The Way of the Happy Woman
Living the Best Year of Your Life
By Sara Avant Stover
New World Library Copyright © 2011 Sara Avant Stover
All rights reserved.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
I warn you — if you're looking for complicated, you've come to the wrong place. The Way of the Happy Woman heralds a return to the basics. There's an elegance to simplicity. It brings you to the heart of what really matters. Yet it contains a paradox as well. Being simple can be really difficult — at first. It hurts to change, to let go, and to trade in old, debilitating habits for new, more empowering ones. On the other hand, simplicity can be really easy. It calls you to strip away nonessentials to reveal who you truly are. There's something tremendously light and liberating about living from that place. So while you might feel you need to take many steps to lead the life of your dreams, a core part of you is already there.
You are health. You are happiness. These are your natural states. You already have the answers. You already have inside you everything you've ever wanted or looked for elsewhere. That's why you will find no elaborate rituals or convoluted dogma here. No shoulds or musts. No finish lines or prizes. Your unique process — and what you discover about yourself along the way — is the true reward. This process can get complex, however, since the essence of who you are often gets trampled on and covered over by your doubts, worries, and fears. It also gets denied every time you turn away from your inner wisdom, move too quickly through life, ignore your body, and cut yourself off from nature 's rhythms.
LIVING FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Rushing around, adhering to overflowing schedules, and listening to demands dictated by some outside authority, we ignore our inner wisdom, our innate rhythms, and our intimate connection to nature 's cycles. Instead of being slaves to others' demands, we need to start trusting and living from our own inner impulses. Otherwise, we'll never know how it feels to reside comfortably and confidently in our own skin, sovereign over ourselves.
Envision a woman in your life — past or present — who is at home in herself. How do you feel when she walks into the room? When she sits down next to you? When she speaks to you? Most likely she is not strikingly beautiful in the conventional sense, but her ease of being and the respect that she commands — simply by being authentically herself — make her glow with grace, elegance, and mystery. You too can feel at home. You too can be that woman.
Slowing down, listening, and doing less return us to our basic goodness, and only from there can we emerge stronger, brighter, and, well, happier. To truly survive and flourish as modern women, we need to start living from the inside out. For each time we fail to do so, we lead unfulfilled lives. And our hearts wither. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot.
Make a list of all the things causing you stress right now. Include everything you can think of, big and small. Then, next to each item, write down how that particular stressful situation affects you. For example, if the stressor is "too many emails to answer," then next to it write, "anxiety, shortness of breath, pressure to respond." That's all you need to do — there's no need to find solutions right now. You'll discover plenty of those in the days to come. Simply by naming your sources of stress and how they affect you, you will find more relief and inner spaciousness.
Take Claire, for example. She's married, raising a three-year-old, building a business, seeing clients, and running her family's household. She often stays up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning to get her work done after her family has gone to sleep, only to wake up a few hours later to the cries of her little girl. Mentally foggy and physically exhausted, she 's too tired to exercise and instead turns to coffee and sugar to keep her going. Her hormones get out of whack, she gains weight, she feels ashamed of and disconnected from her body, and her mood swings intensify. All these things cause a riff in her marriage. She's stuck in an endless cycle of trying to do so much for others that she has no energy to take care of herself and each day grows more angry, depressed, depleted, and resentful. Sound familiar?
Like Claire, we can feel controlled by our minds and are often afraid of our feelings. We manipulate, coerce, and curse our bodies until we break down. For some women, this struggle looks extreme; for others it's a subtle inner battle of vague discontent. But it doesn't have to be this way. We can take our health and happiness into our own hands simply by remembering who we truly are — deeply intuitive, spiritual beings intimately connected to the rhythms and cycles of nature. And the first step is simply to look inside and welcome what you find there.
THE POWER OF JOURNALING
My journals have been some of my best friends during the past two decades. Stacks of them reside in my home, and each one chronicles major milestones in my life: my first love, my first heartbreak, my first year in college, dips into depressions, euphoric expansions, new homes, world travel, and so much more. Writing in my journal has been a crucial means of developing an intimate trust in my inner wisdom and an outlet to freely process uncensored emotional distress that otherwise I would have held captive in my body.
