Stories by Sue Schleifer

 

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To read articles that I have written, please click on the links below. For additional stories, please see the Workshops and Resources section of this website and click on Newsletters.

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What You Practice Becomes Stronger

In music, we know that if we want to learn a new song, we need to practice it. And, if we make a mistake, we try not to keep playing it wrong. We pay attention to the part that is giving us trouble, break it down, and practice playing it correctly. Then we put it back to together.

We do the same thing in sports or exercise. We practice lifting weights using correct form, and we get stronger and do not injure ourselves.

For some reason, this idea seems to break down when it comes to our emotional lives. We don’t seem to notice or be able to control our thoughts, and so we keep practicing negative thinking. I have had coaching clients who say things like: “I will never get a decent job.” “I am cynical.” “I can’t focus.”

I hear them say out loud and to themselves statements that are not helpful and that seem to reinforce their sadness. Researchers are discovering that, “What you practice becomes stronger.” If I keep telling myself that I don’t have skills, then I start to believe myself. I have a hard time noticing the skills that I do have. I belittle my strengths and think that no one will be interested in what I have to offer. It then becomes challenging to get out of the hole in which I have put myself.

Meditation teachers suggest, “Don’t believe your thoughts.” What if my client didn’t believe that she can’t focus. Then perhaps she would figure out ways to try something different. She would practice doing one thing at a time for five minutes and see how that goes. After practicing that many times, she would increase the time to 10 minutes. In other words, she would do the same thing she would do if she were building physical muscles. Except this time, she is building mental muscles.

She would pay attention to the times she is able to focus. What is she doing? What are the circumstances? How does this feel in her body? What can she learn that she might be able to use in other circumstances? She is shifting from a blanket statement to a more nuanced way of thinking about herself.

For the past several months I have been taking an online class entitled, The Science of Happiness, developed by The Greater Good Science Center. The research of psychologist Richard Davidson, Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, strikes me.

“Happiness can be trained because the very structure of our brain can be modified.” His research team and others have discovered that we can change the pathways in our brains and these pathways become new habits further emphasizing that “what we practice becomes stronger.”

I have not been hooked up to an MRI; however, I can self-report that I am happier than I was 10 years ago. I attribute this at least in part to practicing meditation and mindfulness. When I refer to meditation, I mean sitting down quietly for at least 10 minutes and consciously breathing and focusing on being present, as best as I can. When I notice a thought, I decide whether I want to follow it or come back to my breath and body. For me, my practice of sitting meditation has contributed to my being more mindful in my daily life.

When I refer to mindfulness, I mean paying attention in the present moment and without judgment, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition. Mindfulness is something that I can and do practice at any time during the day, whether at my desk, standing in line at the grocery store or in a meeting.

Just as the research is suggesting, I am noticing that I am happier, more compassionate with myself and others, able to focus my attention, and quicker to recover from stress/more resilient. Do I know definitively that this is due to practicing meditation and mindfulness? No. But now that I have the research to back up my hunches, I am going to continue and observe what happens. Care to join me?

(c) November 2014

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Out of My Comfort Zone

I stepped off the plane in Denpasar, Bali and immediately out of my comfort zone. Which way do we go? Should we exchange money here or wait until we get into town? Someone is supposed to meet us here from the institute where we will be studying Balinese dance and music, but I don’t see him amongst all of the men holding up signs.

Then Danu appeared and ushered us to his van for the hour-long drive through the heavy traffic of vans and motorbikes, which did not observe the lane lines. When we arrived in Ubud, he invited us to his home for fresh green coconut juice. We had to decide whether to accept his offer, which we did, and his wife cut down a fresh coconut that promised to keep us from getting Bali belly, which it did for our first week anyway.

That night the Cudamani girls would be performing at a temple nearby. If we wanted to attend we would need temple attire. So Danu took us to a small shop where Mark bought a kain (sarong), udeng (head piece), slendang (waist sash) and saput (temple cloth). I already had a sarong and sash from a visit to Bali in 1989 so I was set for now. Later in our stay I had a kebaya (long sleeved top) made for my temple wear and performances.

