In this exercise, you identify your key attributes, explore how these attributes come into play when you're at your best, and consider how you can bring them to play now and in the future. Perhaps this seems simple. After all, I know who I am. I know my strengths...or do I? As it turned out, this was a very impactful exercise for me. Laying out my core attributes on paper and getting clear about them felt very concrete, like I know what I'm dealing with. Here are some ways that this was helpful for me.
When we take time to reflect, we make meaning out of the experiences of our life. We learn from ourselves, and we take a moment to mark, to acknowledge what has happened and who we are becoming. We marinate, we celebrate. Reflection is a type of alchemy that turns everyday life into learning, growth, and transformation. We say, "Ah-ha! Now I see!"
A while ago, I wrote this poem about grief. I just came across it and found that it still feels true, so I wanted to share. As Mary Oliver wrote, "Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on..." We're in this together.
I have a sense of the types of practices that help me. And yet there are times when I find it really hard to keep consistency. The very times when I MOST need these practices in my life, the times when I am MOST in need of the peace, grounding, and strength that they give me, are the times when it feels like like I have no time or energy to do them. I had the thought that I would like to see what it feels like to live in my optimum state. What would it feel like to be taking care of my mind, body, and spirit in ways that are healthy and beneficial...and sustainable?
I am drawn to (driven to?) productivity, as many of us are. It comes through our culture, this emphasis on doing, doing, doing. It feels good then, to be productive and to accomplish a lot in a day. It feels gratifying, as if all of this doing means something. If I dig way down deep, achieving seems to mean that I am enough-- good enough, hardworking enough. At the same time, this can feel like a kind of tyranny-- that I MUST accomplish a lot, and if not, it could mean that I failed in some way. But what if I’m tired? What if I’m not feeling well?
Now I use this as a practice not just of the body, but of the mind and heart. Can I listen to my own body? Can I honor my own strengths, needs, and limitations? With back, shoulder, and knee tenderness, I am always modifying the poses, shortening them, sometimes doing a totally different pose that feels right at the moment.
I feel sometimes like I have been given a ten-speed again. Opportunities come my way that are justout my my comfort zone, that I need to really stretch to meet. My emotions go all over the place-- gratitude, fear, excitement, anxiety, overwhelm, and then the guilt of feeling negative feelings at all, when clearly opportunities are GOOD!
At first I felt a little guilty about this-- as if I was building protection against someone. But actually, it is simply for me, in support of me and my own energy. Rather than feeling this shield as a barrier between me and the person I'm interacting with, I walk into the situation feeling whole and safe already. This allows me to interact fully and warmly, without holding back for fear of being overtaken or attacked.
That swim seems to me like a miniature model of life. Anxiety crescendos and decrescendos; joy alights and then flies away. Grief goes on and on; overtaking me for a time and then lying low. Those anchovies are still out there somewhere in the ocean; sometimes they're all I can see, and sometimes the water is clear. Things come and then they go.
It’s been quite a while since I have written here. For me, writing is thinking, and I often feel that if I am not writing I am not processing my thoughts and my life on as deep a level. Writing is like pulling on a piece of yarn that’s sticking out of a tangled mess-- I start to see where things are caught up, I pause to figure out the situation, and little by little, some clarity appears. Without the writing, it can feel like I am just pushing the ball of yarn around, moving around it. So while it is certainly ok that I haven’t written lately, I’d prefer to have a more regular writing practice. So here I am. My schedule has been so packed lately, and I have been doing well just to keep stretching and meditating a few minutes a day. When I quit my big full-time job, it meant taking on multiple smaller jobs, and this was new for me-- each day is different, and lately most days are just a bit too full. Teaching, taking an online class, pet-sitting, coordination/administration… all separate pieces.