Even when you're not going through extreme life changes, journaling offers a useful way to examine the intersection between your inner and outer worlds daily. This process can't just happen mentally. A transformation occurs when you meet the page with your pen and your words flow. A wise witness emerges from within you — the one who can extract the insights and magic from whatever you're presently living through and help you to see how to apply them. Here resides an important ingredient in reclaiming your creativity. I found the courage to write this book only after doing Julia Cameron's twelve-week creativity recovery plan, as described in The Artist's Way, and committed to write at least three handwritten pages in my journal each day. When you journal, even if it's just a page before bed each night, a deeper part of you can come forth and share her voice. She's not your mind. She's your soul. And she holds the key to your truest happiness.
Dr. Christiane Northrup, women's health pioneer and author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom and The Secret Pleasures of Menopause, advocates regular journaling and employs it with thousands of women in their journeys to greater health and happiness in all stages of life. Since emotional distress rests at the root of most women's physical and psychological ailments, no woman can afford to live without this simple yet tremendously potent self-reflective tool.
You do need a journal for this journey we'll take together. If you don't have one, take a trip to your favorite stationery store to buy a journal that reflects you. It doesn't have to be fancy: I usually spend less than four dollars on mine and get simple spiral-bound notebooks with colors and designs that appeal to me. Write your name inside, and add the date too, since it's fun to go back years (or even a few months) later and marvel at how much you've grown.
To help get you started, here are a few examples of topics you can write about in your journal:
The three possible times during my day when I'm likely to have twenty to thirty minutes to write in my journal are:
Some things that are on my mind right now that I haven't had the time or space to talk to anyone about are:
Out of those things, the one I'm feeling most called to explore in my journal right now is:
The three main emotions that I feel about this situation, and where I feel those in my body, are [Example: "I feel fear in my belly."]:
Two concrete ways that I can better support myself with this include [Example: "To take a time-out, lie on my back, place my hands on my belly, and take some deep breaths."]:
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
The more you connect with yourself in meaningful ways, such as journaling, the more you'll realize one of life 's most basic, beautiful truths: we are all connected. But even more, we really do need one another. When we live in hurried isolation we deny the feminine values that heal and inspire us: connection, collaboration, inclusiveness, nurturance, generosity, expressiveness, and playfulness. According to Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, after only eight weeks in utero, the neurons in our brains morph to generate these qualities by developing the areas that govern communication and emotion (while the neurons in male brains concentrate more on the areas of sex and aggression).
When you dare to make a deeper connection with yourself and other women, you play a pivotal role in resuscitating the medicine of feminine wisdom in your family, your community, and your world.
Helen came to one of my red tent mini-retreats a few years ago. These red tents are three-hour women's yoga and meditation retreats to offer solace, rest, insight, and community in the midst of our busy lives. A successful businesswoman, Helen spends a lot of time traveling, leading high-powered meetings, and sealing top-dollar deals. She started coming to the red tent retreats because she was tired of always being in control and longed to reconnect with her femininity. On retreat, she sat in a circle of women and could finally feel safe enough to let down her guard. When she did, tears spilled down her cheeks. She felt such relief at being able to relax into her softness and the vulnerability that came from telling people the truth about how she felt. Finally, she could reveal her deep need and desire to feel supported and received for who she is, rather than for what she does.
Ask yourself: What do I need help with right now? What are my basic needs each day? What do I have to do to keep my life functioning? What do I need to do to keep my spirit alive? How much sleep do I need to feel good? How much alone time? What foods make me feel good? What activities truly energize and inspire me? What brings me bliss?
Then ask: How many of these needs can I realistically meet on my own? Who can I ask to help me with the rest? A girlfriend, spouse, family member, coach, therapist, neighbor, masseuse, coworker, employee? One of the best ways to plug into an instant support system is through joining or starting a women's circle. For millennia women's circles have been safe, nonjudgmental havens. In these circles women gather together to create, celebrate, grieve, and grow. If you're not already part of such a group, you can visit www.The WayoftheHappyWoman.com to find a group near you, join our online Virtual Women's Circle, or learn how to start one.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT VS. TEND AND BEFRIEND
Our nervous systems function on two different levels — sympathetic, or "fight or flight," and parasympathetic, or "tend and befriend." Every woman needs to know how to move from the former to the latter, regularly. Quickened breathing, pulse, and heart rates, cued by the rapid release of the stress hormones, characterize the sympathetic response. When we live on adrenaline our bodies go berserk: hormones get out of whack, metabolism slows, sleep gets erratic, blood sugar levels go haywire, and moods swing. This is the stressful state most of us live in today and from which disease grows.