When the time came to go to the temple performance a couple of hours later, we were too tired to go after our 36 hours of travel. However, we had many opportunities over the next three weeks to go to Balinese dance and gamelan performances and to temple ceremonies.

Needless to say, Bali, at least the part I saw on this visit in and around Ubud, has changed a lot since 1989. I had to keep telling myself, “what and who hasn’t changed since then?” Now everyone seems to drive a motorbike and talk and text on their cell phone. The rice fields are being plowed under and turned into shops and hotels, as the land has become valuable and the farmers can no longer afford to grow rice. It is not as quiet or peaceful as I recall it once was. And, the arts are still very much alive and temple rituals and ceremonies still a part of everyday life.

My husband Mark and I went to Bali to study Balinese dance and music (gamelan) at the Cudamani Summer Institute. As described on their website, “Çudamani means ‘focus.’ It means ‘do something with your whole heart without expecting something in return.’” The teachers, performers, students and helpers of Cudamani truly embodied their name. In doing so, they helped me to step out of my comfort zone to begin to learn a form of dance that was totally new and designed for a much younger body. I even performed at the Pengosaken bale banjar (community center) with our group and the Cudamani musicians and dancers.

Then after two weeks of dance, and before I could hurt myself, I switched to learning gamelan. My instrument was the jegogan, a metallophone, which is played in pairs. My Balinese partner’s instrument is tuned slightly different than mine so that the two played together create a pleasant resonant sound. I could watch the keys he hit in order to learn my part. I loved playing with my different partners and seeing their styles of teaching and personalities. I especially enjoyed the big smiles of Pasta when I got my part right, or even when I didn’t. He was so patient that though I had never played gamelan before, I was able to jump into the orchestra and even perform at a temple ceremony in our final week.

During breaks from rehearsing and on our drives to outings, we could ask Emiko Saraswati Susilo, the associate director of Cudamani, endless questions about Balinese culture, society, religion, music, dance and even how to treat skin irritations. She patiently made the culture come alive and I am most grateful for her explanations and window into the everyday lives of Balinese. For I know if I had not participated in this program, I would have had a very different experience of Bali. My goal was not to become a Balinese dancer or musician but rather to participate and learn about their culture. Through the warmth and generosity of the musicians and dancers of Cudamani, I experienced that and more.

Through stepping out of my comfort zone, I had the opportunity to learn from and about people, culture, movement, and music that I would not have otherwise.

(c) July 2013

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Climbing Into Another Person’s Skin

In my book club we recently read and discussed the book, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Here is an excerpt:

Atticus stood up and walked to the end of the porch. When he completed his examination of the wisteria vine he strolled back to me.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—“

“Sir?”

“— until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”


The book is told from the point of view of Scout, Atticus’s young daughter. In the above passage, Atticus shares with his daughter what turns out to be one of the themes of the book. Such a simple idea to climb into the skin of another person, and yet so hard to put into practice.

To continue reading click: Climbing Into Another Person's Skin

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Chop Wood, Carry Water

Last week my husband Mark and I visited Ohio for our niece's high school graduation. It was a celebratory event with family and friends gathered to congratulate Nicole.

During this trip we also visited our friends Kelly and Denny. Five years ago they purchased an 11-acre farm and farmhouse outside of Marietta, Ohio. They are lovingly restoring the house, built in 1811. They have torn out the orange shag carpet, demolished walls to reveal original doorways and even discovered a room in their basement that may have been a hideaway in the Underground Railroad. In the process they are learning about the history of the home and their new community, and they are building strong relationships with their new neighbors and fellow farmers.

Kelly was interested in organic farming and living in harmony with nature long before it became popular.

To continue reading click: Chop Wood, Carry Water

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Mom Was An English Teacher

Mom was an English teacher. She loved to read, write, teach others how to write, and coach her students through life's challenges. Her bookshelves overflowed. She wrote notes in the margins of her books, underlined passages, crossed out the word "but" and replaced it with "and." She wrote a book called "Learning Like A Fool" and self-published it before that became a relatively easy thing to do.

I suppose these facts made it all the harder to watch mom's mind decline due to Alzheimer's disease.

To continue reading click: >>Mom Was An English Teacher