Expanding Definitions of Productivity & Accomplishment

Ever since I received a diary for my birthday when I was about 8 years old, I’ve had a journal in my possession. There have been times in my life when I wrote less or more frequently, but I have always loved taking the time to note what’s happening in my life and in my head. I like the idea of having a record to look back on– to see what the struggles and triumphs were of a certain age. It’s like reading a book whose ending I already know– I get a sense of perspective. The writing itself helps me in the moment, too. Writing down my thoughts and feelings helps me to work through things, to puzzle things out. In the past couple of years, I have been writing much more regularly. I’ve been paying much more attention to my internal self– the way that my mind and heart work, and the ways that I grow. I write at least once a week, sometimes every few days.

As we came to the end of 2016, I realized that my current journal was about to be finished, and that it contained just over a year’s worth of writing.  I was about to leave on a long trip for the holidays, and I decided to read through my journal– my year in record. As I read, I took notes at the beginning of my new journal to synthesize (I am, at heart, someone who would like to be in school all their life– hence, the assigned reading and notetaking!).

I noted what I learned over the year, and as I did this, I soon realized that I need to expand this category to “What did I learn and/or struggle with?” Saying “What did I learn?” made things feel a bit too finished, when actually, I am still learning and working with the things I began to learn in 2016. I’m going to dig into these learnings, one post for each. So here we go!

Expand Definitions of Productivity & Accomplishment

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– ethically or morally by being lazy. (Usually, these feelings are really vague and fuzzy, just under the surface and unconscious, yet permeating everything. When I really start spelling out this if/then logic, it doesn’t hold up. But so it goes.)

But what if I’m tired? What if I’m not feeling well? Well, I already made the list of what needs to be done today, so time to get cracking! And if it turns out that I am not able to do all of those things on this list? Perhaps the list for the day wasn’t even realistic? Now it’s time for me to feel guilty about what I didn’t accomplish. Add those tasks to the long list for tomorrow. Writing this out, it seems so sad. What an inescapable, unsustainable rat race.

I spoke about this with my therapist, and we kept coming to somewhat of a barrier. It felt like she was saying (in a really oversimplified way), “Stop doing all those things. Relax. Just rest and be happy.” I responded to this sentiment with disbelief and maybe a little scorn. Sure…I’ll just not get things done then. (Getting things done is part of my identity!) It just didn’t seem possible, desirable, or wise to take this approach. I can’t change on a dime to think that accomplishments are NOT important, and I feel that getting things done is part of what makes me successful.

And yet…my default way of doing things doesn’t feel so wise either. That feeling of never being able to get quite enough done (because you can never get it ALL done) puts a bit of a dark cloud over life. It robs some of the joy. It’s unsustainable, and because it’s unsustainable, it eventually breaks down and I turn to food or excessive phone use– something to distract me and numb me from the painful fact that I can’t get the whole list done at once, and that I need to rest.

So clearly a different approach is needed. What we eventually came to was this: yes, accomplishments are good, and yes, I value accomplishing things. It will do no good for now to deny the value of accomplishment. But (and this felt revolutionary) what if I expand the idea of what accomplishment means?

What if what I got done today was to grieve? What if what I achieved was making art? What if my accomplishment was feeding myself well and taking a walk?

All of these things actually do have their benefits. Taking time to grieve releases the pressure that builds imperceptibly when we’re holding sadness at bay. Making art feeds the soul. It is play and wonder and beauty…all of these things that we need so crucially, and yet which are not so concrete. My physical health is the building block on which everything else rests…and yet, why does taking care of the body often feel like the last priority?

Allowing these areas of life (and others) to “count” as areas of accomplishment lets my life have a sense of balance where all is included, nourished, and valued– body, mind, and spirit… or work, play, and rest.

Too often, mind and work take the top spots in what is valued, and this is reflected in how time is spent. When only work is seen as a desirable and necessary accomplishment, any time spent in play, or in maintaining the body and nourishing the spirit is seen as “stolen” time, guilty pleasure. When the amount of work done is the only measure that counts, any time spent resting is seen as weakness.

Conversely, this new learning is a more complex understanding of myself and how I function– that body, mind, and spirit are all part of me, and that wellness and “accomplishment” in only one area is incomplete. Body, mind, and spirit each have their mysterious role to play in the functioning as ME– a healthy and flourishing human.

