Meditate on This

Our daily lives can be busy, chaotic, pressured and stressful. The rigors of work, home and everywhere we go in between wears us on, challenges our performance, tests our patience, taxes our relationships and affects our health and well-being.

Many of us are searching for ways to help reduce stress and disorganization, improve our focus, and calm down enough to regain our emotional and physical footing. Some people exercise, run or walk; others eat, read, nap, pray or chat with friends and family. Many also find that the pursuit of mindfulness – the ability to slow ourselves, focus and truly be present in the moment – is a useful tool for regaining control of our live. And this goal can be achieved successfully, in part, through meditation.

Anyone can practice meditation. It’s simple and inexpensive, and it doesn’t require special gear, clothes or equipment. Spending even a few minutes in meditation daily can help restore our calm and inner peace.

But meditation isn’t a quick fix, like popping a pill, grabbing a cocktail or hitting the gym. It is an ancient practice that helps us live more consciously and frees us from habits, dependencies and activities that we cling to because they’re comfortable and seemingly help us avoid adversity.

“There is peace and harmony in all of us, just as there is joy and sadness. But we’re so preoccupied trying to preserve temporary happiness and run from aversion that we end up getting caught up in an endless cycle of suffering,” explains Bo Gak Sunim, an ordained Buddhist monk and director of Zenfriend, a spiritual guidance and support practice offering meditation instruction, Zen teachings and training.

Sunim draws an analogy between what he calls “mental hygiene” and dental hygiene, explaining that we brush and floss our teeth upon waking and before going to bed as normal routines to prevent tooth and gum decay and bad breath. But we don’t think about practicing mind health in a similar, daily fashion.

Like any other aspect of our long-term health and wellness, meditation is most effective when you establish a regular, formal daily practice, Sunim says. He recommends meditating for at least 10 to 15 minutes twice a day. When meditating, people should sit silently and still on a cushion or chair, focus on their breathing and concentrate on being totally present with each inhalation and exhalation. That includes letting thoughts about your day, places you like, people you know, problems at work or even happy occasions, activities or events to simply come and go.

Meditation is the practice of training the mind to be free from thoughts and feelings of craving and aversion in order to live a more responsive and less reactive life — for oneself and, ultimately, for others. Working with our minds, he stresses, helps us relax enough to see and understand more clearly the anxieties and worries that plague us consciously or unconsciously throughout the day, and provides a responsible and sustainable method for reducing stress.

That’s also because we don’t just finish meditating and then go about our business, Sunim explains. Instead, as we move into our day we need to continue focusing on our breathing, watching our minds, and paying attention to how we constantly make judgments about people, situations and ourselves. It’s clearly healthier, he explains, when we learn to stop telling ourselves stories or denying truths to rationalize unskillful behavior, or act out in ways that help us avoid or deflect conflict or unresolved pain.

“Think of the practice of meditation as a ‘speed bump,’ for the mind,” Sunim says. “By carrying forward mindfulness throughout our day, we slow down.  Instead of suppressing aversion or reacting defensively, we face situations proactively by responding with wisdom, compassion and objectivity.” Practicing this way, he suggests, allows us to catch ourselves, and consciously “reset” so all our daily challenges becomes less onerous.

But, he cautions, we don’t achieve this level of benefit from simply attending a retreat or a class or reading a book. Sunim compares improving mental hygiene to losing weight — we didn’t get heavy (or stressed) overnight, and we won’t free ourselves from what he refers to as ingrained “habit energies” overnight, either.

