Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Grow Inner Strengths

Having the resilience, the inner strength to meet challenges that arise in your life is a useful and even essential quality for everyone, perhaps especially for parents and teachers. Thanks to Rick Hanson for permission to re-use this post (you can learn more about Rick at the end of this post) who offers some tips on creating a wellspring of inner strength. Rick has a vast array of articles on his website and this one originally was published September 2013 in his 'Just One Thing' newsletter.

Grow Inner Strengths written by Rick Hanson

What would make a difference inside you?
The Practice: 
Grow Inner Strengths.

I’ve hiked a lot and have often had to depend on what was in my pack. Inner strengths are the supplies you’ve got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life. They include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. Researchers have identified other strengths as well, such as self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response, self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive functions.

I’m using the word strength broadly to include positive feelings such as calm, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations, and embodied qualities such as vitality or relaxation. Unlike fleeting mental states, inner strengths are stable traits, an enduring source of well-being, wise and effective action, and contributions to others.

The idea of inner strengths might seem abstract at first. Let’s bring it down to earth with some concrete examples. The alarm goes off and you’d rather snooze-so you find the will to get up. Let’s say you have kids and they’re squabbling and it’s frustrating-so instead of yelling, you get in touch with that place inside that’s firm but not angry. You’re embarrassed about making a mistake at work-so you call up a sense of worth from past accomplishments. You get stressed racing around-so you find some welcome calm in several long exhalations. You feel sad about not having a partner-so you find some comfort in thinking about the friends you do have. Throughout your day, other inner strengths are operating automatically in the back of your mind, such as a sense of perspective, faith, or self-awareness.

A well-known idea in medicine and psychology is that how you feel and act - both over the course of your life and in specific relationships and situations-is determined by three factors: the challenges you face, the vulnerabilities these challenges grind on, and the strengths you have for meeting your challenges and protecting your vulnerabilities. For example, the challenge of a critical boss would be intensified by a person’s vulnerability to anxiety, but he or she could cope by calling on inner strengths of self-soothing and feeling respected by others.

We all have vulnerabilities. Personally, I wish it were not so easy for me to become worried and self-critical. And life has no end of challenges, from minor hassles like dropped cell phone calls to old age, disease, and death. You need strengths to deal with challenges and vulnerabilities, and as either or both of these grow, so must your strengths to match them. If you want to feel less stressed, anxious, frustrated, irritable, depressed, disappointed, lonely, guilty, hurt, or inadequate, having more inner strengths will help you.

Inner strengths are fundamental to a happy, productive, and loving life. For example, research on just one strength, positive emotions, shows that these reduce reactivity and stress, help heal psychological wounds, and improve resilience, well-being, and life satisfaction. Positive emotions encourage the pursuit of opportunities, create positive cycles, and promote success. They also strengthen your immune system, protect your heart, and foster a healthier and longer life.

On average, about a third of a person’s strengths are innate, built into his or her genetically based temperament, talents, mood, and personality. The other two-thirds are developed over time. You get them by growing them. To me this is wonderful news, since it means that we can develop the happiness and other inner strengths that foster fulfillment, love, effectiveness, wisdom, and inner peace. Finding out how to grow these strengths inside you could be the most important thing you ever learn.

Your experiences matter. Not just for how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your experiences of happiness, worry, love, and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks. The structure-building processes of the nervous system are turbocharged by conscious experience, and especially by what’s in the foreground of your awareness. Your attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: It highlights what it lands on and then sucks it into your brain-for better or worse.

There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. Based on what we’ve learned about experience-dependent neuroplasticity, a modern version would be to say that the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon.

If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt. On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.

Looking back over the past week or so, where has your mind been mainly resting?
In effect, what you pay attention to-what you rest your mind on-is the primary shaper of your brain. While some things naturally grab a person’s attention-such as a problem at work, a physical pain, or a serious worry-on the whole you have a lot of influence over where your mind rests. This means that you can deliberately prolong and even create the experiences that will shape your brain for the better.

This practice of growing inner strengths is both simple and authentic. First, look for opportunities to have an experience of the strength. For example, if you are trying to feel more cared about, keep your eyes open for those little moments in a day when someone else is friendly, attentive, including, appreciative, warm, caring, or loving toward you – and let your recognition of these good facts become an experience of feeling cared about, even in small ways. Second, help this experience actually sink into your brain – the good that lasts – by staying with it a dozen seconds or more in a row, helping it fill your body, and getting a sense of it sinking into you as you sink into it.
(My book Hardwiring Happiness gets into the details of this process.)