I have to say first of all that I am grateful, because I am. When I sit back and think of it, I am so grateful to myself for quitting my job when I understood that it was not the right fit for me. It was a scary decision, but I did it! And then I am so grateful for all of the other things that have popped up for me to do, the opportunities that people gave me-- it is a blessing to be busy, especially when I was afraid that I would just be happy and very poor. :)
I’m grateful for change and the opportunity to experiment with my habits and my work. As the summer ends, my situation is changing. Some jobs are ending; some new jobs and trainings are beginning. I have the opportunity to set up my schedule for the next few months in a way that will work better for me. I’ve learned a couple of things from the last few months:
Don’t say yes to everything out of fear that I will not have enough. If I say yes to every work opportunity because I’m scared of not having enough money, I risk not having enough time and peace of mind to function sustainably. I need to carefully consider each option against my goals and needs, and trust my gut when it’s time to say no.
Carve out care-giving time for myself. For me, this means taking care of my mind by meditating and writing, and taking care of my body by doing yoga and being active outside. Those are the basics, and there is not really an exception to this like, “except when I’m really busy.” When I’m really busy, it is even more important to take care of myself. I’ve often heard the quote, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes everyday-- unless you're too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” While I haven’t managed to sit for an hour lately, I am definitely learning that when I am busy with work it is tempting to let everything else fall by the wayside, yet that’s actually the worst thing for me.
Know myself. It is often small things that make a difference, and knowing more about my preferences helps me to be happier. I can do the exact same activities, but if they are sequenced poorly for my work-style and personality, it can make things feel unmanageable. For example, do I want to get up and out of the house early every day or should some days start a little more slowly? Do I need to pack some days very full in order to have one weekday at home? If I have one day at home, what do I want to do with it, and will I really do that?
With all this in mind, I am crafting my schedule carefully. There are engagements that are set and unchangeable, and other elements that I can schedule carefully to make this work for me. I am scheduling in specific time for writing, time for studying and working on my online class. I am scheduling large blocks of work time for myself, and I now know that I need to have specific tasks on my agenda so that I will actually use those blocks of time.
I know that not everyone is a freelancer or a part-timer, or whatever I am right now-- someone who has a bunch of small jobs and tasks that they can experiment with. But I’m pretty sure that we all have at least tiny choices that we can make in order to make things feel a little better, a little healthier and more sustainable, even more joyful! What are those things for you?
How much of our life is spent on attachment? On wanting good things to stay? On holding tightly? On wanting what is good not to end? I posted recently about swallows on the lake near my apartment. These swallows are one of my joys in life. They are active much of the day, but especially in the evening, when they dive and swoop about catching insects in the air and just above the surface of the water.
Just imagine them in the golden hour as the sun is going down, chasing each other around and over the lake. They move quickly and are so agile in flight that they can dive and shift directions in an instant, which is part of what makes them so fascinating to watch. If you stand on one of the bridges over the lake, the swallows come in so close flying over, under, and along the bridge. This makes it easier to actually see them, and the little birds are just beautiful! Elegant forked tails, orange-y bellies, deep sparkling blue backs. As near as I can tell, there are two or three types: barn swallows, cliff swallows, and maybe tree swallows, but I’m a very amateur birdwatcher, so there could be other species that I can’t identify.
I love to walk around the lake and pause frequently to watch the swallows doing acrobatics in the golden beams. It is so idyllic and so beautiful that I want more and more. I want to see the birds more closely; I want to capture it-- not capture a bird, but the whole scene and the whole feeling of it-- the light, the gentle breeze, the smell of lake, and the graceful flight. I have tried on many occasions to do so-- using binoculars to try to watch the birds up close (they are much too fast for this to work), making a video on my phone (somehow they are as small as specks and not at all impressive), and taking photo upon photo of nothing much, since they fly quickly past the frame as I tap, tap, tap.
I wonder about this urge to keep, hold, capture. I don’t want to demonize it-- sometimes the urge is simply to be able to share the moment and the beauty with others. Taking photos of things can seem distracting, but it sometimes is another form of mindfulness-- taking note of a flower, coming in close to it, catching it in just the right light. But at the same time, I can see how attachment robs some of the joy from a moment. The moment that I turn from, “oh how lovely as I watch these amazing creatures!” to “jeez, why are they so fast, why can’t I capture what I’m seeing?!” is a moment that makes a tight, swallow-like dive from joy and wonder to annoyance and disappointment.
