Order my days and my deeds

I like hanging out with me a lot more when I’m not being a jerk to myself.

My mother let me quit Girl Scouts in fourth grade because she knew my troop didn’t have the vitality of the troop my sister had loved so well. She was right but I wanted out because I chafed under the obligation of those weekly meetings. It’s not that I had urgent business elsewhere on Mondays at 3:30. I just craved the freedom to do as I pleased at least until my mother got home from work.

I’ve spent my life resisting and resenting entanglements, personal and professional that control my time too closely. They make my soul itch.

When my partner said she was going to Bulgaria for two and a half weeks, did I anticipate 17 luxurious days of 24 hour a day freedom? In fact, what I said a few days before her departure was, “You know, I fall a part a little when you’re gone.” She nodded knowingly.

Laura’s had several extended solo journeys during our 18 years together. Although I knew I would miss her, I anticipated each one with some glee at the prospect of so much unfettered time. I thought about all the things I’d do once free of our shared routine. And I can look back at each of those experiences and recall how miserable I was for most of her absence.

For the first day or so I would stay up late reading, watch shows she doesn’t care for, bake frozen pizza for dinner. But I couldn’t enjoy myself for very long. My wheedling ego started using words like “self-indulgent” to describe my behavior. Feeling not free but adrift I craved escape from the self-criticism and sank into behavior that made me feel worse. I spent hours in front of the television but barely watched it as I read the news and played games on my phone. Every unfamiliar creak and squeak in the house sent my mind whirling with fear and I slept badly. I thought about the projects I wanted to work on but failed to even get started. I let dishes and laundry pile up then scrambled before Laura came home to limit the evidence of sloth. Not because I feared her criticism but because I didn’t want a witness to my shame.

It’s been a few years since Laura’s last long trip and I’m happy to report that my ongoing work at being present and practicing self-acceptance has been beneficial. Telling her that I fall apart was something I’d never done before. It helped to say it out loud and without judgment toward myself for experiencing it or toward her for taking the trip.

Approaching her departure date, I did not make grand plans but I did say yes to opportunities despite the risk to my sense of freedom. My brother made a short visit, I went to meetings about the community kitchen and two coaching webinars, and friends in Minnesota invited me to visit for a weekend. That still left a lot of unstructured time. Over the first weekend, when an ice storm cancelled the few plans I had, I decided to lean into the prospect of two days alone to work on my phone/news/games habit. For 24 of those hours I put the phone down (often in a room where I was not). I’ve watched plenty of television and I finished my taxes and kept up with my blog. I’ve done laundry, managed a plumbing problem, and hit a really high score on my favorite app. I eat fruits and vegetables most days but I’ve also baked more than one frozen pizza.

I’ve felt productive and energized. I’ve also felt lonely and sad. I accept all of these moments for what they are—moments that will pass. And it turns out that no matter how I spend my time I like hanging out with me a lot more when I’m not being a jerk to myself.

Piece by piece

I begin to let go of the belief that martyrdom is essential to my self-esteem.

The community dinner I work with offers a vegetarian option at each meal and I’ve taken responsibility for choosing it, shopping for it, and preparing it. However, after taking on new responsibilities with the organization, I wanted to unload this obligation. Each year the local college assigns a student to work with us, and our current student loves to cook so I asked her if she would take over. She agreed to do it and I was SO pleased with myself for letting this responsibility go. Then life intervened. Sherry’s class schedule changed limiting her hours at the kitchen, another volunteer told me our kitchen manager wouldn’t buy some of the ingredients Sherry requested, and then she got sick before one meal and couldn’t be there at all. I nearly careened over the edge this week when the she sent me a quiche recipe, one she didn’t think she would be available to prepare, and the ingredient list seemed poor to me (pro-tip: plain yogurt is much better in quiche than heavy cream). Feeling aggravated and fed-up, I was on the verge of sending a text to the kitchen manager telling her I would go back to making the vegetarian option from now one when a tiny voice inside me said, “Stay out of it.”

