Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Are We Wasting Time in Prayer?

            I hope that title grabbed your attention. No, I don’t think praying is a waste of time. But, perhaps how Christians go about praying is a waste of time.
            To hear some Christians speak of prayer, you’d think they were climbing the ramparts of hell—climbing those ramparts with flaming swords in their hands. You’d think they were glorious paladin in glistening white robes. Or, hunkered down in their prayer rooms, praying unceasingly for hours—hours upon hours, on their knees as mighty warriors—prayer warriors, lobbing spiritual cannonballs at the enemy. The Evangelical community has painted prayer in such romantic terms—and people that spend hours in prayer are seen as untouchable, far above any level of spiritual maturity that most of us can obtain.
            But, maybe we need to quit buying into this hype about the prayer warrior. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with prayer, but maybe we’ve made it seem too arduous. What did Jesus say on this matter? Consider Matthew 6:5-13, “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”
            Seems Jesus’s example is short, simple, and to the point. There’s no glorious pontification. There’s no detailed breakdown of every little detail of a person’s sin. There’s no lengthy laundry list of needs.

            God does want us to pray. But, maybe we’ve turned it into something grandiose, when God wants simplicity. Perhaps we’ve turned prayer into a ritual. And, when it becomes that, maybe it is a waste of time.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

How to Grow a Great Writer’s Group

            I am involved in a great writer’s group. But, why is it so great? Is there some magic formula? Can it be duplicated? Before we answer those questions, let’s join my dad in his garden.
            As a kid, I remember dad in his garden behind our house. He began the garden by tilling the soil with a John Deere rototiller. Yes, it was green and yellow. After preparing the soil, dad planted the seeds; or, in some cases seedlings, and the garden began to grow.
            The garden was in a nice, sunny spot in our backyard. At times, dad watered the garden. Dad’s favorite veggie was the tomato—red and ripe, picked straight from the vine. As a kid, my brother and I were enlisted to help rid the garden of tomato worms—fat, green caterpillars that gnawed the growing plants. We were given a nickel a worm, so it was a big deal!
            Dad never built a tomato plant. We never heard him in the garage sawing away, carefully crafting the stalk. We never saw him drilling holes in the side to install the branches. He never spun a mater on a lathe. Growing tomatoes doesn’t involve building. It involves tending—creating conditions conducive to growth. When the conditions are right, the tomatoes grow—each in their own unique, organic way.
            The same is true of a writer’s group. It can’t be built. It has to be tended. It’s more gardening than carpentry, because a great writer’s group is organic. It’s more of an organism than it is an organization. Let’s look at some of the conditions that help a writer’s group to grow.
            Leadership from among rather than above. For a group to be successful, there has to be leaders. Someone needs to schedule meetings and provide some organizational structure.
My group recently put together an anthology. We needed editors, and I was one of those.
We’ve had some training seminars. I’ve conducted one, but other members have also gotten involved.
The group definitely has leaders, but no one is preeminent. There isn’t a hierarchy. We’re all equals, and at times different members lead. When people lead, they provide just enough direction to keep things on track, but the ego doesn’t get in the way. A great deal of the success for the group comes from the fact that early on a core of people came together who all had the ability to lead without dominating—to lead from among as opposed to leading from above.
            Genuine love rather than critical spirits. This is another component that can’t be built. You can’t plan it, saw it, nail it, or blueprint for it. The only thing you can do is love others and hope the spirit catches. The people in my group genuinely want to help each other and see each other achieve their best.
            The opposite of love would be a critical spirit. From the get-go, our founder decided we were going to focus on the positives. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for looking at a piece of writing with a critical eye. We don’t do that, but I can see how it would be helpful. What is never helpful is a critical spirit.
            The focus on the positives may seem counterintuitive. Don’t we learn from our mistakes? If a teacher doesn’t put red marks on the page, how do we know what to improve? But, even without the “red marks”, I see the writers in our group improving. That happens, because everyone feels free to share. With that freedom comes the opportunity of hearing golden words. We hear people’s best, and those “golden words” often reside at the level of genius. The growth is coming not from anyone trying to avoid the red marks, but because everyone is being drawn towards the golden words of those around them.
            Unique voices rather than Xeroxed mindsets. We allow everyone in our group to be unique and we embrace that uniqueness. Sure, we have people that admire certain authors. Flannery O’Connor has received several nods from one member in our group, but I won’t mention names. You know who you are! One of the members in our group has a writing style that reminds me of Douglas Adams. However, as a group, we’re not promoting someone trying to become a Steven King, or a John Grisham. I was involved in a group that was a writer’s group, but the group was being diluted, because they were also a pseudo-fan club for a given author. People were more concerned with trying to emulate him than finding their own voices. Our group seeks out each individual’s voice.
            Faith rather than fear. Every so often, we have a new person wander into our group. After they hear a few people read, they’re sometimes intimidated to share. We don’t make people share, but we’re receptive to everyone being involved. On several occasions, a new person has said something to the effect, “I’m not sure I should read something of mine. You guys are so good!”
            As a teacher, I know how damaging fear can be. Fear shuts down the creative process. So, how do we overcome fear? Hopefully I won’t get too religious, but the Bible says that perfect love casts out fear. Now, no one in our group is perfect, but there is a genuine love. That love is palpable. People open up in that type of atmosphere. Often, when that new person opens up, golden words roll off their tongue.
            I think the opposite of fear is faith. My group has faith. We have faith that each person in the group is special. We have faith that everyone has something to say—and, their own unique way of saying it. We also have faith that the new person coming in the door has something to share—something we need to hear. At times what we experience is more uplifting than a church service. And, since we’re open to everyone sharing whatever they want, there’s often a more colorful use of language than you’d hear from the pulpit!
            Open interaction rather than closed mind. We’ve all met a closed-minded person—one who is always right and sees the world in black and white. Such a person is social cyanide—poisoning everything around them. We don’t have any person like that in our group, which allows us to have completely open interactions. I’m not sure what we’d do if someone like that became involved. I highly suspect such a person wouldn’t stay long. They simply wouldn’t fit it.
            Now, let’s go back to the garden. Dad grew those tomatoes by picking a sunny spot, tilling the soil, watering the plants, and picking off the tomato worms. He tended his tomatoes and they were great. What we’ve done as a writer’s group is to tend the group—by demonstrating leadership from among, by showing genuine love, by looking for and cherishing each person’s unique voice, by having a genuine faith that each person has something special to sharing, and by allowing open interaction.
            Just as no two tomatoes are the same, no two writer’s group will be the same. But, there are certain conditions conducive to growth. You can’t build a writer’s group. You can only tend it and allow it to express itself—in its own unique, organic way.            

