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Dreams offer a good time for self-reflection. Many dreams are generated from worries and fears and stressors in your life. They might even get you to visit a doctor or change something in your life causing problems.

You know that we don’t usually remember your dreams, even if you surely have several of them a night during your REM time.

I read today that even vivid dreams are quickly lost because we can’t form memories while dreaming. If you are consistently remembering dreams in vivid detail, that might be a sign that you are not getting restful sleep. Try adjusting your eating, drinking, or nighttime stress-relieving habits.

The key to interpreting your dreams is not to find the book of dream interpretations at the bookstore, but to figure out your own personal dream language.

Most dreams should be interpreted more broadly instead of specifically. Dr. Michael Grandner, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona says that if in a dream you are having a heart attack, it might mean “you’re worried about your health, or maybe it means that you feel something bad may happen at work.”

Dreams don’t have to explain themselves because your unconscious mind already understands them. That is why all dream interpretation books suggest keeping a dream journal beside the bed to record any dreams as soon as you wake up. Skip the interpretation books and buy a nice blank book and start recording and reflecting. And pay attention to what pops up in your dreams tonight.

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Shouldn’t relaxing be easy? But it’s not.

We live in stressful times, but I imagine that times have always been stressful. It could not have been relaxing to have lived in an age when you spent most of your waking day gathering food and trying to survive.

I  have written here a number of times about things that would fall under mental health or relaxation techniques, such as meditation. But I haven’t written about several of the ways I have tried to manage stress or even relax in order to sleep.

This was all inspired by watching a yoga class and seeing the people go into the Savasana or Corpse Pose. It is one that looks to be incredibly easy and yet is sometimes called the most difficult of the asanas. It is “simply” lying on the floor.

How easy is it for you to turn off stress and the world around you and just say, “I’m going to relax now” when you mind is racing with thoughts and your body is tense?

I know that some nights when I am trying to go to sleep and can’t, it seems like trying to relax is actually making me more stressed out.

Some people would tell you that relaxation can be zoning out in front of the TV. But brain research always shows that watching TV actually activates parts of the brain and doesn’t help the areas that control things like sleep. Of course, I will admit to falling asleep while watching TV, but it seems it is not so much the programs that are putting me into sleep mode.

Some relaxation techniques are not at all “New Age” thinking but the result of scientific research. The Mayo Clinic recommends some relaxation techniques.  One of those techniques is one I actually did first learn in a yoga class. The medical term would be progressive muscle relaxation. In this relaxation technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. I was taught that lying in that corpse pose, I should begin by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes. You then progressively work your way up your body – the calf muscles, knees, thighs, buttocks, fingertips, arm, shoulder, chest, neck and finally even the parts of your face. I was taught to tense muscles for a count of five seconds and then relax them completely before moving up the body.

Doing this while lying on a soft mat after a yoga workout made me want to take a nap. Though I no longer practice any true yoga, I do still use this technique when I want to fall asleep – both for a nap or a night’s sleep. It doesn’t work all the time, but it has about a 50% success rate for me.

Stimulating breath (sometimes called “bellows breath”) is often a yogic breathing techniques designed to raise energy and increase alertness rather than relax you.

Breathing should be easy. We do it all day without even thinking about it. Anyone who has taken a meditation class knows that thinking about breathing is something that is really emphasized. Though I never became convinced that counting my breath was helping me, several breathing exercises have stuck with me as practices.

Most of us breathe quite shallowly. Taking a deep breath is something out of the ordinary.  Sometimes we sigh a deep breath. the doctor asks us to take a few in our checkup. We suck in a big breath after exerting yourself physically. But it is extraordinary rather than ordinary.

Think about how someone who is hyperventilating is told to breathe into a paper bag. Though most of us take shallow breaths and deeper breaths is probably a good practice, hyperventilating is “overbreathing” and in that case it is not a good practice.