For me, this shift in perspective is huge. It’s still something that I’m learning and working with, and it has already made a difference for me. I’ll give a couple of examples of how this  shift shows up in my life:

I prioritized going to a physical therapist for my chronic neck/back/shoulder pain. For years, I let it fester, suffering and working hard, approaching my life with tension and trying to ignore the pain that resulted. Now I’m making time for this– two hours a week at appointments, plus exercises to do at home regularly. This can feel, every once in awhile, like a waste of time. But each moment that I spend on this is an investment in the health of my body– which I will need my whole life! And just like it was worthwhile for me to spend time and money sending my brain to college, it is worthwhile for me to spend time and money sending my body to physical therapy.

Another example is in how I’ve been spending my mornings. Rather than get up and get straight to work on emails, I now start with yoga, meditation, and breakfast every day. (I used to do this in theory…but mostly work took over.)  It doesn’t have to be long, but what it reinforces every day is that I can prioritize the care of my body, mind, and spirit– that the rest of the world can wait until I am charged up and nourished. Guess what? The world can wait.

So my learning is that life with only one kind of accomplishments is an unbalanced life. By expanding my definitions of productivity and accomplishment, there is a sense of more freedom and wellness– I feel better, period.

 

Loss & Love, Bitter & Sweet

I just realized anew that I don’t have any more grandparents. When I was young, I had six: all four parents of my parents, plus my maternal great-grandparents. Now none. And worse, my dad is gone. There’s this whole swath, this whole foundational support, gone. And so much history resting on my mom’s precious shoulders.

I have to believe that their love goes on. I feel it sometimes. I’m not sure if they would understand or approve of everything about my life, but they loved me, and I don’t think anything could’ve made them stop. Especially my dad– one of my biggest fans and greatest loves. A never-ceasing  source of support, positivity, and compassion.

I feel their love, and I feel the loss of them, as much as I let myself. Trying to let it all in: the loss and the love, the bitter and the sweet. If there is to be healing and growth, it’s in being with what is here, and offering compassion to myself. Sending so much compassion to all others who are grieving or in pain in this moment.

 

Allow
By Danna Faulds

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado.  Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel.  Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground.  The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.

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Water Thoughts

On Sunday I went swimming in the Monterey Bay with my open-water swim group. I went out with a couple of friends and as we swam, I noticed the water was moving more usual. There was a bit of a swell, something I haven’t experienced for a while, and it was making me a little uncomfortable. That feeling, paired with a knowledge that I was sore from a hike the day before and not feeling 100%, made me decided to turn around after a third of a mile, cutting my swim a bit short. My two companions wanted to swim further, so I started back solo.

A low-grade anxiety started in as I swam– nervousness about being alone, about current, about sharks, even hyperaware of a strand of kelp in the murky distance looking like who-knows-what. The feeling of anxiousness would swell and recede, swell and recede, mixed with thoughts about the sweet sunshine, the sunlight on the ripples of the water.

Today marks one year since my dad died. Since my dad died, I have been much more anxious in the water, much more apt to skip a swim, but lately I’ve been coming more regularly. Out there in the water on Sunday, I thought of a story that my mom told me on the phone last week. When they were first married, before I was born, my dad took my mom on a hike. The hike ended up being much longer than at least my mom expected, with patches of steep climbs. My mom had felt like giving up, but my dad helped her through, even carrying her on his back at the end.

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photo by L. Amarao

Not so long after thinking about that, I saw a school anchovies swimming underneath me– thousands, ten of thousands (millions?) of them. I was amazed and thrilled to be swimming with them, and this feeling, too, lasted for a few moments. Then every ocean documentary that I’ve ever seen flashed through my head and I imagined SOMETHING bursting up through the school in search of food– a lunge-feeding humpback, a dreaded Great White, even a harbor seal– careening up for a mouthful of anchovies and ending up with a mouthful of me.

I began to “swim fast,” which is actually just thrashing more, to try to swim away from this beautiful food-source. Stroke after stroke, and still the carpet of anchovies underneath me continued. Stroke after stroke, on and on, and finally there were no more anchovies, and I was well within my familiar cove.

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. As I rode my little scooter home from the swim, the sun shone on my salty arms and the breeze fluttered my clothes. I felt light.

Today on this anniversary, I feel heavy. I feel the weight of the last year hanging on me. I remember my dad with joy and with deep sorrow, and I still feel anger and dismay that he is gone. An ocean of feelings, beautiful and terrible. Like the tides, things come and then they go.

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Let Joy Win

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!”

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via giphy.com

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!

IMG_1449At 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.

IMG_1052I 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.

The Fathomless Ocean, The Uncharted Land

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.

