and tranquility I associate with it
  • volunteering up at Nelson Creek Hatchery again now that a new cycle of incubation has begun for the chum eggs that recently arrived
  • exploring our local mountains through snowshoeing and skiing
  • continuing to appreciate the abundant examples of evergreen flora (like bryophytes) throughout winter
  • observing more closely overwintering buds, especially as they start to swell in late winter
  • and restoring my energy levels by giving myself permission to do less

My plan is to use this list as a reminder to live in the moment, to be patient with winter as it progresses, and experience all that it has to offer.

What do you enjoy most about winter?

Remember, when connecting with nature at any time of the year – slow down. Allow yourself to EXPLORE, DISCOVER and STIMULATE YOUR SENSES. You’ll feel better for it.

Leading By Example

I wear a number of professional hats. I’m self-employed as a Certified Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Canada Instructor, Career Development Practitioner (CCDP) and Swim Coach. In addition to those three, I’m an aspiring Horticultural Therapist and have had a life-long passion for expressing my creative side through art making. One of the things I value most is leading by example.  When I’m working with clients in the midst of a career transition, I encourage them to continue seeking out opportunities for ongoing learning through taking courses or reading books on topics that interest them, volunteering, finding a mentor and completing an internship.

This past spring during my final course of the Horticultural Therapy (HT) Certificate program, I made a decision to undertake the Voluntary Professional Registration process with the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association (CHTA) and apply for status as a Horticultural Therapist Registered (HTR). After completing the HT Certificate, I met with my mentor Ann Kent HTM, Registered Horticultural Therapist, to map out my application and came to the realization it was time for me to walk the walk and lead by example; I would need to complete a HT Internship first to gain the necessary practical points required for HTR status consideration.

As a CCDP, I’ve heard a lot about the pros and cons of internships. I was initially anxious with the thought of beginning an internship because I anticipated having to allocate more time to volunteering. As a self-employed person, I must make it a priority to secure paid contracts in order to survive and I was already volunteering weekly with the West Vancouver Streamkeeper Society, The Edible Garden Project and regularly providing ‘free” guided therapeutic nature walks to friends and family in order to grow my HT skills.

Ann agreed to supervise my internship and provided a framework to help me put together an internship plan that would take into account the HT activities I was already immersed in as well as help me set goals for gaining further knowledge and skill development. One of the areas I chose for further development was in my horticultural knowledge. A key HT service I am planning to offer is a self-care session for helping professionals that emphasizes a connection to nature through activities like a guided nature walk combined with other nature-based botanical arts, crafts and culinary activities. An objective I chose to help me achieve this goal was to first attend as a participant other guided nature walks in my area. My hope was to gain further knowledge into the native flora of BC while simultaneously checking out the competition.

Through attending these guided walks I have improved my knowledge of native flora and learned tips on what to do (and a few things not to do) as a guide. I attended guided walks through VanDusen Gardens, The Old Growth Conservancy Society and the Stanley Park Ecology Society. As a result of attending the walks, I have learned new terminology like “pit-and-mound topography” (a naturally occurring process of undulating forest floors resulting from uprooted root masses decaying and decomposing) and what a “burl” is (a gnarly growth on a tree containing regenerative tissue the tree can use to heal itself during times of stress). Did you know that within a living tree, a hollow space could serve as the ideal hibernating space for a wintering Black bear? Or that Blechnum spicant (Deer fern) have dimorphic leaves (appearing in two forms) and Polypodium glycyrrhiza (Licorice fern) is an example of an epiphyte (a plant that grows on another plant to derive its moisture and nutrients)? A favorite walk of mine was one that focused on Indigenous plant use led by an Indigenous guide. The guide facilitated us connecting directly with a tree through a step by step process that included first asking permission to connect with an ancient Thuja plicata (Western redcedar), resting a hand on its bark, attending to our breath and expressing gratitude while still connected to the tree, and concluding with reflecting upon the experience.

Old Growth Conservancy Tour 20190821

Another goal I set for my HT internship was to develop structure and content for the HT services I want to offer in the future. By late September 2019, I had provided my first “paid” HT service to a team of 10 helping professionals that work with immigrants and refugees in the area of child, parent and family development. They were a great first group to work with because I already had a history working with them having previously trained them in both Personality Dimensions® and MHFA.