In essence, growing inner strengths boils down to just four words, applied to a positive experience: have it, enjoy it. And see for yourself what happens when you do.

Rick Hanson is neuropsychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence(in 14 languages), Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 25 languages), Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (in 14 languages), and Mother Nurture: A Mother’s Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, and a Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, his work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, CBC, FoxBusiness,Consumer Reports HealthU.S. News and World Report, and O Magazine and he has several audio programs with Sounds True. His weekly e-newsletter – Just One Thing – has 100,000 subscribers, and also appears on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites. For more information, please see his full profile at

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

10 Stories to Nurture Nature Connection

Last week I had the good fortune to be able to attend a Rosemary Wells talk. She spoke to a packed house of people of all ages at the oldest independent bookstore in my area. (Remember to support our few remaining independent brick-and-mortar bookstores.) She introduced her newest Max and Ruby book, and answered many questions. I am a big Rosemary Wells fan, and even more, I am a lover of children’s books. My last few posts have been about children’s books, and I’m going to do it this one more time. Today I am writing about children’s books that support a connection with nature and the environment. So here are 10 stories to foster connectedness and caring in your young children with the natural world.
The Lorax by Dr. Suess has to be on this list! Published in 1971, long before “going green” was a fad, the Lorax spoke for the trees and warned of the dangers of exploiting the environment. In classic Dr. Suess rhyming style, we meet the Once-ler, who comes to the valley of Truffula Trees and Brown Bar-ba-loots. The Once-ler sets about harvesting the trees and destroying the forest.
Wildflower Tea by Ethel Pochocki and illustrated by Roger Essley.
In this lovely book, we meet an old man who lives alone. Through spring, summer and fall, he is out in nature gathering berries, blossoms and herbs. When November rolls around, he knows it is time to brew his “special tea” from all the gleanings and he sits by his window and watches the snow fall.
Ethel Pochocki developed her passion for books and writing while working at the New York City Public Library. While raising her eight children, she did her writing in the early morning hours.
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr
A girl and her father go out to try and see owls on a moonlit winter night. Dressed warmly, they trudge through snow. The hidden animals watch them pass. Pa makes the Great Horned Owl’s call and they wait for a reply. This story tells of a nightime adventure in wintry nature of a father and daughter. It is told simply, not too many words, and it evokes the feel of a snowy night. Wonderful for the wee, little children.
The Girl in the Golden Bower is another wonderful story by Jane Yolen and is suited for older young children. This fairy tale-like story is suited for the 6 and older crowd. Beautiful illustrations by Jane Dyer add to this wonderful story. I highly recommend this one!
Herman and Marguerite by Jay O’Callahan and pictures by Laura O'Callahan. I first heard this story on the car radio one day. My niece and nephew and I were spellbound. Jay O’Callahan was telling and he quickly became one of my favorite storytellers. He turned this story into a book. 
A shy earthworm and a lonely caterpillar become best friends. Through learning how to believe in themselves, and working together, they sing their dying orchard back into life. 

The Dragon and the Unicorn written and illustrated by Lynne Cherry. Ms. Cherry gives us a story of a princess who learns about the important natural co-dependance in the life of the ancient forest from her friends, a dragon and a unicorn. These two friends love their forest and the peace that abides there. That peace is shattered by men cutting down trees and destroying habitat on behalf of the princess’ father, the king.
The pictures accompanying this story are extremely detailed, and the beautiful borders are filled with even more details. And the characters are depicted with brown skin, an unusual feature that I wish was more common!

The Land of the Blue Flower by Frances Hodgson Burnett The author of The Secret Garden, and many more classic chapter books also wrote a ‘fairy tale’ suited to 6-and-ups. This longer picture book tells us that there is much to learn from the beauty of nature, from the stars and the earth.
Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep by Eleanor Farjeon with pictures by Charlotte Voake. Elsie Piddock is a natural rope-skipper. By the time she’s seven years old, she can even outskip the fairies. When she is 107, she returns to her home town to try and save the children’s beloved skipping grounds from the greedy, factory-building villain. 

River Song by Steve van Zandt with the Banana Slug String Band, illustrations by Katherine Zecca. This story is a song set to pictures. It describes the cycle of water from snow melt into streams, and rivers and eventually to the sea. And it is accompanied by a cd recording of the song.