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Via reddit.com

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.

Someday We’ll Look Back On All This…

84e21151b215ba8f55b0fae9c1cf1b61Sometime in the ’90s, we saw maybe this mug or some other merchandise or card and my dad thought it was hilarious. “Someday we’ll look back on all this and laugh our buns off.” It’s silly…just using the word “buns” is silly. My dad was super silly and he liked silly things. I don’t remember exactly where  came from, but it just came to mind today that my dad or someone else in the family would say this phrase at exactly the right time back in the day. When someone was anxious or upset about something, when things were going kind of wrong, we would say, “One of these days we’ll look back on this and laugh our buns off.” It would always crack us up, bring a little light and perspective to the situation. I am holding on to this today. No, I will never laugh at all, let alone laugh my buns totally off, about this time of life when things seem pretty dark. But I know that the gist is true: someday my perspective about my experience will have changed. Someday it will not seem like my life; it will seem like that one part of my life. Someday it might seem like my hermit crab shell was ripped away and then I could grow bigger (is that how hermit crabs work?). Someday it may seem like a forest burned and now the morels are coming up. IMG_0461

For all of us who are feeling like the present moment cannot be borne, the knowledge of impermanence is a gift. Nothing stays this way forever. Everything changes, is changing now.

Making Space for the Sunday Blues

What to do when it’s just a down day? It’s Sunday. Sundays can be sort of inherently sad. I think for many of us, Sunday represents a difficult mental transition from fun-time to work-time, and it might contain a fair amount of anticipation or dread for the week to come. Sunday afternoon is basically the opposite of Friday afternoon.

But, there’s something more than that Sunday malaise that I’m feeling right now. My dad died almost 7 months ago. A couple of weeks ago, I had a sort of grief breakthrough and I was feeling very good for the first time in a while. But within the past couple of days, grief has crept up and is standing before me again, arms reaching out. I feel blue, down.

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It’s midday, it’s beautiful and sunny, we’re doing some good DIY home projects…there is every reason to be grateful. So can I do it? Can I honor my grief, and yet not be covered by it? Can I rest with the thought that part of the world is missing, and also the thought that I can still love the world and my life?

I don’t actually see what choice I have. I have been slowly learning over the past few months that these kinds of feelings can’t be denied or wished away or pressed down into non-existance. They need to be acknowledged, recognized, and cared for.

Imagine that the body gets a virus, a flu. Do we try to go about our business as usual thinking, “I’m fine, I’m just going to ignore my symptoms and they’ll go away, then I’ll feel better?” No, we assess our symptoms and try to figure out the best way to care for them. We try to give ourselves as much peace and rest as possible until we’re on the mend.

I’m learning that this kind of self-care is also needed for our feelings, moods, and states of mind. We can recognize that we are feeling some negative way and think about how best to care for ourselves. Connect with people? Hole up on the couch? Get outdoors? What is required? What would give space for this emotion, this state we’re in?

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For me, on this Sunday afternoon, I am enjoying staying close to home so that I feel I can cry if I want to cry. In addition, part of the Sunday malaise for me is feeling like I may have wasted my weekend or not enjoyed myself fully. To help myself, I can set a few little intentions for this day, to make it feel that the day was used well.

I’ll finish my DIY project and clear up the patio mess that ensued. I cleaned and repainted a vintage kitchen table that my family used to use when I was a kid. It’s coming inside to become the core of my emerging home office! Getting to set this up will be satisfying and exciting because I will finally have a space to read and write that’s not the middle of the breakfast table!

My husband and I will get out of the house and outside for an hour or two– a bike ride or walk to the beach or a drive somewhere. Beauty…natural beauty…perfect for any state of mind.

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I will write something (oh look at that, I just did!). For me this is a very meta post. I am writing about the need to recognize and sit with our negative feelings, and I am doing this in order to give space to the negative feelings that I am having. I manage to forget this from time to time, but writing is always very therapeutic for me.

I am a big fan of treating ourselves like a series of experiments in search of answers to some question like, “how can I feel healthy and happy?” “what is possible and sustainable for my growth?” Negative feelings give us a chance to explore things that we would never imagine in happier times. So, I’ll live this day, incorporating accomplishment, movement, natural beauty, and reflection…and then just see what happens. I don’t expect that my mood will zoom up to ecstatic, and that is ok… all will be much better than if I had chosen to simply push down my negative thoughts, unexamined and ignored.

Here’s to grand and tiny experiments within ourselves every day.

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