Our day together began with an activity called “Waking up the Senses”. It consists of forming a circle as a group and then moving through a series of gentle mindful breathing, sensory and body awareness exercises including tapping, cranial and hand reflexology. What made this activity so magical was the tide was out and we were able to walk out a good distance onto the beach and complete the activity with the smell and sounds of the ocean around us. Other activities that day included a guided nature walk through the Old Growth forests of Stanley Park, a scavenger search followed by a show & tell, and time for individual creative play making nature cairns. I learned so much that day about guiding others out in nature including to slow myself down and let go of the need to get a certain number of activities checked off as completed before the end of the day. I realized it was about me leading by example and demonstrating I too was taking the time to experience all the beauty and wonder nature has to offer in the present moment.

MOSAIC Nature Cairns 6 20190926

Making Turtle Island

Making time for art has consistently been therapeutic for me in one way or another. It’s taken me to my fifties though to fully appreciate the many benefits art has brought me including personal growth, self-expression, stability during periods of transformation, and wellness. For many people, including myself, art making can be soothing and stress reducing.

For me art is a hands-on activity. The process of making art helps to alleviate my emotional stress and anxiety by creating a physiological response of relaxation and lifting my spirit. There is research to support that creative activity can actually increase levels of serotonin, the chemical linked to depression. Previously, I have written about my experience with art as a form of meditation, finding inner peace and calm through art expression. The repetitive, self-soothing qualities of drawing, coloring and painting induce my relaxation response.

During the trainings I provide, I try to integrate whenever possible some kind of art-based activity to stimulate participants’ creativity. While creativity is not something I believe can be taught (it’s inherently in all of us), there are conditions that can promote it including:

  • providing a safe and non-judgemental environment where there is lack of fear or concern about what others might think,
  • letting go of self-criticism,
  • and encouraging open-mindedness to trust that art will unfold exactly as it should.

Making art is a form of symbolic communication for me and creating images helps me to understand better who I am. It promotes the basis for a deep connection between my mind, body, and spirit.

Which brings to me why I am writing about my connection to art and telling you about it here. I recently completed making a new piece of art. It’s titled Turtle Island. During the process of making Turtle Island, I was more conscious than ever before that I was making art as if the world’s future really depended on it. It was much more than making art for art’s sake. This piece emphasizes my connection and empathy for every living thing around me and is a call out to us all to not just talk but to take personal responsibility and create action. It’s an invitation to take on a stewardship role of our most precious resource, the earth itself and all its parts.

The making for this piece began in January 2019. I took what seemed like a lengthy break from it during the early spring, instinctively knowing that my trip to Haida Gwaii would provide further enlightenment for the painting of it. My mentor Ann Kent, a Registered Master Horticultural Therapist, is continually encouraging me to take time to reflect on my experiences and Turtle Island is the outcome of following her wisdom and guidance. On my travels through Haida Gwaii, I learned about the plight of the Leatherback Turtle and its connection with plastic pollution. I prefer not to say more about my intention behind this piece other than sharing with you there are also the seeds of hope and optimism planted within it. Can you find them and plant them to make a difference of your own for the sustainability of us all?

Turtle Island 2019

Haida Gwaii…Much More Than A Vacation

Exploring Haida Gwaii this past June was so much more than a vacation. It was a week-long educational experience of a lifetime. Prior to going to Haida Gwaii, it had been at the top of my bucket list. It was a place I had often imagined visiting but just couldn’t put enough pieces of the puzzle together as how to make it actually happen…until this past June.

First obstacle I had to overcome was my fear of flying. About 10 years ago on a flight from Ottawa to Vancouver, I had a panic attack that was very scary and embarrassing for me. I haven’t flown since then sticking to road trips instead. As a Mental Health Instructor I know a lot about phobias and how to overcome them so it was time to practice what I preach. Many of my fears around flying in an airplane were based on inaccurate thinking so I started with researching the facts. Statistically speaking, flying is far safer than driving. The flight would be direct and short in duration (less than 2 hours). I would be travelling on a DH3. I did research into this series of Dash 8 and found even though there were accidents, fatalities and other incidents reported, none were associated with this particular series and none had occurred in Canada. I also felt reassured knowing I would be travelling with a friend who would be sitting right next to me the whole time. The morning of our flight, I practiced a number of anxiety/stress reducing techniques including calming breathing, Qigong, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, tapping, hand reflexology and spent some time connecting with nature watering my garden. The flight there and back turned out to be a breeze with no incidents on my part. I learned an important lesson; phobias can be overcome by gradually exposing yourself to what you fear. The self-help anxiety reducing techniques I practiced combined with some focused CBT-based thought challenging exercises were effective for me, helping me to overcome my anxiety and fear in the moment. Now I need to keep at it and get back on an airplane sooner than later.