Two books that I have included in previous posts deserve repeat mention here. In Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, we meet the ‘Lupine Lady.’ who traveled the world, and to make it more beautiful she planted lupines wherever she went.

Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema describes the interconnectedness of life on the African plains, and the mutual dependance on water. This cumulative story is perfect for the little ones!

How about you? Do you have any suggestions for stories that nurture our connection with nature? Please let me know.

Rosemary Wells 
and yours truly.

P.S. I always appreciate it when readers share this blog with their friends.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Stories for Difficult Times

Story works to help us through challenging life situations. Stories can live in our soul and accompany us through the various ups and downs of our life. Stories speak to the heart, and eventually work their way to the head. 

Over the years I have been asked many times how to help young children either prepare for, or deal with, death and illness. Death is a subject our culture tries to avoid. We just don’t want to talk about it. And yet, it is inevitable and simply a part of our life’s cycle. My advice to parents is to speak about death openly when it comes up. Young children certainly do not need details of someone’s illness or passing, but the acknowledgment of death and illness is important in helping the child begin to embrace these aspects of life. 

An effective tool for helping people of any age begin to move through grief and towards a grasp of death is story. For young children there are many wonderful stories depicting life endings and illness in imaginative ways. I think these stories can be read to children at any time, not only when there is a death in the family. That way the child is internalizing the picture or the idea of the cycle of our lives and more prepared when the inevitable occurs. And when there is a loss, these stories can support the grief process. Additionally, a story might offer a vocabulary that you can use with your young child when discussing death and illness - a vocabulary that allows them to live into the pictures rather than an intellectual explanation of what is occurring.

There are tree stories that speak to this theme. Our Tree Named Steve by Alan Zweibel is the story of a beloved tree in the yard of one family that they name ‘Steve.’ “Yes. right there in the center of our yard, this weird looking tree grew to become the center of our outdoor life.” Steve participates in their family life over many years, gets ill and has a visit from the tree doctor and finally comes crashing down in a big storm. 

Gentle Willow by Joyce C. Mills tells the story of a tree that develops a sickness that even the Tree Wizards cannot cure. Beautifully done in language young children can digest, this is a must read for anyone wanting to find ways through the serious illness and dying of loved ones toward an embracing of life and love and change.

Another one is The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. Freddie’s questions and fears about dying are answered by his wise leaf friend Daniel until he eventually feels the peace of being part of nature’s cycle of the seasons and life and death.
At my local public library I found a wonderful book called Thank You Grandpa by Lynn Plourde, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft. It tells the story of a girl and her grandfather who enjoy many walks in nature together over years as Grandpa and the girl get older. He teaches her about gratitude and accepting death as it comes to the creatures of nature. And when Grandpa dies, she walks alone in the forest and knows just how to be thankful for what she and her grandfather shared. This book has beautiful images of nature. It shows the joy grandfather and granddaughter share and their acceptance that death is part of the natural cycle of life. This one is a simple story, not too wordy, that is perfect for young children. 

Butterflies offer us a great opportunity for observing and experiencing transformation. Their life cycle is widely used to help develop a grasp of metamorphosis and renewal, probably because caterpillars are earthbound crawling things, and butterflies are beautiful flying creatures. The difference between the two stages is extreme. 
Prince of Butterflies is written by Bruce Coville with amazing watercolor illustrations by John Clapp. This book seems made with slightly older young children in mind, perhaps 6-years-old and up. It tells the fictional and fantastic story of a boy who loves butterflies and grows up to be a scientist who tries to preserve their habitat. There is a wonderful scene when butterflies come en masse to the then elderly man and take him away on a flight. 

A wonderful tale of aging and dying is The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola. It is a retelling of the legend of a Renaissance era juggler who gets old and eventually gives one last performance - his best ever - and dies knowing the gift of his last performance had made a difference.

There are many more picture books that I think could be helpful on this theme. I’ll just mention a few more:

Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaolo
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
The Story of Jumping Mouse by John Steptoe

A great online resource is the Healing Story Alliance. HSA explores and promotes the use of storytelling in healing. Their goal is to build a resource for the use of story in the healing arts and professions. On their website is an article related to the theme of this post called Seeds, Mirrors, Hands and Keys: Stories to Support Mourning by Gail Rosen. Ms. Rosen takes us through the stages of grief accompanied by story suggestions. Read her article and remember to adapt her suggestions to the developmental level of your young children.

What other books are out there for young children to begin to grasp death and illness? Please comment with your suggestions. This can be so much help for families in need of support during times of grief.

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