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Overcoming Seasonal Affective Disorder

            When falls turns into winter and the skies become grey, do you lack energy and motivation? Do you find it hard to find your get-up-and-go when there are several cloudy days in a row? Do you feel more alive on a bright, sunny day? You might be struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder. If so, I’ll share what I’ve found that helps. I’m not a doctor, so you’d be wise to talk to a medical professional.

WHAT IS SAD (SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER)

            Your eyes have special cells that detect light called light sensitive ganglia. They are separate from your rods and cones. The rods and cones help you see. The light sensitive ganglia help to establish your body’s rhythm. They help to flip the switch in your brain—the switch between a sleepy, hibernating state; and an alert, fully-awake state.
            Your brain has a “day brain” and a “night brain”. Or, you might think of these as an “awake brain” and a “sleepy brain”. The chemistry in your brain is different in these two states. Throughout the course of 24-hours, your brain transitions between these two states.
            It’s the light sensitive ganglia that help flip the switch between these two different brain states. When the ganglia don’t receive enough light or the right kind of light, which happens in winter, the brain doesn’t fully wake up. This can also happen to someone who works inside too much—without access to proper lights or windows. While it’s normal and healthy to have a sleepy brain during the night, when one needs to sleep, when the brain is in sleepy-mode too often, you begin to feel sluggish, anxious, and antisocial. You may lack drive. You may also have food cravings, put on weight easily, and find it hard to find the energy to exercise.
            Too much of this sleepy brain is hard on the body. It’s a stress that impacts the adrenal systems in your body. During stressful times, the adrenal glands kick in to give you a boost of energy. That’s fine short-term, but long-term they can become stressed, leading to a further lack of energy, weight gain, anxiety, and a general decline in health. If you live in a particularly dreary climate (or don’t receive adequate light a good percent of the time), you may find SAD impacts you year round—even though it’s worse during certain times of the year.