My interests for going to Haida Gwaii included learning more about its flora and fauna as well as Haida culture. Travelling to Haida Gwaii allowed me to directly experience a land and people rich in history and tradition. I witnessed firsthand people living off the land and sea as I watched locals clam digging and crabbing on North Beach in Naikoon Provincial Park. I saw in the people of Haida Gwaii a real pride in their land and a dedication to care for and protect it. Every forest I hiked through displayed reminders to tread lightly on the forest floor so that it would be around for generations to come. Some of the flora and fauna are different to the mainland where I live. During June, much of the forest floor was covered with Bunchberry/Creeping Dwarf Dogwood (Cornus canedensis). Even though it can be found across Canada, it especially likes forested upland and wetland areas.

Logging on Haida Gwaii has a long and checkered history. I saw firsthand examples of logging practices from years gone by that resulted in long-term destruction to the surrounding environment including fish-bearing streams and wetlands. Occasionally I came across logging equipment used years ago that had just been left there after forests had been cleared. I didn’t notice Douglas-fir trees which are plentiful here but instead forests filled with Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis). I was amazed at the number of eagles and ravens that inhabit Haida Gwaii. Not surprisingly, the two main kinship groups of the Haida Gwaii clans are Raven and Eagle. I learned to read tide tables and respect the dangers of being caught unprepared for the high and low tide times in intertidal zones. Sometimes this meant skipping planned trips to explore recommended tourist attractions that required travelling across vast amounts of beach.

I recommend renting a vehicle as it will allow you to more easily travel to the many Haida Gwaii communities and attractions. Our road trip consisted of overnight stays or stops to visit Sandspit, Queen Charlotte, Skidegate, Tlell, Port Clements, Masset and Old Massett. One of the most prominent examples of the change of pace on Haida Gwaii was the complete absence of traffic jams. A couple of times while travelling along the main highway that connects the small communities of Haida Gwaii we were required to come to a complete stop due to infrastructure improvements taking place. I remember looking in the rear-view mirror and feeling pleasantly surprised that after 10 minutes waiting, there were still no other cars lined up behind us. There were no crowds of people anywhere, just small gatherings.

Haida Gwaii is long in history. A must see is the Haida Heritage Centre and Haida Gwaii Museum. While there, I joined an educational tour led by a young Haida woman who shared with us the stories behind each of the six totem poles that stand proudly facing the water before them. Inside the museum, there are many fascinating examples of Haida knowledge, scientific information and specimens of oral history and art.

One of my favorite things to do while visiting Haida Gwaii was to connect with local artisans. Authentic Haida art isn’t cheap but the art is diverse and the quality of the work is exceptional. On National Indigenous Peoples Day I attended a community celebration in Old Massett. It was a great opportunity to learn more about local Haida culture and art including carving. A distinct difference between Haida carving compared to other West Coast native art cultures is the use of a black slate material called Argillite. Black argillite is only found on Haida Gwaii. Argillite carvings often depict mythical spirits, animals, Haida family crests, replicas of totem poles, bentwood boxes, canoes and other carvings, as well as contemporary interpretations.

One of the most unusual places I encountered to grab something to eat/drink was a funky bakery operating out of an old bus hidden off the road to Tow Hill. Moon Over Naikoon Bakery certainly won over my taste buds. Their cinnamon buns were excellent. Look out for them if you’re travelling in the area. If you can’t find them or they’re not open when you’re visiting, there are plenty of other Haida Gwaii gems including Jags Beanstalk in Skidegate, Crow’s Nest Cafe and Country Store in Tlell and The Ground Gallery & Coffee House and Charter’s Food Truck, both in Masset.

