“Flowers are the sweetest things God ever made, and forgot to put a soul into.” ~Henry Beecher

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Chill Out

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “kids say the darndest things”. While usually the statements are funny, they often carry with them very profound messages. For example, the other day, my grandsons were playing in the backyard in the sprinkler. The youngest one Carmine, came to sit with me on the porch. His brother Antonio shouted for him to come join him to which Carmine replied, “I’m chillin’ out, I’ll play with you later.” He had been playing hard all day and it was time for a rest. Hearing this come out of a four year-old’s mouth made me laugh hysterically inside, but it also reminded me of the importance of relaxing. Most of us have busy schedules everyday and even those that have their days well-planned and are very effective with their time schedule "appointments" to just chill out. No matter how good our diets and exercise routines are, our minds and bodies regularly need rest. Our nighttime sleep, of course is one major way we can do this, but often we need more. In fact, if we’re finding that our stress levels are rising and we’re having trouble focusing, problem-solving, or coming up with new ideas, chances are it’s because the body and mind need a break. This is in no way a waste of time–it is actually a time saver, because, in simple terms, when we can dampen the neurons that are active in stress mode, we give our creative, innovative, and inventive neurons a chance to fire. I’ve experienced time and again that some of my best ideas surface when I 'turn down the volume” so to speak. Here are a few ways to do that:

Meditation. Many people meditate first thing in the morning when their minds and the atmosphere are the most quiet. But anytime throughout the day when you can find a few minutes to sit comfortably, close your eyes, and try to slow down the mind by either concentrating on your breathing, emptying your mind, or even visualizing something calming or joyful works wonders. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve come up with new ideas or solved problems while I was I’m lying on my yoga mat staring at the ceiling just breathing. It’s actually one of the reasons that I value my yoga practice so much.

Thinking. Now that the weather is nice, I love to sit outside on the porch first thing in the morning with a cup of coffee or glass of water, take in my surroundings and just think. Think about what I want to accomplish for the day; think about where I’m going, etc. It’s very rare that we give our undivided attention to this activity, particularly in a non-stressful and non-judgmental way. Yet, you’d be amazed how many of your questions will be answered (by you!) when you take the time to think. This also goes hand-in-hand with meditation.

Reading. Doesn’t it seem like a luxury these days to be able to sit down with a cup of tea and a good book and just read? It is something to be grateful for and it’s a perfect way to redirect the mind to more calming places. Books are also a valuable source of thoughts and ideas and can often trigger our own minds to create something new.

Taking a nap. While most of us like to reach for the mid-afternoon coffee or sweet, a nap would be far more beneficial. Fifteen to thirty minutes of sleep would give us a chance to reboot. Sleep is actually one way that we solidify new learning and memories and when our brain does its housekeeping, so naps are a great way to stay sharp. I know it’s difficult for so many to find the opportunity to take a nap, but if you can, take advantage of it–don’t feel bad about it!

Pampering. Nothing can calm the body and mind like getting a massage in a dark room with a few candles and soft, soothing music. It's a wonderful way to de-stress and detox. Getting a pedicure or a haircut are great ways to slow down as well. For me, there’s something about having my head worked on that calms me down. Even taking a bath with some Epsom salts and a few drops of lavender oil will soothe the body from the inside out. Treat yourself when you can.

Walking. Taking a walk may actually be more doable for people during their workdays. Although it involves movement, it’s a chance to step away from your work, get some oxygen and get the circulation going. It’s a non-stressful form of exercise that will allow you to return to your workspace relaxed and clearer.

If you don’t now, try to schedule moments of rest and relaxation into your days or weeks. I know that everything mentioned here is obvious and just needs to be put into practice, but life has a way of sometimes making us forget and we just need to be reminded. Any way you can come up with to slow down and rest on a daily basis will have profound benefits on your performance, your sanity, and your health.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Every Moment Counts

Every single one of us has 24 hours, 1440 minutes, and 86,400 seconds in a day–no more and no less. So why is that some people seem to get so much more done in their days than others? There are lots of reasons:

One is planning. Effective people plan out their days. In fact, they not only think about what they’re going to do, but they decide in advance the best strategy for carrying out what they’re going to do. This saves the trouble of having to redo or undo something. They get that “if you don’t have the time to do something right, how will you expect to have the time to do it over?” And yes, planning takes time, but the time saved throughout the day as a result of planning makes it well worth the effort and time.