Does anyone else know this swoop away from joy? How about, “Oh how peaceful to be camping!” and immediately after, “We need to do this more regularly. What’s wrong with us that we love to camp and haven’t done it in a year?!” Or “The weekend was so relaxing!” and then “Why can’t we have just one more day?!” Basically, “I have got something precious!” followed by “More! I want more of it, and I don’t want it to end!” Reduce it like that, and it seems childish, like a kid who doesn’t want to go to bed.
I want to observe this instinct in me, with the hope of not always moving so quickly to attachment. To see my joy swinging in midair and to simply watch it, to note it and appreciate it, perhaps even appreciate it more for the knowledge that it cannot be held down. I’ve decided that from now on, the swallows are flying just for me (and whoever else happens to be there in the flesh). I’ll stand still in wonder, nothing more. This is a precious occurrence, and no more will I turn wonder to disappointment through attachment...at least where swallows are concerned.
This weekend we saw “Inside Out,” the new Pixar movie that’s kind of about a child who has to move across the country with her family, but really about emotions, memories, and personality. Most of the film is spent in the “headquarters” of the mind, where personified emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust work (and fight) together to run the show. While it is a children’s film that makes heavy use of personification and metaphor, much of the film’s presentation of the workings of the mind is based in actual research. There are so many interesting topics that are touched on in this film, and I imagine that I’ll be watching it again in the near future to glean more meaning. But my favorite concept of the film is the main one: that each actual event and happening in life is processed through a certain lens or perspective, and that there is no “true” perspective-- there is simply the perspective that is selected at that time.
When I talk about mindfulness, especially as a short introduction, I often mention ‘reaction versus response.’ Our habitual way of acting (especially under stress) is in quick reactions. For example, in daily life, if someone tells me what to do, I often quickly snap back that I’ll do what I want, thanks. This is one of my default reactions-- when I perceive that someone is trying to control me, Anger takes over and I try to assert my own control.
If I have been practicing mindfulness, however, I may (not always, but sometimes!) get a moment’s pause to select a response instead of reacting. In this moment of pause and awareness, I may realize that the person “trying to control me” is actually trying to give me a helpful suggestion. I may realize that they have a point. While Anger might be my default reaction in this situation, it is not always the most helpful. This is something that I have known, thought about, and tried to practice for years now, but “Inside Out” gave me a dynamic visual picture of it, of hot-headed little Anger leaping up and saying, “I’ve got this one, I know just what to do! We yell now!”
Yesterday I sat on the patio in the evening. It was a relatively neutral moment with nothing much happening externally. But in my head, Sadness was looking around for something to do. “Shall we think about how the weekend has begun, which sort of means it’s nearly over and you haven’t used it well? Shall we think about being 35 and having no children? Shall we think about the fact that we spent a lot of time working on this patio space and will have to move and leave it behind at some point?” Sadness is just full of great ideas for rumination!
At that moment, Mindfulness woke up in me-- that thing outside of Sadness. Mindfulness said, “Weird! This feels kind of extreme-- why is there so much sadness right now? Does Sadness have to be in control of this moment? What if Joy were in charge? What would she say?” Well, Joy was just glad to be sitting on the patio of an evening. Joy enjoyed the evening light and the fact that it was, after all, the weekend. Just by taking a moment to examine my perspective, I had the space to see that there were any number of possible responses to that moment, and Joy was just as valid (and much more pleasant!) than Sadness.
This is not at all to say that Joy should always be in control and that Sadness should never be in control. Sadness is at times an appropriate and helpful emotion, and this is my other favorite concept in the film. When we push down Sadness and try to block her out of the control room, things do not go well for long. In the months after my dad’s death, I have learned that if I don’t go through periods of sadness, if I run and hide from it or create distractions when I begin to feel it, it goes deep inside me and takes up residence in my neck and shoulders. There it festers and creates actual physical pain.