I put my phone down but I struggled to quiet my mind. My impulse was to frame this situation as beyond my control and as the fault of those around me. After stewing about it I moved on to the question, “How did I end up right back in the middle of the vegetarian option?” and I see that I did it piece by piece. For instance, I’m the primary liaison between the kitchen and the college program that sends us a student. Sherry, appropriately, assumes I’m the person she should talk to about scheduling problems. I didn’t take myself out of that loop. Also, I assume, despite some counter-evidence, that the other dinner prep volunteers don’t want to take responsibility for the vegetarian option. I also assume that if they do take it on they won’t do it the way I think it should be done.

Piece by piece I give myself away. “It’s okay, I’ll do it this time.” “Yes, I’ll listen to your concerns rather than urge you to talk to the person who is the source of those concerns.” “No, I appreciate your offer but I’ll take care of it.” One decision at a time I hand pieces of myself over until I feel as if there’s nothing left of me. I tell myself as it’s happening that I’m patient and accommodating, that I put others’ or the organization’s needs before my own. I use that reasoning as evidence that I’m a good person. And when I feel as if there are no pieces of me left I am angry and blame others and I feel justified because, after all, I’ve been accommodating and patient and selfless.

As I learn to watch myself, to see my habits of thought as an object of curiosity, I gain freedom. And I learn to identify the actions that will keep me free—being direct about my limits, trusting others when they say they’ll take care of something, accepting that they won’t do things the way I would. Above all, I begin to let go of the belief that martyrdom is essential to my self-esteem.

Family politics

My brother Jim is a smart guy and like everyone else in my family a news junkie with very strong opinions that he likes to share. Adjectives that describe this sharing might include adamant, insistent, emphatic, and loud. His style of sharing didn’t bother me until our political views started to diverge. A lot.

Initially, I was so surprised by that I either avoided the subject like the plague or said, “Uh huh, uh huh” until he ran out of gas. But inside, I felt awful for stifling myself and creating a feeling of distance between us. Then during a summer visit we were alone in his car when he started talking about politics and I found myself using the listening strategies I used to teach. Specifically, I listened to understand rather than to refute.

This was pretty helpful because it allowed me to respond in a way that affirmed him as a person without agreeing with what he was saying. I don’t agree with his point of view, but after listening to him I could honestly say I understood how he’d arrived at it. This was so much better than saying, “Uh huh, uh huh,” while thinking he was full of crap.

Another time, we were on the phone when he got going and a voice inside me said, “Go for it.” I matched him point for point. The conversation grew heated at times because political views emerge from our lived experience, our sense of how the social world impinges on and limits our lives. I heard us both identify core beliefs that have become core differences between us. In that sense there was nothing lighthearted about our exchange. I was tired at the end of it but also exhilarated. I don’t have a lot of conversations about politics with people who disagree with me and I enjoyed the mental workout. I suspect he’s in the same boat. Very few people in his life engage with him in these conversations probably because his passion often sounds like fury and overwhelms them.

Last week he sent me a youtube video, describing it as a “good history lesson.” Reasonably confident that I would not see it the same way my first impulse was to ignore it. Then I reconsidered because he matters to me. I watched it and sure enough I found the speaker’s point of view utterly ridiculous. Now what? I wrote him a message telling him my thoughts about the speaker’s argument but I’m not going to send it. What I realize is that I’m willing to engage him, my flesh and blood brother, but I’m not willing to create an exchange where we use other people’s words in an effort to educate and persuade each other. I know that if I do that, I will spend an enormous amount of mental energy arguing with him and his surrogates and that’s not acceptable to me. I’m comfortable with this boundary.

When I can do no more than listen, I listen to understand. When I have the energy to debate, I go for it. Above all, I keep my desire for an authentic relationship with him in the foreground and view him with non-judging awareness so that whatever form my engagement takes, it does not include trying to change him.

The only moment I have

Here in the middle of the Midwest it is neither winter nor spring. The days are a little longer and tiny green shoots are scattered throughout our garden beds, and as the temperature rises my shoulders start to loosen after weeks of hunching against the cold. But it isn’t all mild days and flowers rising. The sky is often overcast, sunny days feature biting winds, and those tender green shoots are probably going to get buried under several inches of snow before the month is over.