One of the most spiritual moments of my trip occurred during an afternoon visit to the ancient Haida village of K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans in English) on Louise Island. K’uuna Llnagaay is outside the boundaries of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, but it is within the Haida Heritage Site. Visiting here was part of a Moresby Explorers single day tour I participated in. The highlight of the expedition for me was listening to one of the Haida Watchmen and her explanation to our group how the village’s homes and totem poles were constructed, causes of their eventual destruction as well as her sharing with us her family’s personal historical connection to the village site.

One final learning for me was more of a reminder how important it is to take a vacation on a regular basis. Vacations mix-up the standard routine of daily life. Life is full of stressful challenges. Work for many of us is full of daily stressful challenges, both good and bad. Going to Haida Gwaii reminded me how important it is to change gears. Experiencing Haida Gwaii was enough of a change from my usual pace to help me reenergize. I’ve been back into the urban flow of things for a couple of weeks now and I’m still feeling the benefits of my Haida Gwaii vacation. I’m rested, productive, focused, calmer and more appreciative of the natural environment around me and of our great land. So please, take your vacation this summer and thoroughly enjoy it.

Seven Elements of a Healing Garden

It’s mid-spring and my garden is bursting with life, color, food, and healing power.

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Spending time in my garden is one of my favorite ways to practice self-care. As a Mental Health Instructor, I often instruct others on self-care. Self-care is consciously choosing to do something for yourself with the intended purpose to build, rejuvenate and restore well-being. It’s understanding that you can’t pour from an empty cup and if you’re a “natural” helper like me, understanding that equation is a matter of survival.

I have put a lot of time, energy and money into my little garden. I live in West Vancouver and the house where I live is situated at the bottom of a small cliff. My garden is tucked away at the back of my suite and consists of about 80 containers of all shapes, colors and sizes. I grow predominantly herbs, vegetables and Sedums. As you might imagine caring for 80 containers is steady work and I love it. I can’t tell you how many times I have come home from a stressful day at work and made a beeline for my garden. Just glimpsing into the space from the Dutch door that leads into it and I immediately begin to feel restored.

So what makes a garden healing? On one level, I think that’s a very personal and subjective thing. The Therapeutic Horticulturist in me though wants to share seven elements with you to consider as a reference for creating your own healing garden. Here they are in no particular order of importance.

1.      There’s a special entrance to invite/embrace the visitor so they can see and feel they’re transitioning into a place of healing and restorative energy. This could be a window, gate, door, a defined path, or arbour.

2.      The use of water in a garden can be very calming, soothing and uplifting all at the same time. I am very fortunate that my garden is located right beside a small man-made waterfall that empties into a soaking pond. The sound of water falling has a hypnotic tone that promotes relaxation, reduces stress, and helps to block out local traffic noise.

3.      Creative use of color and lighting can make an effective impact. My personal approach to color in the garden is less is more.  It’s amazing how many shades of green there are and I love weaving the different shades of green among plant groupings. Green is known for its calming and stress reducing properties. Other calming colors include blue, pink, yellow, white, grey and violet.

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4.      When creating your healing garden try to focus on using natural elements and materials. Natural elements in a garden include the flora (trees and plants) and the fauna (insects and birds), soil, water, rock, wood, air and light.

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5.      One reason my garden is so special to me is because it’s a home for my art. The integration of art can have a therapeutic effect. Art is very subjective so choose pieces that evoke joy and positive emotions for you.

6.      I’ve tried to make my garden a pollinator friendly garden. I have consciously chosen features that attract and provide habitat for a diversity of wildlife like flowering herbs and vegetables to attract bees, nectar rich plants like chives and sweet pea to attract butterflies, a hummingbird feeder for thirsty hummingbirds, and encouraging native plants to fill in the spaces.


7.      Finally, a garden that is healing has an overall design that provides opportunities to comfort the soul and renew the spirit. For me that means the ability to interact with nature through a variety of activities such as designing and rearranging container groupings, caring for the plants, harvesting lavender flowers to make teas and bake with, and choosing a place to just sit, ponder, reflect, meditate or do nothing.