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is very simple and can be done at almost any time. Some people recommend it as a stress break while seated, perhaps at your desk. I know someone who told me that if he tries to do it before he goes to sleep, he rarely gets past 6 repetitions before he falls asleep.

Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.
Exhale, completely emptying your lungs through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth, inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely again for a count of eight.
This one breath will have an exhalation that is twice as long as inhalation.

I know that this ratio of 4-7-8 is always said to be important, but I find the counting distracting. I modify it to an untimed maximum lung capacity inhalation, hold for four, and then totally empty my lungs. I had my wife time it once and it came out to be about 5-6-8 for me without counting, which is pretty close. A friend told me that rather than counting she repeats a phrase that times out at about the 4-7-8 cycles.

The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that is the opposite of the stress response. When the relaxation response is activated, your heart rate slows, breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your blood pressure drops or stabilizes, your muscles relax and blood flow to the brain increases. It is definitely something to strive for in your day and night.

 

A friend asked me this past week what I do when I hit writer’s block. She was really referring to writing poetry, but that block hit me last weekend here in Paradelle. Nothing inspired me to write, so I only posted one instead of the usual three posts.

Back in the 19th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described an “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. He also claimed that French writers created this idea that all writers have to suffer to write.

I had bookmarked an article by Jennifer Lachs about writer’s block, so I decided to read it and write about not being able to write. Of course, the block can also be a creative block that goes wider than just writing.

The article quotes playwright Paul Rudnick who says that “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.”  You have to write?  Unless you’re on deadline, no one has to write.

A dictionary might define writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Is it psychological?

In the book Fire Up Your Writing Brain, author Susan Reynolds turns to neuroscience to turn on the brain’s creativity for writers in particular.

Reynolds actually claims that it being a psychological condition is a myth. (Others disagree)  She feels the brain can be used to generate that creative spark and defeat the  procrastination that we call a block.

Her approach includes some self-study about the type of writer you are, and  developing writing models.

A believer in neuroplasticity, she says you can hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity.

Arguing about whether writer’s block is a real psychological issue or a romantic term coined by writers won’t help you if you hit a block.

Why do you get blocked?  I found several lists online. Some items resonate with me, some do not.

Is it fear of failure or rejection? Are you such a perfectionist that you can’t get started? Certainly many of us are our own toughest critics. All of these are fear in some way.

If you really have to write because it is your work or you have a deadline to meet, that pressure can block people.

The solutions are even more numerous than the causes. Feeling blocked? Try these block breakers. Do some exercise. Take a walk. Do something aerobic.

I have often heard that you should do something completely different from the task at hand for a bit. That sounds like procrastination, but switching tasks just for a short time might reset your brain. make a cup of tea. Try drawing something. Einstein famously would pick up his violin and play some Mozart when he hit a creative wall.

You can combine several solutions – take the dog (or just yourself) for a walk. That is exercise, a different task and also a change of scenery. Cook something, rake some leaves, sew, knit, sculpt,  do some woodworking, paint a wall or a landscape, chop some firewood.

Some current research finds that doing something with your hands when you are blocked in your brain.

If that seems too much like procrastination, for writers, free-writing can be a block breaker. Writing without rules, about whatever pops into your head can let the imagination free. I’m not good at this. I tend to keep drifting in my writing back to the task.

It is also recommended that you block back. Get rid of distractions – not an easy task in this distractible times.  Certainly email, social media, 24 hour news and movies on your phone can take you away from your writing. I think this is a mythical solution. As much as I would love a cabin out in the woods for a writing place, I could see me sitting there unable to write and distracted by rabbits and a river.

It bothers some of my writer friends but I rarely ever feel blocked. One of my methods is keeping notebooks full of ideas, a note on my phone where I list one-liner poetry ideas (there are 133 there now) and usually a few blog posts in draft mode that I started and stalled on.

Maybe it is a time-of-day, circadian rhythms issue for you. Are you more productive at certain times? I write best in the morning and at night. Afternoons, not so great. But if I am banging up against that block at 9 a.m., I might do something else and come back at 3 p.m.

