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Family Traditions – Keeping What We Give Away

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When I was growing up I don’t remember that my family had any traditions beyond activities associated with the major holidays of Christmas and Easter.

My wife and I are doing something different for our family. We have incorporated many traditions and activities into our year. One of our favorites is on New Year’s Eve, when we’ll walk through each month of that year and recall the highlights, the achievements, and some of the challenges. It’s a wonderful way to recap and appreciate the many gifts of the year.

Another tradition for New Year is that when we’re at our cabin in McCarthy I’ll blow my conch. It’s a massive shell with a hole drilled in the side that when blown into creates a resounding and beautifully deep call that echoes up and down our valley.

What’s so special about getting to blow the conch for New Years isn’t so much the fun of making a joyous noise, although that’s surely a big part of it, but the opportunity to tell again the story of how I came to be the keeper of the conch.

When I was growing up the conch was one of the few possessions of my stepfather and I used to love to take it outside and bring to life its resonant bellow. My stepfather was a rambler living in a converted school bus when my mother first met him. We lived with him for about 7 years and after their less than amicable separation we moved from the remote mountains of Northern California to the urban expanse of the Bay Area.

We didn’t see or hear much from him over the next few years, but one day he showed up as he was passing through town. At one point he invited us out to his car and after opening the trunk he pulled out gifts for my brother, sister, and me. They were each special and unique treasures, things that were meaningful to him that he wanted us to have to remember him by.

To my surprise and delight, out of that trunk came the conch and he handed it lovingly to me.

My stepfather’s act of giving was deeply touching and a first step on the long path of reconnecting with his kids (me included!). It was made more poignant by the fact that during the trip his house accidentally burned to the ground and he lost everything that he owned.

Everything that is except for the few dear possessions that he had given away to us that day.

So the conch holds many things for me … fond memories of childhood … connection to an important man in my life … and the very real lesson that we keep what we give away.

And to bring us back to the point of this story, the conch is an important part of my family’s New Year tradition. When the clock hits midnight we all take turns blowing the conch to raucously ring in the new year. And as part of that tradition I tell the story of how I came to be the keeper of the conch, sharing stories of my childhood and the important lesson of how we keep those things that we freely give away.

As we step into the new year, what traditions will you or your family celebrate in 2018? What makes them important to you?

Find Your Breath And You Find Your Life

By | Masculinity, Mortality, Relationships | No Comments

I love participating in workshops. If I didn’t live up in Alaska, which is unfortunately a workshop wilderness, I’d probably be completely broke from being a workshop junkie. Here’s the thing, what I love about them is the opportunity to step out of the chaos of my householder life, settle into my own rhythm for a few days, and reconnect with myself while making new connections with others.

I don’t like “talky” workshops; I want interactive, engaging, and experiential.

And that’s what I got this past weekend at a breathing and mindfulness retreat. For those that want the punch line here are the two big takeaways:

1) proper breathing requires filling the belly and literally breathing all the way down through your pelvic floor

2) the breath is the center of my universe, with the space between the inhale and exhale being the connection to consciousness and experience of Oneness.

For some of you this might sound pretty airy fairy. That’s okay, you’re released to move on to the next blog or return to your Facebook feed.

For those of you who are serious about upping your midlife game and stepping into the most powerful tool I have yet to encounter for shifting into unlimited possibility, stick with me.

I’ve known for years about the importance of proper breathing and how it can be the portal to great knowing. The problem was that I only really knew it intellectually. I needed to get it into my body through an experiential retreat in order to truly embody this ancient wisdom.

The challenge is that most of us don’t really know how to breath. We take in the breath unconsciously, we fill our lungs by expanding our chest, and we often keep it pretty shallow. That’s not really breathing, that’s just surviving.

If you want to deepen your breathing you’ve got to get your belly involved. That can be a challenge for many western men because we’ve been taught to keep our gut sucked in, abdomens clenched and forever battle ready. But being tight in our abdomen forces us to breath in our upper body, which keeps our breathing shallow and forced. Sometimes shallow breathing is okay when we’re doing it consciously, but rarely is it good when it’s part of our regular, autonomic breathing pattern.

There are many great resources out there on the importance of proper breathing so I won’t make this a how-to. Here are a couple of resources I’ve come across recently that you might want to check out:

Dan Brule’s book Just Breathe. Dan is a member of the Midlife and Thriving FB group so we’ve got a local resource!

This interview of Belisa Vranich is a quick tutorial on the right way to breath and the importance of having a proper breathing technique.