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I’m so fortunate to live where I do and have access to my own healing space. Every day I express thanks and gratitude to Mother Earth for all she provides me with in my little garden. The well-being produced from it allows me to continue helping others. If you don’t have your own outdoor garden space then create a healing space from what you do have. Even a small balcony patio or window ledge with a few pots filled with plant life, or a simple indoor grouping of plants can provide therapeutic and healing energy. It just takes a little initial planning, a creative eye and some ongoing nurturing care put into it. The rewards can be very healing.

Nature Is Healing

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“Hello, sun in my face. Hello you who made the morning and spread it over the fields…Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.” ― Mary Oliver

Nature is healing. I have found a regular connection with nature to be very therapeutic and a key requirement for my own well-being. By “nature” I’m referring to the parts of nature that I have an opportunity to connect with regularly like the ocean, local streams and mountains, regional parks and the plants in my home and garden. By “healing” I’m referring to the stress it alleviates, mind it calms, mood it lifts, exercise it inspires, connection to community it builds and resilience it strengthens.

Research to support the healing effects of nature includes:

Here are suggestions for how you can make connecting with nature a part of your day at work:

  • Schedule a lunch-time walk daily, even if it’s just for 10 to 15 minutes. Choose a “nature” route to exercise your body and activate your senses.
  • Now that it’s spring, head outside to eat your lunch. Find a spot with a scenic view and recharge your battery while you nourish your body, mind and spirit.
  • If you work by a park or some open green space, get some colleagues together to toss a Frisbee around or play some badminton during a break.
  • If your workspace has access to a window, situate your desk so that when you look out it you see nature.
  • Display nature themed art and quotes on your walls and as screensavers.
  • Listen to nature-themed soundtracks while you work as background music.
  • Bring nature inside by growing “easy to care for” plants in the office.
  • If your workspace has access to an outdoor area suitable for gardening, plant up some containers with easy to grow vegetables and herbs. Have colleagues share in the responsibility of caring for them and then everyone can harvest the benefits come lunchtime.
  • For your next team building session, plan an outdoor activity of some kind like a company picnic, hike in the forest, outdoor yoga session, or treasure hunt.

As a Therapeutic Horticulturist and Mental Health Instructor, I am trained to use plants, nature and nature-based activities like gardening to promote social connection, health and well-being. Connect with nature, it’s already part of you and you part of it. You’ll feel better for it.

Looking Back and Forward

Acclaimed Canadian Indigenous writer Richard Wagamese wrote “we are all connected, we all belong to each other”.

I took these words to heart in 2018. They inspired a series of paintings I completed entitled “Namwayut – We Are All One” and they sparked a decision to commence training in Therapeutic Horticulture.

The article  Indigenous Knowledge Is The Solution To Canada’s Health Inequities” gave me much to think about including the value of traditional Indigenous knowledge applied to health and well-being today. In 2019, I’m looking forward to increasing my knowledge of traditional and natural healing options.

Stanley Park Tree

10 Mindfulness-Based Suggestions for Reducing Stress at Work


We all experience stress. Stress is a normal part of daily life including work. Stress at work can be positive like having a deadline that motivates you to complete a task or project or it can be negative like having to cope with long term work overload or under-load. Exposure to excessive negative stress can be harmful and trigger physical and mental health problems. So it’s in your best interest to maintain an awareness of signs you’re experiencing distress and be ready to address them before they become problematic. Here are 10 mindfulness-based suggestions you can do before, during and after work to help keep your stress manageable while building stress hardiness and resilience.

1.      Your first stressor of the day might be the ring of your alarm clock signaling to you it’s time to get up and get the day going. After you turn it off, take a few extra quiet moments for yourself to affirm your gratitude for the day ahead. Acknowledge that YOU ARE CHOOSING to go to work today. Being able to choose how you view your work can go a long way in determining how stressful work turns out being.

2.      Be mindful of as much of your process preparing to go to work as you can. I find this helps me to enter a positive head-space before I arrive at work. Try starting your day with 15 – 30 minutes of mindfulness-based activity like mindful movement/yoga to help you become aware of your body and breathing. As I leave my home in the morning, I’m aware of my walking, standing and waiting at the bus stop, riding and getting off the bus, and finally the walk into work. As I’m walking into my work-space for the day, I’m aware that I’m crossing a different threshold.