I suppose that sometimes in my grief, I get too comfortable with Sadness at the helm. She stays in control until times like that on the patio when I suddenly realize that Sadness might not be the best driver in this particular situation. We all have our default reactions, and what I am discovering is that for me, Sadness, Anger, and Fear tend to get a lot more driving time than Joy. At this point, Joy is the runt of the litter, and she needs to be fed and encouraged to get in there and take the helm. For me, mindfulness is a gift that’s helping me to notice times to make a choice and let Joy win.
When I have free time, it can feel like a burden to ask myself what I want to do or what I should do. I sometimes bring judgement into it, about what would be the BEST use of time, the MOST fun, or the most productive... And then if I can't decide, I'll just play around on my phone for a long time without even realizing that it means I have decided to do something after all...just not something that feels good So I have lately started to ask myself: what is required? What does my current state call for? And sometimes: what would show the most love to myself? It is always something different: my body might be hurting, and gentle yoga is called for. Maybe a snack is required. Perhaps my head feels jumbled, and writing would be just the ticket.
I can't exactly say why this phrasing works so much better for me, but it does. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe I can point to why it feels better. To ask what I should do next encourages me to use my brain and my judgement to think about what activities are valuable or desirable. But to ask what is required encourages me to be mindful of myself, inside and out. It asks me to scan the state of my mind and body and figure out my actions based on what I need at the moment.
I've been consciously doing this for a couple of weeks and each time I've asked the question, a quick and easy answer has come to mind. Today, though, it took me a little bit to figure it out. Despite the fact that Sunday is still the weekend and I'm as free as a bird, despite the fact that my Monday is looking to be very low-key, despite the fact the the sun is shining...there is some anxiety and sadness mixed into my feeling-potpourri today. I feel a bit down and on edge. I don't want these emotions. I want uncomplicated joy and peace, and maybe a little curiosity.
So first, I thought, "What is required?" None of the "activities" that I thought of really sounded appetizing or effective in terms of addressing these unwanted emotions. As I thought about it more, I realized yet again that the point is not to get rid of negative or inconvenient emotions. The answer is not to write or run or eat or whatever and get rid of the negative emotions. Sometimes what is required is just to be with the emotions. So that's what I am doing now-- being with, turning toward my emotions, even though they aren't pretty. Yes, I will do other things, too, but not as an antidote to having unwanted feelings. The feelings can stay as long as they need to.
Oftentimes since my dad died, I have reflected that I feel like I am not the same person anymore. Something is different-- all things are different. Maybe instead of being multiple things, it’s one significant change, like putting on a set of glasses with terribly strange lenses that you can never take off. Everything looks different now.
The other day while I was meditating, I had that thought-- I want to be that person again. I want her back, that more-naive girl who had a dad, who had always had both of her wonderful parents. All of her perceived (rather untested) strength. Innocence and ignorance. For all her half-hearted searching, she was barely scratching the surface, yet perceiving it as depth. Like a girl up to her neck in water, thinking it deep, but just ahead of her is a drop-off into the fathomless ocean. Girl, you have no idea.
And this time, for the first time, I thought, No, I can’t have that old me back. That’s water under the bridge now. I can create the new Katie in any way I want, but I can’t have the old one back.”
It was a heartbreaking thought-- that loss of myself on top of the loss of my dad-- but it was also a releasing thought, the final closing of a door and at the same time, a fleeting glimpse of the uncharted land through a new window. A ringing of a bell.
And now, now and then, I am turning this over in my head. Who is this new person that I want to be? What creative, active, and self-loving habits does she have? She’s a person who listens to herself and stays open and vulnerable, yet protective of her precious self as well. She also takes refuge in the parts of herself that are still constant, that will never change.
Yes, there is still sadness and loss here. That does not stop good from happening. Destruction does not prevent future creation; it makes creation unavoidable, if we are to go on.