Once you’ve got good technique, you’ll find that the breath is intense. Working with my breath over the weekend I found that I was able to quickly center myself in challenging situations, I found moments of deep clarity about my life purpose, I tapped into a deep source of wisdom and information to help bring answers to long-held questions.

Want to figure out how to make an important decision or handle an issue? Breathe, ask your question, then listen.

Want to know what’s really important in a situation and how to create an outcome in alignment with your values? Breathe, then listen.
Want to know how to regain a feeling of connection when you’re feeling isolated and alone in the world? Breath.

It’s like having your own internal Magic 8-Ball. You know the ones where you ask your question, shake it up, then wait for the answer to come mysteriously floating up through the dark purple liquid. Sure, sometimes you get an initial answer of “Ask your question again.” But if you stick with it, focus on breathing and letting go, the answer will arise – maybe from your heart, maybe from your gut, maybe from your mind, or perhaps even from pure consciousness.

Metaphorically the breath connects us to so many things: the expansion and contraction of the Universe, the cycle of death and rebirth, the ebb and flow of the tides. The All is contained within us through our connection to the breath and how we experience it in each moment. 

Ease, internal sense of peace, and connection are just a few of the experiences and sensations I had over the weekend and that I am taking with me back to the chaos of my householder life. I’m also returning with an embodied knowledge that conscious breathing creates an infallible connection to the deep wisdom of my body and to the present moment. Both are powerful tools for my continuing midlife transformation and growth.

To step into a deeper experience of self and your unlimited potential you just have to get into your breath and focus on the space between. It really is that simple and you can start doing it right now.

How are you breathing today?

The Intelligence of Your Midlife Body and Learning Its New Language

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Today I feel my age. Or perhaps I feel what I imagined it might be like to be 47 back when I was in my 30s.

My lower back is tight.
My sciatica is acting up.
My right shoulder has been bothering me for over 2 weeks.
My ankle caved on me yesterday and I’m hobbling around the house.
My immune system took a dump last week and while I’m back to about 85%, I now have a hacking cough that’s keeping my wife up at night.

Okay, maybe I feel more like twice my age.

The state of my body this week has caused a bout of mild depression because I haven’t been able to be as active as I’d like and I find that I’ve been more aware of pain rather than vitality.

See, I’ve been consistently doing a daily routine of cardio for almost 6 months now.

It’s. Been. Freakin’. Awesome.

I’ve had tons of energy.

I’ve gotten my six-pack abs back (those disappeared for about 10 years).

I’ve been able to keep up with my young boys when we’re horsing around, and I can’t tell you what a boost it is to have them see me and my fitness as a model for them as they step into greater body awareness.

I’ve built consistency and a rhythm into my life around being more aware of my body, which has grounded me in a deeper way in each day.

And now this. A week where my body keeps throwing a wrench in my fitness plans. It’s as though it’s trying to get me to slow down.

So I do. I slow down. I sink into stretching and yoga.

I slow down and feel the tightness in my hamstrings – feels like I can almost play a bass run on those bad boys.

I slow down and put my consciousness into the parts that are aching and create space around them to release the tension or pain.

I slow down and realign my body in a way that stretches and elongates what has become collapsed and compressed.

I slow down and in the stretching and releasing I also become aware of how my body is holding fear and anxiety in my life right now.

By slowing down I connect with my sacred body in a new way, one of gratitude and compassion. Gratitude that at 47, I’m still capable of pushing it to new extremes and places. Compassion for the fact that yes, I am mortal, I am getting older, and that I need to balance the active with the passive. The daily workout is having serious positive impacts, yet I’m also aware that I need to intersperse it with more stretches and opportunity for resetting and recovery.

And I begin to see where I probably need to do that in other areas of my life … balance the active and the frenzy with time for reflection, introspection, and connection. Connect with and create space around the fear and anxiety so that I can address it and release it. Find the places in my life where I have collapsed things or taken on too much and slow down, reset, and recover.

Our body is our greatest gift, the temple in which our consciousness resides and through which we are able to wander through this precious life. Our body has so much wisdom and information held within it if only we slow down and listen to what it has to share and to tell us.

Our relationship with our body is a direct reflection of how we are living our lives.

I hope that you’re treating yours as the gift that it is.

 

 

 

 

A Midlife Awakening to a Grandfather’s Gift

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How Tales From the Past Spark Adventures of the Future

Last night was probably the last night I will get to spend with my grandfather. We sat at the dinner table as we often did in the evenings during my visits. He in his seat to my right, in front of the bookshelf that stores many of his treasures, the props used to spark memories and kindle stories of his life’s adventures.

