metta

Winter Dreaming: Words Born of Stillness

This winter, the short days and long, dark nights felt at first like a luxury, like a warm blanket to curl up in and enjoy the turn inward. On cue with Candlemas or Imbolc, which is the halfway point between winter solstice and spring equinox and the first hint to start waking up for spring, I notice a restlessness starting; a sense that the night (and winter) will never end and I’m kind of over it.


My “Winter Dreaming” writing project has kept me focused this season. It has helped me stay true to my intention to consistently connect with my creativity amidst my busy life. Trying to be intentional and living a creative life everyday helps me deepen my own mindfulness and awareness practice.


I dedicated one full day a week to writing in nature over the summer and fall of 2015 (see blog posts titled Plein Air Writing Project to follow that adventure). The results were generative and rich for me artistically and noticeable in my increased energy levels, reduced anxiousness and a return of a sense of meaning to my endeavors.

In this winter dreaming, my creative writing efforts have been more restful and introverted in tone. What I found inspiring in nature during its summer expression and fall exhalation, I now find in quiet contemplation and letting my mind wander and wind itself through the seemingly endless nights.

I’m learning a good lesson: When it is quiet, let it be quiet and wait. 

This is the message of one my favorite books by Clarissa Pinkola Estes The Faithful Gardener: A Wise Tale About That Which Can

Never Die. It is a wonderful story about the possibilities born out of the quiet, empty, fallow times in our lives, which can either be experienced as deficient emptiness or rejuvenating space, and probably a mix of both. The cycle or rhythm of stillness is found on a macro level through seasonal changes and at a micro level each night as we sleep and wake. We can learn to trust nonactive states, knowing our energy for future endeavors is born here and will arise again and again. She says, “What is that which can never die? It is that faithful force that is born into us, that one that is greater than us, that calls new seed to the open and battered and barren places so that we can be re-sown. It is this force in its insistence, in its loyalty to us, in its love of us, in its most often mysterious ways, that is far greater, far more majestic and far more ancient than any heretofore ever known.”

If that is too right-brained for you, I’ve also found scientific evidence to support the benefit of focusing inward, of unstructured time spent in solitude. The book Wired to Create explores the creative mind. Authors Kaufman and Gregoire state, “Neuroscientists have discovered that solitary, inwardly focused reflection employs a different brain network than outwardly focused attention. When our mental focus is directed towards the outside world, the executive attention network is activated, while the imagination network is typically suppressed. This is why our best ideas don’t tend to arise when our attention is fully engaged on the outside world.”

So there it is— a scientifically proven, free ticket to slacking off a little bit, maybe a lot. A recent top 10 list of creativity enhancing activities includes: imaginative play, daydreaming, solitude, intuition, openness to experience, mindfulness and passion (feelings!).

During a recent “stay-cation” I had many small goals in mind; crocheting a hat, reading, going to yoga and meditating, cross-country skiing and preparing a few good meals. I had the fleeting thought the second day into my stay-cation that I should create a list of these activities so that I could efficiently get to them all. Luckily, I resisted this urge to be productive. I started the hat and unraveled it several times before I put it away. I read parts of many books. I skied a little bit a few times. I found that my meditation practice often ended in a nap and tried to stay compassionate with this rather than becoming frustrated.
There is something paradoxical and complex about our ability to be mindfully focused and to let the attention meander. Currently, I find I have to pull my awareness back from dream states often when I am in sitting meditation. Sleepiness is one of the five hindrances in meditation practice and I’ve been having a big dose of it. My remedy is to treat it as I would any other distraction; I label it (dreaming), apply compassion (it’s ok, you’re tired) and simply start noticing my breath again. Insight Meditation teacher Tara Brach encourages students of meditation to embrace obstacles or difficulties. I notice when I allow the sleepiness, it lightens a bit. This is how it is right now and so as Byron Katie suggests, I try to love what is!

Meditation Lessons I: Sleepiness

of this sleepy mind,
the instructing Lama says:
“keep your eyes open,
set your intention to be present”!
yellow walls and the smell of incense,
silence run over by traffic and rain,
until finally, the ending ring of the meditation bell.


I’m hesitant of this bareness
where even the winter branches
with their lingering red berries
under a microscope
become cells of water
then electrical impulses


and then nothing but the space in between

-Renee Podunovich, 2016

Build Positive Awareness: Remember the Good Feelings

“I’ve been able to show that fear closes down our minds and our hearts, whereas positive emotions literally open our minds and hearts… they really change our mindsets and our biochemistry” –Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology, University of North Carolina

In my counseling practice, I encourage clients to bring awareness to positive states of mind in equal proportion to their difficulties and distress. It is important to draw on all available resources in difficult times, and being able to tap in to inner resources is a valuable coping skill. In this series of blog posts, I will focus on specific, practical skills for increasing awareness of positive states such as happiness, safety, calmness, compassion and connectedness.