They focus on priorities. It’s so easy to get seduced into the trivial drama that can vacuum up the minutes and hours of each day. But this can be distracting, draining, and prevent us from spending time on priorities, whether they entail our work, studies, hobbies, or spending time with families or friends. The key is to first define our priorities so that we know where we want to spend our time. Then, when we’ve blocked out time for one, give it our undivided attention. For example, if a priority is to study for an exam, it’s probably best not to do this in front of the TV, or surfing the net reading the latest gossip. Same with spending time with family or friends. Focusing our attention on the people we’re spending time with strengthens relationships, but if we are constantly checking our email or talking on the phone during family time, it could do more harm than good. This will also mean saying no to the unimportant in order to preserve our time for what really matters. There will be times when something unforeseen or of an emergency nature will interrupt us and justify our time, but if we’re focused and organized with it, then something unexpected won’t derail our efforts so much and it will be easier to get back on track.

They make every minute count. This is one that I really never took so seriously until recently when I realized that I have filled my schedule with so many “priorities” that I was unsure of how I was going to fit them all in to my schedule. Personal development coaches will tell you to schedule your time in blocks. That is, if you need to work on X, Y, and Z in a given day, then set aside blocks of 2-4 hours to work on each task. For me, this works really well. But there are times when “in-between” moments pop up: 15 minutes here or there, for example before I have to leave home for an appointment or waiting for someone to arrive. I used to treat these moments almost as if they didn’t count­–as if they didn’t matter so much. But not anymore. If I have two or three of these breaks they could add up to an hour or more every day. That’s up to 7 hours per week. I’ve realized that these minutes are just as valuable as my scheduled minutes and I have certain things that I can do when these times arise. Just as an example, earlier I had 10 minutes of “downtime” and I used it to write half of this blog. : ) I’m not saying, though, that these moments should always be spent active. A 15-minute empty period in the middle of the day could be a perfect opportunity to simply de-stress, breathe, meditate, or think. The key is awareness, knowing when we have these opportunities and to use them to our advantage, because once they’re gone, we can’t get them back.

They multitask. In general, multitasking implies that one is not focusing on a given task and for many instances this would be true and would be very ineffective. But there are certain periods of downtime where multitasking can be effective. One example is commute time. For example, if you drive long distances for work or frequently sit in heavy traffic, audio books and CDs are great ways to learn while in the car. I’m currently listening to class lectures during my long commutes. Or if you know you’ll be standing in line or waiting somewhere for your turn, a stimulating or inspirational book is a great thing to have on hand to help accomplish something meaningful with the time. You never know, you may read something that will change your life!

The question is, how much do you value your time and how much, and what, do you want to accomplish?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Breaking New Ground

I’ve been using the local library a lot to do my work because I’ve found that I am undistracted and can stay focused there, which allows me to be very effective with my time. Yesterday, I checked out a library in another town for the first time. I had intended to do this for a while, but when I look back on it, “fear of the unknown” is what had stopped me in the past. You may be thinking, fear of what? Really, I’m not sure. Fear that I wouldn’t like the library. Fear that they didn’t have internet access for me to do my work. Fear that it would take work to maneuver through the stacks of books. Fear that it would be a waste of time. Maybe it was a combination of all these things–that are really ridiculous excuses. Well, when I got there, I loved the atmosphere. I didn’t know exactly where things were, so I simply asked. I found comfortable workstations with a beautiful view of the outdoors and with great internet access. They even had a nice beverage station where I could purchase a cup of coffee/tea. So I happily sat down and worked for three hours. And of course, I thought to myself, “I wish I had come here sooner!” And the best part is that I haven’t even explored the entire library or looked through the stacks of books. I’m sure I’ll be making some new discoveries the next few times I’m there for a visit.