I would sit for hours listening to his tales of travels as a salesman throughout the U.S.; hunting trips in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico; river trips down the Rio Grand or the Pecos or the Colorado. He had done so many things and had so many adventures.

He was a great weaver of long stories with dramatic pause and em-PHA-sis (as he would say), which would keep me spell bound for hours. It’s part of the reason I’m such a good listener. Listening was my part in the magic of our relationship.

But during this visit his well has run dry. Those memories are no longer in him. His nearly photographic recall of those stories is gone. Many pages of his grand and adventurous life are blurred or just blank.

No more fountain of stories.

No more images of the American West when it was still wide open enough for the imagination to run wild and there was still wildness in it.
The first couple of nights during this visit it was quiet, something had shifted.

Clearly something was missing.

And then I realized what it was.
And then I realized our roles had changed.
And then I realized …

It was now my turn to tell stories, and that I had some that needed to be shared, for me and for him.

So I spun tales of my trips above the Arctic Circle during my time as a wilderness guide, of bounding across the vast, open tundra and running its wild rivers.
So I spun tales of my adventures exploring the great glaciers in the icy realms of the Wrangell Mountains.
So I spun tales of adventures flying white-knuckled through Alaska storms in single-engine planes and swimming naked in the Pacific Ocean while a lone wolf loped along the beach.

It turns out that I too have many stories to tell. I too have adventures to share. I too have lived a life adventuring in the last great reaches of our country’s wilderness.
He sat there quietly enjoying each telling, swelling with pride at my adventures, as listening now became his role in the magic of our relationship.

I realize clearly, with this shift in our relationship, that my grandfather’s stories were part of what got me to the wilderness. His stories had lived in me as the seeds of my own adventures. His courage and yearning to live a life of exploration was an example by which I would live mine.

To my grandfather, I will always be grateful for the life of exploration that your stories sparked in me. Grateful also that I got to thank you for your gift in my life and the important part you played in instilling adventure. And so too my sons should be grateful for a great grandfather’s contribution to their lives of adventure in the wild places of this beautiful world.

Men: Want More of a Life? You Can Put Years on the Clock by Following These Heart-healthy Tips

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Midlife heart

 

In this second installment on midlife health, I explore recent research findings on cardiovascular disease and the long-term benefits of keeping that ticker strong in midlife. Cardiovascular diseases are the number one killer of men (and women) in America, accounting for over 600,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. But we’ve known for a long time that we can significantly reduce the likelihood of heart disease by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Folks in midlife can offer up plenty of reasons to avoid keeping fit and eating healthy: career pressures, family demands, or those oh-so-delicious caloric temptations (yes please, I’ll have bacon on that). But a new study by researchers at Northwestern University and Yale finds that you’re likely to be around significantly longer and suffer from fewer chronic ailments if you practice some simple heart-healthy habits early in midlife.

The report, published in the journal Circulation, was based on participants of the Chicago Heart Association Detection Project in Industry. The long-term study (aside from being a mouthful of a name) consists of over 25,000 employed men and women who have been tracked for nearly 40 years. The study considered multiple factors for heart disease including blood pressure and cholesterol levels, diabetes mellitus, body mass index, and smoking. Participants were placed into one of four groups: those with favorable cardio health, those with potential for elevated risk factors, those with one high-risk factor, and those with two or more high-risk factors.

The current study’s findings should come as no real surprise. Researchers found that folks who had favorable heart health in midlife lived an average of four years longer than their fellows with at least two high-risk factors. Another startling finding is that participants with favorable cardiovascular factors lived nearly five years longer without other major diseases such as chronic lung disease, kidney disease, dementia, or cancer. Moreover, if folks in the heart-healthy group suffered from a stroke or coronary disease it was on average seven years later than those in the higher risk groups.

One of the study’s authors, Norrina Allen, PhD, said in a press release, “We need to think about cardiovascular health at all stages of life. The small proportion of participants with favorable levels in their 40s is a call for all of us to maintain or adopt healthy lifestyles earlier in life. But risk factors and their effects accumulate over time, so even if you have risks it’s never too late to reduce their impact on your later health by exercising, eating right, and treating your high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.”

Sounds like a good investment to me!