Although I’m a native Midwesterner, it was the 15 years I spent in Minnesota that made this season of contrasts my least favorite. On a warmish day my spirits lift and I convince myself that spring has arrived. When snow falls a few days later I feel like a fool. But I’m not much of a learner on this topic so for weeks I experience this cycle of hope and disappointment. In Minnesota it lasted until May.

My mother had a friend who snarled at people who complained about hot days in July. “It’s summer isn’t it?” she’d bark at them. One hot and muggy summer I decided to take the implication of her admonishment seriously and vowed I would not complain about the heat. When I noticed my mind moving in that direction I batted the thought away. The challenge I hadn’t anticipated was how often others would complain to me about the heat. Talking about the weather is such a simple way to make contact. But it’s also a great example of routine negativity disguised as interpersonal connection. I didn’t want to snap at people or correct them so I found myself developing a host of responses that featured a big smile and something along the lines of “Oh, but we’ll miss these days come January.” Or, “Yes, but wasn’t it a glorious spring?” I was chipper enough that people didn’t appear to feel scolded as those who encountered my mom’s friend probably did. The one thing I didn’t manage to do, the thing I’m working hard on now, is simple appreciation for what is.

My challenge during these days between seasons is that a warmish day sends me hurtling into the future where the daffodils are out and the days are predictably mild. Right now, this moment, the sky is clear, the sun is urging the flowers to rise, the temperature is below freezing, and the furnace is working just fine. This moment, I remind myself, with all of its contradictions, is the only one I have.

News junkie

Even when she was struggling to get by, my mother subscribed to the morning and evening newspapers. This was back when cities the size of Columbus, Ohio supported two daily papers. When my stepfather moved in he brought us Newsweek and the Sunday edition of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I spent one summer watching the Watergate hearings and providing summaries each evening to my mother and stepfather. Family gatherings always featured political discussions that devolved into political arguments. My siblings and I, just like my mother and her siblings, were far more likely to disagree, at full volume, about politics than about who was the favorite child. During graduate school I spent a summer watching the Iran-Contra hearings in the morning (I lived on the west coast) and writing my thesis in the afternoon. My partner also has a thing about current events. She was once asked her why she doesn’t like going to the movies and she said she’s afraid she might miss a breaking news story.

My family’s deep commitment to being up-to-date with the news of the day is born of the conviction that it is our duty as citizens to understand what’s going on in the world—near and far. How can you have an informed opinion if you aren’t informed? How can you make an educated decision at the ballot box if you aren’t educated about the candidates and the issues?

When a current political crisis was mentioned at my book group recently two of the women looked at us blankly. They told us they don’t watch much news. In the past I would have, silently, accused them of burying their head in the sand, questioned their right to vote, and seen their choice as part of what’s wrong with the world. In my newly evolving capacity for non-judging awareness I heard their comment not with disdain but simple curiosity about my own behavior. What’s happening inside of me when I start the day with national news broadcasts, check my news-filled Twitter timeline throughout the day, and read the spots off the daily papers?

When I was a kid my familiarity with current events made me feel smart when my inability to diagram a sentence and manage basic algebra made me feel stupid. But I’m not a kid anymore and I’m ready to admit that when I retreat into news coverage it’s to put myself beyond my own feelings of fear, uncertainty, and worthlessness. I’m well prepared to debate most any topic but emotionally and spiritually I am out of touch with myself and with the present moment. Watching the relentless horror of mass shootings, deadly political unrest, and government corruption I feel overwhelmed by rage and utterly helpless.

Having known and loved a lot of people with an addiction, I label my behavior as that of a news junkie with care. My behavior is that of an addict in the sense that when I bury myself in the news it is in order to escape dark feelings about my own life. It is also to engage in self-defeating behavior, behavior Jonathan Foust describes as “less than wholesome.” In an excellent talk titled “From Addiction to Wise Action,” he asks listeners to identify behaviors, anything from use of substances to repetitive thought patterns, which cause us suffering. What would happen, he asks, if we take that behavior to its extreme?