However, when the parasympathetic response, also known as "rest and digest," kicks in, the exact opposite — healing — happens. Your respiratory and heart rates slow down, circulation returns to the organs in the core of the body (which helps digestion), and your whole system finds a sense of ease. Ideally, we'd live from this place most of the time — until we encountered a serious threat that required us to take action. Our bodies find their innate equilibrium when they're in the parasympathetic mode and feel-good hormones such as oxytocin (most often associated with inducing uterine contractions, the letdown of milk, and mother-infant bonding during the birth process) flood through us.
Nicknamed "the love hormone," oxytocin offers benefits that extend far beyond childbirth. Many of the health benefits we associate with everyday pleasurable experiences and strong social connections start with oxytocin, for it decreases stress hormones and helps lower blood pressure. Oxytocin is released in the brain even in response to engaging in any activity that brings you joy and to hugging, kissing, and simple touching like holding someone's hand.
The benefits of the love hormone in women continue to be discovered. A UCLA study revealed that when women are under stress and gather for support, the tend-and-befriend response kicks in and oxytocin is secreted, helping to curb the fight-or-flight response. In short, science now supports what girlfriends have always known. We need one another.
Every day, as much as possible, encourage the release of oxytocin in your body through connecting with others and doing things that bring you pleasure, for embodied delight is one of the most potent medicines you can give yourself.
As women, we're hardwired to gather and to "tend and befriend." So this year (and the next and the next), try reaching out. See what happens when you stop being the giver all the time. Ask for help. Receive it! You are not alone.
REDEFINING HEALTH, HAPPINESS, AND BALANCE
We all have certain feelings, body parts, or aspects of our lives that are uncomfortable to face. But it's in turning toward, rather than away from, what we most fear that we come alive and own our true power. And that's what this is all about: being present for what's right in front of you, as if it's the most important thing in the world — because it is. When you do this, even if you're sick or disabled, you can still be healthy because you're living in alignment with the way things are. Living in such a way generates an inner glow that's infectious. My grandmother, who died at the age of ninety-one, lived this way. She hardly ever exercised or ate anything green, but she exuded an inner light and childlike joy because she was gratified by her life and was always surrounded by people she loved. Envision someone you know who exercises every day, eats only organic foods, and has a to-die-for wardrobe but who sulks and never smiles. Sure, outer habits do matter a great deal, but ultimately health's an inner state of being. It's the ability to be with yourself and with whatever life brings you. It's having an openhearted presence and a willingness to trust that whatever's in the way is the Way.
Another word for the kind of happiness I am describing is contentment. It's about being at ease with life 's highs and lows. It's broadening your spectrum of feeling. Instead of playing it safe in the land of monotonous gray, you're engaging the whole rainbow of emotions, from red to purple, by trusting that everything you're experiencing will change, and, that, through it all, you will be okay. When you let happiness be an overall state of being that doesn't depend on your moods or your circumstances, you empower yourself to find the good in every situation. Each bump on your path provides an opportunity to discover your true happiness. Think about the major crises in your life. What gifts did they bring you? Now, reflect on some smaller mishaps from earlier today or this week (you broke your favorite dish, got in a fight with your partner, or spilled coffee on your blouse). Even those mishaps hold lessons for you when you're willing to look (how to let go of things you love, how to do what's right without needing to be right, and how to not take yourself so seriously). Those lessons are the building blocks for lasting happiness.
Even if you don't consider yourself a "happy person," that can change (take it from someone whose childhood heroines were Sylvia Plath and Anne Frank!). A daily focus on what we're grateful for, on what's working, and on pleasure-inducing activities (sleeping and eating well, exercising, relating with others, having sex), can help change your happiness set point. But it takes effort. There's nothing spontaneous and magical about happiness. You have to develop it, participate in it, and knead it like bread in order to feast on it.
Last, you need to think about balance differently. And by balance I don't mean deftly juggling all the balls in your life — relationships, career, family, health, finances, spirituality — without fumbling or dropping any of them. That kind of balance is a fallacy. Instead, I mean two things: slowing down and synchronizing with nature 's rhythms to restore your inner state of homeostasis and getting clear about your main priorities and structuring your life accordingly. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Way of the Happy Woman by Sara Avant Stover. Copyright © 2011 Sara Avant Stover. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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