And in fact, the study also found that the heart-healthy group’s Medicare costs were approximately $18,000 less. So not only were they able to benefit from greater health during later years, but they were able to reduce medical costs at a time in life when many people are on fixed incomes and trying to stretch their budgets to enjoy life.

What exactly can we do to increase our chances of being in the healthy-heart group in midlife? Research out of the Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease at Johns Hopkins has shown that we can protect against chronic heart disease by adopting four lifestyle behaviors: avoid tobacco, get consistent physical activity, maintain a healthy diet, and keep our weight in check.

Benefits of participating in these activities were cumulative. Participating in a single behavior reduced risk of cardiovascular disease by 21 percent, participation in two by 39 percent, in three by over 50 percent, and all four by a whopping 81 percent. Engaging in these four behaviors also reduced by over 80 percent the likelihood of mortality from other diseases over an eight-year period.

But wait, if that wasn’t enough, there’s more! Other researchers have found that when getting adequate sleep (at least seven hours a night) was added to the magic of the four activities, even greater benefits were reaped. Findings from another study published by Hoevenaar-Blom et al. in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology suggest that adding the sleep component reduced the likelihood of a fatal cardiovascular disease event by 12 percent.

 So getting a good night’s sleep is like the deliciousness of adding bacon to your burger, except by reducing the likelihood of dying earlier. Ok, maybe that metaphor doesn’t work.

So what can you do to increase the likelihood of having a healthy heart? Research is pretty clear that the following three things set you on the right path.

Quit smoking: Seems like a no-brainer, but just had to say it. I know it’s not easy; I smoked for 10 years and finally quit, cold turkey when I turned 30. Quitting the siggy butts was the best gift I have ever given myself. Research suggests that of the four lifestyle behaviors, not smoking is the biggest way to reduce risks of heart disease and mortality.

Moving your body: Getting about two and a half hours of moderate physical activity a week is recommended by the Heart Association. It also does great things for your brain, such as reducing the likelihood of a stroke and increasing your brain size (I discussed this in an earlier post). Break a sweat, increase heart rate, and have fun.

Heart-healthy diet: Indulge in a diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, poultry and fish (sorry bacon), and non-tropical vegetable oils. Definitely watch intake of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages. If you still do reach for the red meat, go lean.

So keep your ticker in good shape! Research has proven that it’s one gift that keeps on giving. And like the tin woodsman in the Wizard of Oz opined, “I shall take the heart, for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.”

Here’s to your long and happy life!

Men: want to avoid dementia? Exercising your body builds bigger brains, not just brawn.

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midlife exercise

Exercising your body does more for your brain than brain-games alone, and midlife is the time to start.

I used to love doing crossword puzzles. Many Sunday afternoons when I was a kid and living with my grandma we could be found huddled over the weekly crossword puzzle. She swore that it would ward off dementia and keep her brain sharp. Unfortunately she suffered horribly from dementia in her later years, and I’ve since sworn off doing crosswords. In fact, recent research strongly suggests that grandma would have been better off if she had put down her pencil and laced up her joggers instead.

I know that midlife seems a bit early for men to be concerned about dementia. But a review of recent research on late adulthood by Kirk Erikson from the University of Pittsburgh, as well as studies out of the University of British Columbia, suggest that midlife is the perfect time to focus on activities and establish routines that will increase brain function and health in later years. Research is finding that moderate levels (about 120 minutes a week) of moderately intense physical activity (things that increase heart rate and make you break a light sweat) have the benefits of increasing cognitive function and improving brain structure and function.

Bigger, better, faster … your brain on exercise

Cognitive function includes things like our ability to reason, remember things, and focus our attention. These are essentially all of the things that allow us to handle and process information and build knowledge. Physical activity significantly increased cognitive function, especially in reasoning and problem solving abilities. It also decreased the risk of cognitive decline by 40 percent. That’s huge!

As we age, the brain’s structure can change through atrophy and loss of volume. Studies has found that physical activity regimes of six months to a year have resulted in increases in brain volume in portions of the brain that support cognitive function. Not only was there an increase in volume of the structures where brain functioning occurs (grey matter), but the volume of the structures that connect them (white matter) also increased. Win-win!  

Brain function is the ability of your dome to get things done as measured by efficiency, like how well and how fast. Increased neural efficiency during cognitively challenging tasks were found in older adults with higher fitness levels. Additionally, research found that connectivity between portions of the brain operated more efficiently.