In this era of the 24-hour news cycle, I imagine myself never sleeping again. I imagine having no thoughts of my own as my head becomes filled not just with facts but with the opinions of all those talking heads from across the globe who fill our new sites and airwaves and timelines. In this world, I am utterly plugged in and completely disengaged at the same time.

When Foust then asks us to imagine our lives in the absence of these unwholesome behaviors and thoughts, I don’t imagine withdrawing from the news altogether because I agree with Thomas Jefferson that, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Instead, I try to cultivate behaviors that keep me grounded in the present—starting my days with writing, physical movement, or reading that is not about current events, avoiding shouting matches that call themselves newscasts, seeking news sources that educate me about unfamiliar people and places, and taking action locally where I know I can make a difference.

(The opposite of) Stewing, Part 3

My original title for these three posts was “The 3 R’s” for rehearsing, rehashing, and revising encounters we anticipate or have already experienced. While there’s value in thinking before we speak or reviewing actions that cause suffering, when we mindlessly engage in these behaviors we trap ourselves in the past or the future and actually increase suffering. But as my client Jeremy so wisely asked, “Well, okay but then what am I supposed to do with my mind?”

It’s easy to encourage mindfulness but it’s important to notice the challenge this advice presents when engaged in routines that allow our mind (ego) to have free rein. Our lives are filled with commuting, picking up kids, standing in long lines, or sitting in waiting rooms. Other tasks, like mowing the lawn, doing laundry, or cooking meals, tasks require some but not all of our attention. Whenever we find that we are zoning out, we have the opportunity to zone in on something that improves the quality of our life. Although what we do with our mind, as an alternative to rehearsing, rehashing, and revising, is influenced by where we are, if we are alone, and how much time we have here are some suggestions and the first one can be done, in fact is done, everywhere.

Take air into your lungs and then expel it. That’s right. Breathe. There are countless breathing exercises out there that take less than two minutes, improve concentration, and calm us down. My favorite is 4-7-8 and I recommend Andrew Weil’s video demonstration at drweil.com.

Be willing to feel foolish. When we’re engaged in a routine task we often think its very simplicity requires us to use our great big brains to engage in some higher order activity at the same time. And while rehearsing, rehashing, and revising may be more sophisticated mental tasks than brushing my teeth they are not superior to it. When the reel-to-reel version of the past starts to play I shift my attention and concentrate on my immediate task with laser-like focus—paying particular attention to the work my body is doing, especially my hands as I wash dishes, make a bed, or rake leaves. It’s very challenging to actually think about a routine task as I’m engaged in it but it’s also surprisingly rewarding. It refreshes my mind and the 3R’s never do that. Also, there are so many more things to notice about routine tasks than our wandering minds realize. Water use, changes in the light, differences between flannel sheets and regular sheets, raking into one big pile versus several small piles. Even routine tasks can be accomplished in many different ways so thinking about the task helps us appreciate the intricate beauty of seemingly simple aspects of our lives.

Strike a bargain. If I have more time, say 45 minutes to walk or drive somewhere, my temptation is to listen to the radio or a podcast. I think that’s perfectly fine and I may stay present if I actually listen to the speaker. But have you ever turned on the news or a podcast and a few minutes later found that your mind is miles away? Listening passively is sometimes a cover for the sort of ruminating about the past or imagining the future that is a source of suffering. If you have 45 minutes and you’re a news junkie or you love podcasts, try splitting the time in half. Limit listening time, and knowing you’re going to turn it off in 22.5 minutes might help you stay attentive. For the other 22.5 minutes breathe, concentrate on the task at hand and what you’re doing with your body, and then and pay close attention to the world around you. Get so quiet and aware that you can hear the smallest sounds in your environment.

I can say with certainty that stewing has never improved the quality of my life. My goal now is to acknowledge it when it happens without wasting energy being mad at myself, acknowledge and feel my feelings without letting them overtake me, and then name what is true and real in this moment.