THE SAD PATTERN

            In general, SAD has a yearly pattern. The most common pattern is that during the sunnier months of late spring to early fall, you’ll feel better—sometimes significantly more balanced and energetic. During late fall to early spring, you’ll feel down—probably feeling the worst during the dark days of December and/or January. You may also notice that even during the summer, you just don’t have the same energy when there are several cloudy days in a row.
            Some people with SAD experience an opposite pattern. They feel best during the darker months, and worse during the summer. During the summer, they may experience anxiety and deep depressions. It’s my belief this is because the adrenal glands are working hard during those dark months to give the person energy. Some people like the feeling of running on adrenaline. But, after a while, the adrenal glands run out of juice, and during the summer the person feels down, because the adrenal glands are in a depleted state.

TREATING WITH LIGHT THERAPY

            A common treatment for SAD is light therapy. Since the main cause is a lack of proper light, a key solution is light. There are several factors that impact light therapy including: intensity of light, wavelength or light, length of treatment, and timing of light. There are several devices that can help provide the light your body is lacking, including: dawn simulators, light boxes, and light visors.
            Light intensity is the first factor to consider. Offices, homes, and factories often contain insufficient light to provide the stimulus to the light sensitive ganglia to wake the brain up. Light intensity is measured in lux. The standard for treatment is 10,000 lux (although full sunlight can be more than 10 times that amount). When you choose a device to help with SAD, you need to consider that the light intensity decreases as the distance from the light source increases. A device that produces 10,000 lux at 8 or 16 inches isn’t going to be as effective (or may have no effect) at greater distances.
            When choosing a light therapy product, be sure it is UV free. Also, be sure it produces enough lux at the distance you’ll be using it.
            The most common device to help with SAD is called a light box. It’s exactly what it sounds like—a device that produces a high intensity light. Some of these look more like a desk or floor lamp. Some look like a box that is meant to placed on a table or desk near the person. You don’t stare into the light box. You place the light box to your side (or with some devices overhead) where the light is indirectly reaching the eyes. One that I’ve found to be effective is called the Aurora LightPad Mini made by Alaska Northern Lights. This can be purchased for about $200 on Amazon.com. It’s about the size of an iPad Mini, and produces 10,000 lux at 25 inches. The amount of light it produces for its size is phenomenal.
            The only downfall of 10,000 lux is that it’s quite bright. You might find it hard on your eyes. If that’s the case, there is another solution. Several light therapy devices produce blue spectrum light—similar to the color of a clear, blue sky in the middle of day. The light sensitive ganglia are more sensitive to this wavelength of light, so the theory is that it requires less intensity to have the same effect. Philips makes a device called the GoLITE BLU Energy Light. The rechargeable version costs about $130, and the plug-in around $100 on Amazon.com. I have the rechargeable version, and find the blue light it produces does give a boost in energy.
            Another device that I’ve found helpful is called the Feel Bright Light Portable Light Therapy Device. It’s a rechargeable device that connects to the visor of a ball cap. It shines blue-spectrum light into the eyes. The biggest advantage is it allows the user to receive light therapy while moving around. There are two main disadvantages. It is quite bright, so it tends to wash out other light sources. If the surroundings aren’t well lit, it can be somewhat difficult to see. The other downfall is that it looks goofy. If you wear it in public, people are going to wonder why you have beams of blue light glimmering down on your eyes. This product can be found for around $150 on Amazon.com.
            The three devices I’ve mentioned are all highly rated. They are also small enough to use while traveling. Some of the light therapy devices are quite large.
            Besides intensity and wavelength, the other factors for treatment are the length of time, and the timing of treatment. You’ll find the various treatments often advertise short lengths of time—15, 30, or 60 minutes. While I have found short treatments useful, I find I do best when I have light during most of the day—whether that comes from a device or natural sunshine.
            For me light therapy works best when I’m on some sort of consistent schedule—generally waking up and going to bed at the same time, and starting and stopping light between the same general time frame every day. You don’t want to use light therapy before a normal waking hour. You might find it causes insomnia. You may also need to be careful not to use any kind of light therapy within several hours of bedtime. During the night hours, you want things to be dark. You may find it helpful to avoid reading lamps, bright lights, or watching a TV or monitor too late at night. You’ll have to experiment a little and find out what works best for you—but in general, you’ll want things bright during the day and dark during the night.
            For some people, light therapy can aggravate other conditions—such as bipolar disorder. You may find too much may make you jittery. Each person is a little different, so you’ll have to find out what works for you.