So if you want a bigger and better brain for the third half of life, put down the pencil and get that heart pumping! Here are a few tips for getting started:

  • Don’t like to ride or run? Try other types of activity like swimming, stair climbing, tennis, or dancing. Anything to sustain an elevated heart rate and break a sweat.
  • Join a club or group. It helps with accountability and creates opportunity for midlife men to build relationships and ward off isolation and loneliness – another midlife challenge.
  • Set a goal and track your progress, especially useful for us men who are goal oriented and like to geek out on checking boxes.

Are you ready to set a goal to keep your noggin’ big and fit? What are you willing to commit to starting this week? Share out in the comments below!

 

 

Midlife Crisis? Or Just Bottoming Out on the U-Curve of Happiness

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detour-1646152The myth that is the midlife crisis may be mortally wounded by current research. However there’s ample evidence of a midlife dip that’s more than just a pothole in the road of life.

In my last post I explored the origin myth of the midlife crisis. Research suggests that a midlife crisis may be far less likely to occur than originally thought. In fact, only about 10 percent of men actually experience a full-blown midlife crisis. The midlife crisis may be on the mat, but research has also confirmed a slump in well-being at midlife.

The (nearly) universal U-shaped curve of happiness

A growing body of research over the past decade has confirmed that our sense of well-being through life forms a U-shaped curve. As men in our 20s and early 30s we focus on external achievement and goals (that successful career, the perfect family, the castle on the hill). In our 30s and 40s we start to get tangled up in the stresses and trials of the real world and the challenges of achieving the goals we set early in life. Perhaps because of this, or other factors, our happiness quotient in the first half of life trends downward, bottoming out in our mid 40s. But then in our mid 50s we begin a slow ascent and happiness (or our sense of well-being) increases again … thankfully!

ucurve

This general finding is so striking because it has been consistently found across many countries and cultures (and even in other primates!). While definitely not found in all countries and generations, in a recent study of 46 countries, 44 had a clearly defined U-shape when well-being was compared across age.

The lowest point of the curve differed between countries, but was generally between 40 and 60 years. The low-point for folks in the U.S. was found at about 46 years of age. A 2010 study found similar results, with well-being of U.S. males bottoming out in their early 50s.

So midlife is, statistically speaking, the rock-bottom of our happiness in life? Now there’s something to celebrate … no wonder I’m so depressed …

Reframing the midlife story

This midlife dip may be what’s been generalized through the myth of the midlife crisis, and could explain how the crisis myth has such a strong hold in our culture. Most of us can expect to bottom out somewhere and in our own unique way in midlife, but few of us will have a full-blown crisis.

This reframe of the midlife experience provides some measure of comfort in that:

1. we’re not alone

2. midlife doesn’t have to be cataclysmic

3. there’s the hopefulness of an upswing somewhere in our 50s

Right, how lovely that we have a new la-ti-da story, but I want resolution! Just give me answers on how to avoid it or minimize it would you, or at least a pill to help ease the pain!

Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet here. There are also potential challenges in medicating our way through midlife. Unfortunately there’s still no clear explanation of why our sense of well-being bottoms out in midlife and then rises throughout the rest of late adulthood. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to look to the survivors.

Following in the footsteps of the survivors – the climb up from midlife

So at this point you may be asking yourself, what do folks in their 60s and 70s have that those in the trough of midlife might be lacking? (I thought we weren’t supposed to trust anyone over 30 …)

In my next post I’ll dig into a few current ideas and observations that shed light on what might account for the bounce back in midlife. The focus is on the qualities and actions associated with people in later life, such as:

  • Creating a life of meaning (building and sustaining a sense of fulfillment or purpose)
  • Knowing ourselves and becoming what we are (understanding our deeply held values and living them)
  • Greater emotional intelligence (creating connection and communication by employing loyalty strategies vs exit strategies)
  • Reduction in perceived severity of stressors (drama management)
  • Increased capacity to self-regulate emotions (less likely to resort to anger or respond to anger with anger)
  • Ability to see situations positively (less likely to see other’s responses as negative or remember them as negative)
  • The perspective of time (that heals everything, right?!)
  • Reduced regret response (not mulling over or focusing on what’s beyond our control)
  • Increased wisdom (or more specifically the traits that come with it like compassion, empathy, respect for and tolerance of divergent beliefs, acceptance of ambiguity, ability to make decisions based on the good of the whole, levelheadedness)

I hope this post has provided some new insight on your midlife experience. I’ll look forward to see you again soon at the corner of Midlife and Thriving!

Successfully managing midlife? Which of the above strategies do you use to successfully navigate midlife challenges?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!