Recommendations often say that binge writing is not recommended. Smaller sessions are better. John Updike, who was very productive, treated his writing like a regular job. he went to an office and didn’t let himself out for lunch until he had produced a certain amount of writing. It might be a poem, a few pages in the novel or even answering mail.

Poet William Stafford was famous for writing a poem every morning when he woke and before breakfast. How did he do it? He admitted that he lowered his standards. It was a case of progress, not perfection. Perfectionism is a block builder. I followed that philosophy when I did my poem-a-day project 365 times in 2014.

 

 

death dream

This past week, I had two dreams about people I know dying. Though I have been a longtime observer of my own dreams and a reader of books about dreams, I don’t believe that dreams are premonitions. And yet, dreaming of someone’s death still gives me a really uncomfortable feeling.

In general, it is said that dreams about death often indicate “the symbolic ending of something, – whether that’s a phase, a job or a relationship.” A dream about death does not always mean death. Those dreams supposedly can also indicate attempts to resolve anxiety or anger directed toward the self.

I’m sure I am not alone in feeling that dreaming of someone dying is a bad omen. It seems to me that though it may not be a premonition of the person dying in real life, it may signify an end to something like a relationship.

I had read years ago that you can’t die in your dreams. Some safety valve in your brain will wake you before that happens. But I learned more recently that you can die in your dreams.

I started reading about dream interpretation when I was in high school and read both popular books and things like Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Though a lot of Freud’s theories are out of favor now, the idea that our dreams were a way to get at secrets that we kept even from ourselves is still accepted.

If you dreamed of your spouse dying, it might mean you are afraid in real life of losing that person. But why? Are they ill? Are you having relationship issues that might lead to you losing them? Are you moving on in your career or in other ways? Is a phase of your relationship to this person ending, but perhaps moving forward in a good way?

Death dreams usually mean a change of some sort. In the symbolism of dreams, death signifies the end or a rebirth of something that you associate in some way with this person.

One person I dreamt had died is seriously ill. I probably had been thinking of him in the 48 hours prior to the dream, so the dream seems logical.

The other person I dreamt had died is someone I have not seen or communicated with for several years. I had not been thinking about her recently that I can recall. According to some dream interpretation guides, this may mean that if feel betrayed or abandoned by her in real life. Feeling sad about her death mirrors the sadness I feel in real life about how disconnected we now seem to be.

It is said that guilt feelings can lead to dreams about someone dying. As I think about that first dream, I wonder if it doesn’t stem from some guilt that I haven’t done enough to help him in real life. If I am not helping, then am I bringing him closer to death?

I also had a lucid dream recently. Unfortunately, everything about it vanished before I had time to recount it to my wife or write anything down. I have written about lucid dreaming here before and these dreams in which you know you are dreaming are very powerful.

The value in recording and trying to interpret your own dreams is in examining your life closely. I believe you can use the dream interpretation guides as a starting place, but you need to develop your own symbology for your dreams. What the ocean or  my father or standing at the edge of a cliff means to me is likely to not mean the same thing to you.

Still, those guides are if not totally accurate, interesting. One bizarre meaning for dreaming of someone dying that I read is that reports by women dreaming about seeing a person dying  seem to sometimes occur just before they got confirmation of their pregnancy. The two events seem far apart, unless you see it as a quite literal view of death as a kind of rebirth.

More

Man and His Symbols by Carl G. Jung

Dreamer’s Dictionary by Stearn Robinson

The Dream Interpretation Dictionary: Symbols, Signs, and Meanings by J.M. DeBord

 

A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about 10,000-Hour Rule. Then I read that the researchers who came up with that rule said he got it a bit wrong.  Gladwell made it seem that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a world-class expert at anything.