DAWN SIMULATOR

            A dawn simulator is an alarm clock that simulates the light of early morning. Over a period of time, it gently increases light intensity. I have found it wakes me up much more gently than a blaring alarm. It seems to help establish a more natural body rhythm, which is healthy for the body. The one I use is made by Philips and can be purchased on Amazon.com for around $120.

VITAMIN D

            You body produces vitamin D when sunlight hits your skin. During the winter months, vitamin D levels can plummet. This may also be true for people who spend quite a bit of time inside. I find that a vitamin D supplement does help some.

HERBAL SUPPLEMENTS

            You’ll need to be careful with herbal supplements, because they can interact with prescribed medications. So, talk with your doctor. The prime herbal supplement to help with SAD is St. John’s Wart. It helps elevate mood. Some people also mention SAM-E.

NEGATIVE ION GENERATOR

            Negative ion generators give air molecules a negative charge. These negative ions are found in nature in abundance near the ocean or near waterfalls. There has been some research that suggest they are helpful to treating SAD, although I haven’t found a good explanation why. Some people have concerns with negative ion generators that produce ozone, so if you want to purchase one, I’d suggest doing your research first. They do give the air a fresh scent. I purchased one called the Sani-Mate Plug-In Ionic Air Purifier for about $35. I do think it is mildly helpful, but it wouldn’t be my first line of defense for fighting off SAD.

MOVING TO A SUNNIER CLIMATE

            One option in treating SAD is moving to a sunnier climate. I didn’t even realize I suffered from SAD until after I lived a few years in Pensacola, Florida. I’ve lived most of my life in Northeast, Ohio. When I was in Florida, I became a different person. I was more energetic. My thinking was clearer. My body went through huge, positive changes. Before that time, I never knew someone could feel that healthy.
            After moving back to Ohio, I was fine for several years. Then, I began to return to my old self. I started to fatten up and get sluggish. It took a while for me to put the pieces together and realize the problem. I can see that I’m two very different people. When my SAD is under control, I’m more energetic, have more physical stamina, think clearer, have more drive, and am generally a happier person. When my SAD is dragging me down, I’m sluggish, anxious, have periods of depression, and just have a hard time getting myself going.

DIET AND EXERCISE

            Just as with any other physical malady, moderate exercise and a sensible diet should be part of the treatment regimen. I’ve found that as I’m discovering how to get my SAD under control, I’m gaining more willpower to eat right. SAD does produce food cravings. I’m also finding I have more energy to workout.

COUNSELLING AND MEDICINE

            Counselling and medicine (sometimes separately or in conjunction) are also common treatments for SAD. I’ve never tried those therapies, since I prefer more natural routes.

SUMMARY

            From my experience, my first line of defense against SAD would be moving to a sunny climate. I haven’t found anything that replaces natural sunlight. My second line of defense would be light therapy and a dawn simulator. Those two treatments in combination provide considerable relief. If they don’t work, you’re probably either not getting enough intensity of light, or you’re not getting enough time of regular treatment. I don’t find the times recommended (usually 15-60 minutes) enough to alleviate the problem. Those amounts of time do seem to help, but for me more light is better. I would consider vitamin D therapy, diet, and exercise as the third line of defense. Certainly, diet and exercise would be the first line of defense for general health, but for treating SAD, at least in my case, it doesn’t seem as effective as getting adequate light. I would place herbal supplements and negative ion generators as a fourth line of defense. I do think they help a little, but not near as much as other treatments. I would consider counseling and medicine as the last line of defense (at least for me). SAD does cause huge changes in brain chemistry, so for some people those treatments might be essential.

            I hope what I’ve shared can help. Those people that suffer from SAD know how miserable it can be. For some people, it can be debilitating. For other people, a dreary climate or the darker days of winter have little impact. I hope this short blog can help ease the suffering of someone impacted by SAD.