For anyone interested in learning how to practice meditation, Sunim offers the following tips:

  • Seek a qualified meditation training center. Whether secular or religious, it’s important to work with meditation teachers who can provide specific reference points and useful guidance and instruction. Taking classes with other students also offers access to a valuable community of support and to related holistic and natural practices.
  • Make a commitment to focus on your overall mental hygiene. Try and establish a standard time or times each day to meditate, and don’t deviate from your practice time, as possible. Even if you can only afford 15 minutes a day, carve out that time faithfully and devote yourself to your practice.
  • Carry mindfulness forward throughout your day. The benefits of meditation don’t stop when you stand up and get on with your day. Get in touch with your breathing throughout the day, and observe things and people around you in greater detail, and from a less judgmental view. These actions help slow you down and regain perspective, especially when facing obstacles, challenges or problems.
  • Don’t create unreasonable expectations. Learning to meditate effectively and reaping the rewards that accompany sound mental hygiene take time. If you eliminate expectations, such as how quickly you’ll “see results” or “feel differently,” you’ll benefit more from your practice. This isn’t a quick fix – changing behaviors and establishing a strong regimen of mind training takes time and commitment.
  • Select a teacher you can grow with. There are many people who can help teach us to meditate. But like other coaches, teachers, doctors and associates in our lives, we each have unique needs and learn at different paces. In time you will change and meditation may lead you to other questions about yourself, issues and the world around you. Then you will need a teacher who is versed, trained, intuitive and a good fit for your personal growth.

Integrate meditation and mindfulness practice into your life in a way that is natural and in harmony with your daily schedule. What matters most is that you begin today by taking the initiative to free your mind from stress, and to live life with greater wisdom, compassion and contentment.


Bo Gak Sunim is an ordained Buddhist monk practicing in the Korean Zen tradition, and director of Zenfriend, a spiritual guidance and support practice offering meditation instruction, zen teachings and training. For more information contact him at:


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Got Pain?

Some weeks, everything seems to hurt. One day it’s our backs, the next our hips, then that bum shoulder, agitated stomach or obnoxious headache. Whether through sports, stress, aging, accidents or genetically related gifts, we’re a nation in physical pain:  Americans consume more opiod-related prescription pain medications than anywhere else in the world – close to $9 billion annually – and over-the-counter pain medications fly off the shelves throughout the year.

When it comes to non-prescription pain-relief products, there are dozens to choose from. Most contain aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. These three drugs, as well as naproxen, relieve pain and reduce fever. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen also relieve inflammation. They belong to a class of medications called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).  But knowing which one to take is a combination of trial and error, direction from a physician or health professional, or billions of dollars’ worth of creative advertising.

Like any other medication, whether self-prescribed or suggested by a physician, some work better for certain people and specific conditions, and all carry side effects that can be potentially deadly. So it’s important to know the difference between these common pain killers, and what to watch for in terms of longer-term use.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a drug class that groups together drugs that provide analgesic and antipyretic effects, and, in higher doses, anti-inflammatory effects.

Aspirin is widely used for relieving pain and reducing fever in adults. It also relieves minor itching and reduces swelling and inflammation. Aspirin comes as adult-strength (325 mg) or low-dose (81 mg). In addition to relieving pain and inflammation, aspirin is effective against many other ailments. For example, aspirin taken regularly in low doses may help prevent heart attacks and strokes in certain people.

But because of the danger of side effects and the interactions aspirin may have with other medicines, do not try these uses of aspirin without a doctor’s supervision. Although it seems familiar and safe, aspirin is a very powerful drug. Here are important precautions for aspirin use:

  • Keep all aspirin out of children’s reach. Aspirin increases the risk of Reye syndrome in children. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20 unless your doctor tells you to do so.
  • Aspirin can irritate the stomach lining, causing bleeding or ulcers. If aspirin upsets your stomach, try a coated brand, such as Ecotrin. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist to find out what may work best for you.
  • Because aspirin can increase the risk of bleeding, it is not recommended for new injuries. Take other medicines such as ibuprofen or naproxen for the first two or three days after an injury. If you take a blood thinner (anticoagulant), such as warfarin, or if you have gout, talk to your doctor before you take aspirin.
  • High doses may result in aspirin poisoning (salicylism). To help prevent taking a high dose, follow what the label says or what your doctor told you. Stop taking aspirin and call a doctor if you experience ringing in the ears, nausea, dizziness, or rapid deep breathing.

Ibuprofen (the active ingredient in products such as Advil and Motrin) and naproxen (in products such as Aleve) are other NSAIDs. Like aspirin, these drugs relieve pain and reduce fever and inflammation. Also like aspirin, they can cause nausea, stomach irritation, and heartburn.