If you drive into work, try driving into work without the radio on. All that information about traffic, news headlines and yesterday’s sports scores may be informative but it can also be distracting and could be triggering your stress response without you even knowing. When you arrive at your parking spot for work, take a few extra minutes for yourself again to simply breathe deeply before you get out of the car and head into work.

3.      Try smiling at people as you walk into work. I once worked with a manager who did this all the time. No matter what was going on in her life or in the office, she made it a priority every morning to stop by and check in with each and every person who worked there and greet them with a smiling face. This simple gesture had such a positive impact on me and on many occasions, helped to lift my mood into a more positive one.

4.      While at work, take frequent mini-breaks to monitor how your body is feeling. Try mini-meditations of one minute duration to tune into your breathing on a regular basis throughout the day. Self-Care moments like these can help maintain focus and replenish your energy throughout the day.

5.      The ability to competently multitask (or “task switch”) may be a required skill for work these days but it can also create a lot of stress. Research supports it actually takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time. Instead, reduce stress by focusing on doing just one thing at a time and giving it the full attention it deserves.

6.      Biophilia is defined as the inherent human inclination to affiliate with nature and it doesn’t require you making a special trip out into the wilderness. An urban forest close to where you work will do just fine. Make it a goal to get out for a daily walk in nature as part of your break at lunch. Set out to really pay attention to the environment around you using all your senses. Pause a moment to touch the bark of a tree, smell a flower, listen to the sound of wind moving through foliage, follow with your eyes a bird in flight or try foraging for an indigenous berry or two along your way. Slow down and just be for a while in nature.

7.      Consider “greening” your work-space with a plant(s). Evidence supports that plants in a work-space are associated with a decline in employee health problems like fatigue, headaches and complaints about dry hands and sore throats. People and plants share a rhythm of life; they both evolve, change, respond to nurture, live and die. Plants are non-judgmental, non-threatening and non-discriminating and in our unpredictable and ever changing hi-tech world, plants have a fixed cycle we can rely on.

8.      Think about how you can be more sensitive to the needs of your fellow workers and how you might help others at work. Communication breakdowns are often cited as a key reason for stress in the workplace. Improve your own listening skills by practicing mindful listening. Try to maintain focus during conversations with colleagues and wait for the other person to completely finish talking before you begin your response to them. Be aware of your tone and body language too when communicating with others.

9.      At the end of your work day review what you have accomplished and make a list of things you want to do for the next day. Prioritize what’s most important so that when you come back in the next day you’re starting from a place of awareness and clear direction of what you want to accomplish.

10.  As you are leaving work, make a conscious effort to let go the events of your work day and be aware that you are now entering into a different world “coming home”. As soon as you can when you get home, change out of your work clothes and into your home clothes. Take 5 minutes to just be quiet with yourself before you do anything else.

So there you have it; ten simple mindfulness-based suggestions to help make your work day a more healthy, positive and mindful experience.

Healing After Loss

After a loss, it’s natural to feel sad. When it’s a significant loss, sadness can become grief.

What makes them different? Sadness is brief, lasting minutes, a few hours, or maybe a few days and though it’s unpleasant, it typically doesn’t interfere with your regular functioning. Grief is a much more intense and potentially debilitating experience. It too is a normal emotional reaction after a major loss, such as the death of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, loss of health or employment. Have you heard the expression what is traumatic is “in the eye of the beholder”?  I believe that experiencing a loss is much the same.

So far in my own life I have experienced multiple losses including the deaths of family members, friends and pets, relationships and career paths ending, and having to give up sports I once loved doing because of osteoarthritis in my spine. No one is exempt from experiencing loss.

For the person grieving, grief can be extremely painful. It can have a major disruptive effect in their life and can include prolonged periods of sadness, loneliness, and mourning, which can last anywhere from a few weeks, months to several years. Mourning is the outward expression of grief.  On occasion, grief can produce conflicting feelings caused by the end of (or change) in a familiar pattern of behavior. My mother was a person with Schizophrenia. In her 70’s she was also diagnosed with Dementia. She lived until she was 88 with the illnesses. When she died, I experienced grief over her loss but I was also relieved her suffering was finally over and that my responsibility to care for her had finally ended as well.  I believe that grief repressed can lead to chronic emotional, physical and even spiritual problems. Giving ourselves time to heal also means giving ourselves permission to mourn.