Stewing, part 1

It doesn’t take much to get me started. Set the date for a family visit, schedule a meeting with co-workers, agree to speak on behalf of my favorite non-profit and my mind becomes a bubbling cauldron of anxious imaginings—who will be there, what will I say, how will I say it, what will they say, how will I respond?

In anticipation of meetings or classes or conversations with colleagues and loved ones, I prepare relentlessly. It’s become such a familiar habit that I thought everyone did it and when people compliment me on what they believe are spontaneous comments, I feel a bit like a fraud because I know how much energy I spend turning my thoughts into intelligent remarks.

I believe the world would be a better place if everyone thought about what they were going to say before saying it. The philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote, “The word is a two-sided act.” Speech is both from someone but also, always for another and it’s worthwhile to consider the other before speaking. I’ve had a lot of successful interactions with a wide variety of people because I am thoughtful about what I say and how I say it.

But in recent years, as I’ve explored mindfulness, I’ve come to question this practice. I don’t want to be less careful and thoughtful in my speech but there’s a difference I want to embrace between a thoughtful practice and a mindless, energy depleting, anxiety producing habit.

I’ve observed not only my habit of rehearsing but also my habit of replaying scenes that have already occurred and revising them for a better or at least different outcome. This latter habit reminds me of the French expression esprit de l’escalier. It means staircase wit—the clever remarks we think of too late. Who among us hasn’t reviewed our encounters with others and thought of the perfect rejoinder we failed to come up with in the moment? But I don’t just imagine a smart retort here and there. Some interactions seem to play on an endless loop in my brain. Like my rehearsal habit, there’s some value in examining past actions as a pathway to living more authentically, to being willing to see the impact of our behavior on others. But when I stop myself several times a day to notice what my mind is doing and the answer is almost always rehearsing for the future or rehashing the past, then I know that the one thing I am absolutely not doing is living in the present moment.

Presence

A friend from my book club chooses a word or phrase as her aspiration for the year instead of making a list of resolutions. For 2018 she chose the phrase, “remember to practice” and she gave me credit because I said it at our last book club gathering. It’s something my coach said to me and I’ve found it very helpful. Following my friend’s lead, I’ve skipped resolutions and chosen the word “presence” as my goal for 2018. The photo accompanying this blog post reminds me what presence looks like.

It’s my favorite photograph of myself and not just because it’s me at 20 and many of us prefer photos of ourselves at 20 to more recent ones. It was taken on a sunny afternoon in Santa Rosa, California at the annual auction of the abandoned items in the student activities office lost and found. The popular event was the brainchild of the man with the microphone—a former fifth grade teacher and radio announcer turned associate dean of student affairs at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Although I don’t have a clear memory of that moment, I can guess that I was nervous about making a fool of myself by modeling the lost and found clothes. But as I look closely at the photo I see that I was surrounded by people who mattered to me and who thought well of me. No doubt bolstered by their encouragement, I grabbed the flower covered bell-bottoms and matching shirt out of the box, pulled them on over my clothes, and climbed onto the low bench that ran along the terrace. With Gene’s carnival barker voice behind me I showed this delightful ensemble to its best advantage, arms and leg akimbo. My friend Scott caught me giving myself over entirely to the moment with his camera. I was present and I was a presence.

The more I’ve looked at the photo in recent days, the more amazed I am by it. At 20, I did have the ability to be a presence. But I also was often dragged down into anxiety about the future and despair about the past. Self-conscious, self-critical, self-protective, I was the student body president who couldn’t pass a required math course. I was a state champion debater overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness. I hated myself far more than I loved myself.

It was around this time that I had the realization that if I spoke to my friends the way I spoke to myself, I wouldn’t have any friends. But it was many years before I put that insight into a practice of self-acceptance, a practice that allows me to be present in each moment and to be a presence in the world. To be conscious of being a presence in the world means being aware that the energy I bring into a situation will influence it for better or worse. I can choose to give myself over entirely and be a joyful presence or I can withdraw in fear. Here’s to joy!