Ibuprofen is used to relieve pain from various conditions such as headache, dental pain, menstrual cramps, muscle aches, or arthritis. It is also used to reduce fever and to relieve minor aches and pain due to the common cold or flu. Ibuprofen works by blocking your body’s production of certain natural substances that cause inflammation. This helps to decrease swelling, pain, or fever.

Here are some precautions NSAID users should know:

  • Do not use an NSAID for longer than 10 days without talking to your doctor, and talk to your doctor before taking NSAIDs if you have
    • Ulcers or a history of bleeding in your stomach, or stomach pain, upset stomach, or heartburn that lasts or comes back
    • Anemia, bleeding or easy bruising
    • A habit of drinking more than three alcoholic drinks a day — this increases your risk of stomach bleeding
    • High blood pressure, kidney, liver, or heart disease.

Also talk with your doctor before taking NSAIDs if you use blood thinners, such as warfarin, heparin or aspirin, if you take medicine to treat mental health problems, to decrease swelling (water pills), or if you take medicine for arthritis or diabetes. And if you’re pregnant or may be trying to get pregnant, always check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking a pain reliever.

Acetaminophen (the active ingredient in products such as Tylenol) is an analgesic that reduces fever and relieves pain. It does not have the anti-inflammatory effect of NSAIDS such as aspirin and ibuprofen, nor is it likely to cause stomach upset and other side effects. Acetaminophen is typically used for mild to moderate pain.

Do not take acetaminophen if you have kidney or liver disease, or drink alcohol heavily (three or more drinks a day for men and two or more drinks a day for women).

Finally, before you spend a lot of money on over-the-counter pain killers, note that when you buy pain relievers, generic products are chemically equivalent to more expensive brand-name products, and they usually work equally well.

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Celebrating a Month of Legend, Love, and Sobering Myth

Many celebrations we embrace as children and carry forward into adulthood are often a combination of history, mythology, urban legend, pesky marketing, creative capitalism and wishful thinking. Clearly the most popular and misunderstood of these celebrations is Saint Valentine’s Day, held annually on February 14. But there’s far more than just Valentine’s Day rituals being celebrated in February, and many are worth noting and observing.

To start, Black History Month, or National African American History Month, is an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans, and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history. The event grew out of “Negro History Week,” first designated by historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history.

But the second month of the year also is an acknowledgment of other activities and historical links, some offbeat, some serious. For example, February is Marijuana Awareness Month, National Condom Month, American Heart Month, Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, Oral Hygiene Month, and Grapefruit Month.

On the 12th of February, Diana, the Roman goddess of hunt, was said to spread her protection from the forests near Aricia (her shrine) to the entire world. As a result, those born on this day are said to be highly personable and friendly. The month itself is named after “Februa,” an ancient purification ritual of Rome that took place on February 15th of our calendar.

Additionally, February 16th is the Day of the Devil’s Dance. On this date, a sorcerer of Tibet was called upon to exorcise demons and evil spirits from the local population.

The February birthstone is the Amethyst. Its color is a deep purple, and the ancient Greeks associated this stone with the ability to detoxify an individual. Amethyst comes from the Greek work “amethystos,” which literally translates into “sober.” Ironically, the stone often was made into goblets for drinking wine.

And finally, in an interesting turn of the paper heart, the week prior to Valentine’s Day is called “National Dump Your Significant Jerk Week,” and February 7 – 14 is “Rejection Risk-Awareness Week,” established to raise awareness of issues stemming from dating-related social rejection.

Exploring the “true” story of Valentine’s Day

The roots of Valentine’s Day contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine allegedly defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When his actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. Another account depicts an imprisoned Valentine actually sending the first “valentine” greeting after he fell in love with a young girl — possibly his jailor’s daughter — who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.

At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14th Saint Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.

In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.

So, as we try to pull ourselves out of the winter doldrums, there’s no shortage of days in February to observe, commemorate or celebrate. Whichever you choose, take solace in knowing that the start of spring is barely a month away . . . and that’s certainly worth celebrating!