What’s my point? Do you ever get so caught up in your routine that it becomes boring, dull, lackluster, not-so-much fun anymore? We see and do the same things and go to the same places day in and day out and before long, we put a veil over our eyes and we miss or ignore the intricate details of what is going on around us, simply because it’s become so familiar. We bias our perspective because of what we think “is” and in some ways get lazy with our vision. We think we know what to expect so we don’t bother to pay close attention. But there’s something exhilarating and exciting about venturing into the unknown and discovering the new and the different. Time and again, I find that these types of experiences wake me up, give me a jolt of energy and make my brain cells happy. And it doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering for this to happen. Driving down an unfamiliar road and discovering something interesting or trying a new café or listening to a new artist’s music or checking out a new library are all things that work. And the more we get into the habit of shaking it up a bit in little ways, the more likely we’ll be inclined to try the big, bold things, like travel to a new country or jump out of a plane. : ) No, I don’t have that in my immediate plans, but I won’t say that I will never do it. In the meantime, though, I am going to make it a habit of breaking new ground…

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Uncomplicated, Healthy Eating

One of the biggest challenges that people face when they want to begin eating healthier is finding the time. There all kinds of systems in place that conveniently enable us to eat unhealthy: fast food restaurants, convenience stores, vending machines, etc., but in order to ramp up our diets and increase the nutrient density it takes planning, shopping, and preparing/cooking. Preparing our own food is one of the best ways to ensure that we’re eating the right foods without all the additives and preservatives that are frequently found in processed and prepackaged foods. I understand this more than anyone and I prepare most of my own food, and yes, it takes time. Yet I believe that we make the time for our priorities and eating a healthy diet is top on my list, along with exercise. That being said, food shopping and preparation don’t have to be complicated. In fact, the shopping part actually gets much easier when we decide to adopt healthy eating habits. With a few exceptions, we can virtually avoid the inner isles of the grocery stores where all the processed foods are displayed and focus on the produce, meat, egg/dairy, and frozen food sections. And if you also keep a few “superfoods” on hand, they can very nicely enhance the overall quality of your diet. In addition, food preparation that includes more raw foods and foods that are minimally cooked to preserve their nutrient value often take less time to prepare than foods that simmer on the stove or are in the oven for long periods of time.

One example of a very quick, healthy, and satisfying dish consists of three ingredients: dulse, avocado, and fresh lettuce leaves. This is something that can be prepared in minutes and is loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and good fats. Dulse goes by many names including sea lettuce, and is a red seaweed that grows along many coastlines including the Northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Iceland, Europe, Japan, Korea and the Arctic shores of Russia and Canada. It is a good source potassium, zinc, manganese, calcium and iodine as well as many essential amino acids. Dulse can be found at some fish markets and natural food stores and is sold as the leaves or ground into flakes, which is how I buy it. It can be added to soups, stews, sauces, salads–just about anywhere you'd like.

To prepare, the above dish, mash an avocado, add a tablespoon of ground dulse (you can also soak it briefly in water first if you’d like) and mix well. Then simply stuff it into clean (preferably organic) lettuce leaves and enjoy! It’s easy-creamy-savory-crunchy, and healthy. The dulse avocado mixture can also be spread on toast or even eaten by itself­–it’s that good! I've had it with an egg in the morning for a very satisfying breakfast or had it with a salad or even stuffed additional shredded veggies into the lettuce leaves. It's as versatile as your imagination. I hope you give it a try! : )

Friday, May 7, 2010

One Man's Weeds are Another Man's Gold

A few weeks ago, the dandelions started popping up­–in yards, fields, along the side of the roads–everywhere. Soon after, I noticed the little red flags showing up in yards that signified the application of pesticides to kill the weeds, like dandelions. This belief that many of us have come to accept as “the right thing to do”; that is, killing the weeds in our yards so that the lawns are “clean” and green, no longer makes so much sense to me anymore. When we spray pesticides, we not only kill the “weeds”, but we contaminate the soil and often kill the organisms that make the soil strong, dynamic and rich. Dirt is not inert, it is actually the result of the breakdown of rocks and minerals combined with the waste products produced by decomposing plants and living, thriving organisms and the activities of the organisms themselves. Yet, when we apply pesticides, we actually do harm to the beneficial bugs, bacteria, worms, etc., and weaken the soil. We also produce a harmful environment for the birds, bees, squirrels, rabbits, and other animals that pass through the yard. Not to mention us!