Does 10,000 hours seem daunting? If you’re doing 8 hour work days, that’s 1250 days or 250 work weeks or 4.8 years. Seems like a long time, but 5 years to really become expert at something sounds reasonable.

The clarification is that different fields require different amounts of practice to become expert.

I found a more encouraging plan, that might be called a 5-Hour Rule.  This idea is based on a number of famous and busy people who set aside at least an hour a day (five hours a week) for something that they might classify as a deliberate practice or learning practice.

Three of these practices which we can all try are reading, reflection, and experimentation.

This doesn’t mean that you sometimes read. It needs to be a kind of discipline in the way that a musician or athlete practices  certain number of hours every week for set times. Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot, reads two hours a day.

The reflection practice sounds too easy. Set aside an hour a day just to think?  Yes, but this is not an hour nap or staring at people passing from a park bench. But it’s not a mediation session either. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner schedules two hours of thinking time per day. More sophisticated is billionaire Ray Dalio who logs into a system any business mistake he makes. The entry is public to all employees at his company, and then he schedules time with his team to find the root cause. Entrepreneur billionaire Sara Blakely is a journaler and has more than 20 notebooks in which she records and reflect on the good and bad things that happen in her life.

You can go back to Ben Franklin, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison to find people who deliberately set aside time for experimentation. They were inventors, but most of us aren’t looking to invent for ourselves. Google was known for allowing employees to experiment with their own new projects during 20 percent of their work time.  Some of that led to new products like Gmail and Google Maps, but some of it may have led to new ideas but no new products. And that’s okay.

What might you experiment with?  Art, music, craft, a new language, a sport?

These five hours are not about productivity as much as being about improvement. All of us do some degree of “lifelong learning” every week, but it is probably more “just-in-time learning” than deliberate blocks of time for improvement without set products at the end.

The author of that article compares this to have minimum recommended dosages of vitamins, or step goals on your fitness monitor or on the machine at the gym.

I wonder if I can count the hours I spend each week writing on my blogs?

I never thought of myself as a stoic, but I might be wrong. If you have heard of Stoicism, it might be because you learned about it briefly in some high school or college course. It is philosophy. You might say that Stoics are calm and almost without  emotion. They don’t show what they are feeling. Stoics can endure pain and hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. They accept what is happening.

But all that isn’t really accurate to the origin of Stoicism. For example, another misconception is that Stoicism is a religion. Although the Stoics made references to the gods in their writing, this was a philosophical, rather than religious, doctrine.

The Stoics were a group of philosophers who first began teaching their ideas in the Hellenistic period. Stoicism was founded by a man named Zeno, who lived from 335-263 BC.

Stoics were not opposed to emotions entirely. They were opposed to negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear.

I don’t think many people today would label themselves as stoic, but some of the principles of Stoicism can probably make you happier and a better person.

Zeno put death in the forefront of things to consider. But what that means is that you should cherish each day of life. Stoicism is certainly not the only philosophy that encourages living in the present. (Buddhism is another.) It seems quite modern to be “mindful” of the present moment and to make that a practice. That might involve meditation, or solo walks in nature.

It also means you are more conscious of being thankful for things that we do have. Zeno wouldn’t have kept a gratitude journal as some people do these days, but he would probably approve of the practice. This little act of mindfulness does have value, like keeping a food journal when you’re on a diet so that you consciously spend some time considering what is happening to you.

In writing about what Stoicism is not, William Irvine says:

Although Stoicism is not itself a religion, it is compatible with many religions. It is particularly compatible, I think, with Christianity. Thus, consider the so-called “Serenity Prayer,” commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It echoes Epictetus’s observation that some things are under our control and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will spend our time dealing with the former group of things.

Stoicism was modified by the Romans, most prominently Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, and you can still read their words, even on an e-reader.

Stoicism has evolved and a kind of modern stoicism exists. How would the Stoics of old cope in our times? Seneca said, “Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” People are still finding reasons Stoicism matters today.

Maybe more of us are Stoics than we thought.

 

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