In the book “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom”, Dr. Rick Hanson states,“When you change your mind, your brain changes, too.” Brain research shows that “mental activity actually creates neural structures” and those can be formed around positive or negative ideas. Furthermore, we can be involved in that outcome.

One way to feel more optimistic, especially during difficult times, is to Imagine Past Positive States. This means that when we focus on good memories, positive feelings arise and can be enhanced to help us feel better in the present moment. Even if the positive experience was brief, the positive emotional content exists in the memory.

We often think our memory exists in our “minds” but a faster way to access memories and associated positive emotional states is through body memory. Somatic therapies that focus on integrating mind/body awareness, such as EMDR therapy, can be effective in building what I call “inner strengths and resources”.

In fact, an introductory period of building inner resources is an important step in helping people address the more difficult emotional content related to trauma. In order to effectively process distressing emotional memories and not become overwhelmed, it is important that a person be able to experience feelings of safety, confidence, and the ability to relax and calm down when distressed. This is achieved by direct experience of such positive feelings, using memory and visualization, and is enhanced by the bilateral stimulus of the EMDR therapy.

Practice: Imagine Past Positive States & Enhance Them

Remember a time when you felt safe, relaxed and calm. Thinking of a specific place might help conjure these feelings or remembering a past event. With your eyes closed, give your mind time to bring up an appropriate image. Don’t worry about getting it “right” or that it may not “make sense”.

Using visual imagery skills, start to observe the scene in more detail, noting colors, sounds, whether you are alone or if there is a positive presence there with you. As the scene becomes more vivid, start to find a few positive words that describe the place such as “safe, calm, relaxing”.

Using somatic awareness skills, start to notice sensations in the body such as tingling, heaviness, warmth, coldness, tightness or tension. Notice how body sensations change as you focus on the positive memory. You might notice your tension lessening and a sense of relaxation and calm arising.

Once you feel the positive state, enhance it with the EMDR technique developed by Lauren Parnell of “resource tapping”.  To do it, tap your fingertips to your knees, alternating from one knee to the other, to create bilateral stimulus. This alerts both hemispheres of the brain to take note of the positive feelings, thoughts and body sensations and is “a clinically recognized system for tapping both sides of the body to release emotional and physical distress, build resilience, aid in healing, and calm the body on a deep physiological level.”

Find out more about “Boosting Positivity Ratio” at the Action for Happiness website.

The Medicine of Kindness

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” – the Dalai Lama


I encourage clients to experience positive states of mind in equal proportion to their difficulties and distress. In this series of blog posts, I will focus on specific, practical skills for increasing positive states of mind such as happiness, safety, calmness, compassion and connectedness.

I am amazed as I witness again and again, the inner capacity for healing and wellness that my clients discover in their therapy process. Every person has innate inner strengths that emerge when most needed.  It’s as if we are designed for resiliency and this innate quality allows us to process and heal from distress and move forward feeling lighter and less burdened.

Recent research into brain functioning has confirmed we are born with a capacity for kindness because we are hard-wired for love and compassion. Acts of kindness are an extension of this natural compassion. Being kind requires us to notice the needs and feelings of others. Noticing those around us with compassion rather than judgment allows us to feel connected to others. Belonging and feeling connected to others is a basic human need and through acts of kindness, that need is filled.

Practice: A Kindness a Day (kindness toward others)

Our compassion is innate, but we may need to fine-tune it by practicing a simple remedy:  acts of kindness. Studies on the benefits of kindness are numerous and show that kind acts have biological, emotional and social benefits. Acts of kindness can be spontaneous such as smiling or saying thank you or holding a door open for a stranger. The Action for Happiness group recommends that acts of kindness don’t have to be random, we can “plan for happiness” by making a list of small action to take in daily life.

Practice: Find a Success Each Day (kindness toward self)

Directing kindness and compassion toward the self is a tremendous wellness skill, one that takes continual practice. Our self-talk can be incredibly negative. When I worked for the substance abuse prevention program Dare to be You at CSU, this was a skill we practiced weekly in our groups. Parents and their children would report one thing they felt successful about from their day. We were looking for small successes, encouraging the idea that if we wait to feel successful for big things like promotions or a new car, we might be waiting a long time. The practice is to notice the small things such as making it to work on time, facing a challenge, making time for relaxation, etc.

Sometimes this activity would evoke tears from participants whose day had been so stressful that it was frustrating and seemingly impossible to make the shift to the positive. What started happening after a few weeks is that participants would come to group with a success already in mind. This means their awareness habits started shifting from noticing the negative to focusing on events that they felt good about.

Take a minute to listen to this talk by Dr. David Hamilton, author and messenger of happiness. He uses the image of dropping a pebble into a pond as a metaphor for an act of kindness that ripples all the way to the center where it makes a lily pad bob on the water and smile.