Why this makes even less sense to me is that so many of the plants we consider weeds are actually a valuable source of nutrition. Take dandelions, for example. Their greens are a rich source of blood-cleaning chlorophyll, dietary fiber and vitamins A, C, E, K (over 500% the RDA in a one cup serving!), thiamin, riboflavin, and B6, as well as calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, folate, magnesium, phosphorous, and copper. They also have liver-regenerating properties. This time of year, this plant is ubiquitous and quite literally gold at our fingertips. In addition, we don’t need cultivate or care for them. They just show up for our benefit but we’ve decided somewhere along the line that they’re unsightly and unwelcome–and weeds. In fact, this led me to think that the idea of what constitutes a weed is an example of a belief and not necessarily “what is”. In other words, what we consider weeds are those plants that show up where we don’t want them or are not as pretty as we would like and this idea is simply based on our perspective and what we feel is important. For so many, a perfectly manicured, green lawn is a priority. And for others, dandelions are a source of healthy food and they welcome them in their yards. As for me, I actually like the spray of color that a yellow dandelion adds to a green background. Yet, the best time to pick the greens is before the flower buds, when the leaves are young and tender. If they were picked at this stage, it would eliminate the stem and flower that most people don’t want to see popping up in their yards, although the flowers are edible as well.

I haven’t yet picked dandelion greens, but I prepared some the other day. I washed and dried them, cut off about an inch from the bottom of the stems, chopped them into three to four equal sized lengths, then just sautéed them in some coconut oil (they sauté very quickly!) and added some minced garlic, Himalayan salt and some cracked pepper at the end. They were delicious and I plan to eat them more often as long as they're in season.

P.S. If you decide to pick your own dandelions, please don't pick those them from the side of the road or on property where you're unsure if it's been treated with pesticides. The best place to forage for them is in fields or forests that are far removed from buildings, roads, and landscaped properties.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Stuffed Medjool Dates

I can always tell when a full moon is coming by the arrival of my sweet tooth! It never fails and as much as I’m tempted during these times to throw caution to the wind, I try to satisfy my craving with something that has some nutritional value. Enter Medjool dates. They are probably one of my favorite sweet treats. Yes, they’re high in sugar and calories. One large date has about 66 calories and 16g of sugar. However, they are also a source of fiber, vitamin B6 and minerals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper, and manganese. By themselves they are rich, gooey, and sweet and I often do them the honor of eating them “as is”. However, I recently transformed them into a delicious confection loaded with good fats, minerals, and protein. The result looks, feels, and tastes like something we shouldn’t be eating, but on the contrary, they’ll do far more for you than just satisfy your sweet tooth. Careful, though, these should be treated like any other decadent confection. One or two make a perfect dessert and you’ll be content after that. Mom might even like these for Mother's Day! : )

Stuffed Dates

10-12 large Medjool dates

¼ c almond or cashew butter

1 T unsweetened cocoa powder

1 T shredded unsweetened coconut

1 t ground flax seed

1-2 T pure maple syrup

¼ t cinnamon

2 oz. dark chocolate, optonal (I used 90% cocoa content)

1 t coconut oil, optional

sea salt

Open and remove the pits from the dates by cutting longitudinally down one side. Set the dates aside. In a small bowl, combine the nut butter, cocoa powder, coconut, flax seed, maple syrup, and cinnamon. The mixture will have the consistency of a thick dough. If it’s too sticky to work with, chill it in the fridge for 30 minutes or more. Divide the dough into 10-12 portions and form each into a small log shape. Press one log into one side of each opened date then close the other side over the filling and press gently to seal. Arrange the dates on a plate. Melt the dark chocolate with the coconut oil in a small bowl over hot water, taking care not to over heat the mixture (once the bowl is hot, the chocolate will continue to melt when taken off the heat). Drizzle the chocolate over the dates or dip one end into the chocolate. If dipping, cool on parchment paper. Sprinkle with additional coconut and sea salt. Store uneaten dates in the fridge, if they make it that far!!