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Using Social Networks to Promote Health and Wellness

Employers understand that simply trumpeting the benefits of employee wellness programs isn’t enough to guarantee participation. In the digital age, the common wellness textbook for “Leading the Horse to Water 101” has changed. It isn’t enough to just point out the pond and extol the virtues of drinking — you have to help the thirsty find it, convince them it’s healthy, and creatively encourage them to drink from it. And since maps are practically extinct, using GPS – or some form of electronic media – will help guide your audience effectively and efficiently.

While the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that as many as half the employers with 50 or more workers offer some kind of company wellness program, most managers say that engaging employees to participate in these efforts is their greatest challenge. For smaller employers (under 50 employees), proximity may work in their behavior for traditional face-to-face wellness outreach, but employees are busier than ever, multi-tasking like crazy, and often on the run or working remotely.

The solution to reaching everyone more effectively has to include but also extend beyond the workplace. That creates a perfect opportunity for using social media. Even though companies have long frowned on having their employees access the Internet or their personal phones while working, today’s world dictates new rules. And with smart phones and other electronic devices, savvy employers and health benefits companies have 24-hour access to promote healthful programs and activities.

Online social interaction is a way of life in today’s rapidly evolving world. Social communities keep people – and in this case, employees – involved and engaged, both in and out of the workplace. In fact, robust employee wellness programs have long been credited with helping to reduce sick time, improve quality and teamwork, and enhance morale, productivity and retention.

Beyond these positive long-term results, social media also provides the extra motivation employees may need to lose weight, quit smoking, adjust their diets, spend more time exercising and to make other healthy decisions. Sharing goals is a win/win – it’s often more fun to work out, walk or pursue other wellness activities when you do it with friends and coworkers. Positive peer pressure is a strong incentive for change, and utilizing online tools should be part of your strategy as well as the use of posters, questionnaires and “live” information sessions with health and wellness experts.

The social nature of products like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and other popular platforms can be harnessed to help people become more engaged in their wellness programs, and more successful as they try to improve their health. Other ideas that employers can consider implementing are online wellness journals, and discussion groups and progress reports that they can choose to share with friends or other individuals with the same fitness goals.

Here are some practical tips for using online tools and social media to improve health and wellness participation and results:

  • Post regular quizzes, trivia, Q&A sessions, and other interesting educational tools. You can also share helpful resources to navigate screenings, ergonomics and other health-related services provided through your business, or using outside resources.
  • Promote events and activities. Keep employees in the loop about ways they can get actively involved such as classes, news, team marathons or online meet-ups. They can even subscribe to a calendar for the latest updates.
  • Hold friendly contests, such as who can lose the most weight, walk the furthest or visit the gym most often. The competition can be individual or team-based between departments (or even businesses). You can also create daily or weekly challenges in the office, where participants can share their results.
  • Use third-party platforms for a more personalized experience. Third-party apps like FitBit or Keas are great ways to expand employee engagement with integrated sensors, devices, and biometric tracking – all with private access.
  • Create groups or boards. Wellness engagement needs to be long-term, so keeping the dialogue going is crucial. Give your employees space to discuss health issues, share recipes, post updates and more, in the office and online.
  • Offer discounts, recognition, time off, or other rewards. Nothing encourages activity like a great return – so give plenty of public recognition to celebrate employees’ achievements and successes.
  • Share success stories. Workers are more likely to jump on the fitness bandwagon if they can see what others have achieved. Sharing personal accomplishments puts a positive emphasis on each employee’s strengths and potential.
  • Use your resources. If you’re not sure how to begin the wellness conversation on social media, recruit your top internal health advocates to get the ball rolling and to manage your team Chances are your employees are interested, and if encouraged, will take a stronger role in coordinating activities that benefit them, the company, and their associates.

The bottom line is that social media networking can provide strong support for your health and wellness program year round, without adding cost. Through creative incentives and careful management – including a clear use policy and well-defined privacy guidelines – the right networks can transform your current workplace into an active, dynamic social community.

If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!