I don’t believe there is any one universally correct way to mourn a loss. Each person is different, and though we may share a common type of loss, how it’s experienced is unique for each person. I think it’s important to move through a loss in a healthy and safe manner so you can return to living what’s left of your life. Dr. Alan Wolfelt talks about the six needs of mourning in his inspirational healing series of books. Whenever I experience a loss now (whether it be simple or complex) I remind myself of the six needs of mourning. I refer to them as a road map for healing. They are presented here in no particular order of importance or in what order they should occur. I think of them as fluid and flexible and I don’t put a time frame on how long any of them should last.

Need #1: Acknowledge the reality of a loss. Be gentle with yourself but confront the difficult reality that something has now ended. The full reality of the loss may occur over weeks and months. Acknowledge the reality of the loss with your head. You may want to push away the reality and defer dealing with it. This is normal. It’s okay to go slow. Take your time if you want. There are no rewards for speed. Tell someone about your loss. Talking about it will help you work on this important need. In 2015 I decided to voluntarily leave my job as a Case Manager. I was psychologically and physically burned-out yet still performing optimally in the job. It was a very scary time for me not knowing what was ahead for me and not having a plan. I did however accept that doing that type of work was over for me. Acknowledging that sooner than later helped propel me forward to exploring what next I wanted to do.

Need #2: Embrace the pain that goes with loss. You have the right to experience your own unique grief and the right to feel a complexity of emotions.  It’s easier to avoid, repress or push away the pain of grief than to confront it. You may try to numb the pain by using substances. In the long run this is not a sensible strategy because it can open the door to other problems like becoming dependent on the substance. Additionally, it just delays the inevitable of having to process the loss and come to terms with it. Through embracing your grief, you can learn to reconcile yourself to it. Try slowly embracing the pain by dedicating time to mindfully thinking about and feeling the loss. When pain is resisted, it intensifies. In Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, people with chronic pain are taught not to tighten around the pain but to relax and allow the pain to be present.

Need #3: Remember who/what has been lost. You have the right to treasure your memories. When someone loved dies, they live on in us through memory. To heal, you need to actively remember who/what was lost and celebrate the positives you experienced while you were connected. It has been helpful for me to continue displaying photos of my parents and my older sister who died. They continue to live with me in my memories of them. Try brainstorming a list of positive characteristics or memories about someone/something you have lost.

Need #4: Develop a new self-identity. An important path to take towards healing is re-anchoring yourself and reconstructing your self-identity without who/what has been lost. Perhaps you will ultimately discover some positive changes in your own self-identity. When my mother died, I started journaling to help me process my thoughts and feelings. I have found a benefit of journaling is it allows me to revisit and reflect upon what it was that I lost. One journal entry I wrote shortly after my mother’s death still carries a lot of learning for me.

“I used to be a son.  Now that both my parents and a sister have died, I am more aware of how important my remaining family is to me. This makes me feel more connected to my two surviving sisters and niece and motivates me towards becoming a more caring and less judgmental person”.

About a year after my mother’s death, I started down the career path I am now fully immersed in as a Mental Health Instructor. I embraced the challenge of learning to become more non-judgmental and accepting of myself, others and whatever is unfolding in my life at any given time. It hasn’t been easy but I’m still 100% engaged in developing these skills in myself.

Need #5: Search for meaning. I think it’s natural to question the meaning and purpose of a loss like:

  • “How could this have happened?”
  • “Why did this happen?”
  • “Why me?”
  • “How can I go on?”

Try writing down a list of your own “why” questions that have surfaced for you since your loss. Then try reaching out to people who can provide a safe, supportive and non-judgmental atmosphere for you to begin exploring your questions.

Need #6: Receive ongoing support from others. When we are grieving, we need the love and understanding of others if we are to heal. One of the foundations of grief is that each and every one of us as humans are connected by loss. Remain connected with people and places that provide you with feelings of safety and acceptance. For me, this also means giving myself permission to avoid certain places or people while I am healing. I just try to follow my instincts. You have the right to talk about your grief. Identify three people you can turn to anytime you need a friend. Tell them you mainly need to spend time with them and to be able to talk to them freely. A vital part of healing in grief is often telling your story over and over again.

Additionally, good Self-Care is nurturing and necessary for anyone who has experienced a loss. Taking good care of yourself is not selfish or self-indulgent. To be self-nurturing is having the courage to pay attention to your needs. When we recognize that Self-Care begins with ourselves, we no longer think of those around us as being totally responsible for our well-being. Take good care of yourself. Try very hard to eat well, exercise, remain hydrated and get adequate rest. Taking care of yourself is one way for you to promote your own healing and to begin embracing the life ahead of you.

If ever you’re feeling you won’t make it through the next few weeks or months, talk to someone immediately about your feelings of panic and despair. Talk to a health professional like your family doctor or call, text or chat with a 24/7 crisis line service.

Heart of the Day 2018You will recognize you are healing from your grief over a loss when again you have the capacity to enjoy life and plan for the future. Your eating and sleeping habits will have stabilized and you will nurture your relationships with others again allowing yourself to be loved and to love others.

You have the right to fully experience your grief and heal. Grief is a journey, not a destination. Allow yourself time to heal whatever your loss may be.

The Art of Mindfulness

I realize that I have been practicing Mindfulness a lot longer than I thought through my art. I was first drawn to art during high school. In high school I had problems with social anxiety and was bullied. Some days I feared so much for my safety, I would leave school at lunch and not come back. I would take my time making the 45 minute walk back home and then draw in my bedroom for the rest of the afternoon. There I felt safe from negative judgment. I didn’t graduate from high school my first attempt but I do remember fondly Mrs. Adams, my Art teacher from high school. She was different from the rest of the teachers. She was outspoken, creative, and eccentric. In her class I felt safe, engaged and was able to express myself in a way that my social anxiety didn’t hold me back.

Jump ahead 40 years later and I am still using art as a strategy for maintaining my mental health. I have discovered that creating art gives me an opportunity to practice Mindfulness too. I credit my daily commitment to Mindfulness for helping me to reduce stress and keep anxiety in check. I never thought of the time I spent creating art as also another opportunity to practice Mindfulness but it really is. Here’s how.

When I’m creating art, I am focused in the present moment. I am free of the past and not worrying about the future. Instead, I am focused on the connection between the tool I’m holding in my hands and the art surface it’s in connection with. We work together in the moment to create. For me, this is the epitome of creating art.

Creating art is an exercise in being non-judgmental. Being non-judgmental is a core value of Mindfulness; accepting and being with what is present and experienced in the moment without judgement. This hasn’t been easy for me and why I have taken on the challenge to continue developing this skill in myself. It’s very challenging for me to accept without judgement the result of my creative process especially when I have my initial vision for a piece to compare it to. If my mind is left unchecked, I instinctively want to judge the result as good or bad or somewhere in between on the spectrum.  Mindfulness has taught me to notice my disdain or affection for finished pieces and to work towards accepting the finished product always first and foremost as a miracle of the creative process.

This has fostered in me another core value of Mindfulness, the beginner’s mind. Why did that application technique produce results I like? What made the paint pool like that or produce that combination of colors? How does different environmental lighting affect how the piece is experienced after? What is it specifically that makes me feel more or less attracted to a finished piece? Curiosity is healthy exercise for the mind and helps to give us back control over our thoughts.

Currently I’m working on a series of canvases that conceptually started out as one single piece.  The series is inspired by “Namwayut” with the background being the “we are all one” unifying element. There will be 12 stand-alone pieces by the time I finish. I am a bit curious to see how they come together to form the single larger piece. For now though, it’s about being in the moment and accepting each individual piece with open arms and affection from conception to finish. I love that the challenge before me is to put my trust in the creative process and letting go to what will be will be. Somehow, this makes the entire creative process very calming and restorative for me.

Occasionally, I do notice myself becoming a little impatient with myself for not spending more time trying to finish the series sooner than later but then I remind myself again what Mindfulness is all about. It’s about patience, non-striving and just being content to linger in the present moment. I am learning to savor the time a concept for a piece spends percolating in my head. This often inspires me to go out and really study the subject matter for a piece out in its natural environment like standing under the cherry blossoms and studying every detail of them. Taking those precious extra moments, I’m able to notice things I never would have noticed before which translates into a deeper insight for the creative process later. And that’s the Art of Mindfulness. Here are 3 pieces from the series so far.