Flowing vs Overflowing

Do you ever have a sense of marvelous ease in your day? A sense that you are in a “flow state” and things are proceeding exactly as they should. You just ride along as the current carries you.

You look up hours later and realize you have been so engaged in a task that you have lost awareness of time, and maybe it’s already dark out. Or you suddenly realize you are hungry, but you were absorbed in something so deeply that you did not notice at the time. It is kind of a beautiful experience for someone like me (or maybe you?) who struggle with distractions.

But how often to we achieve this state? How often do we give ourselves the opportunity to do uninterrupted work? How often do we single-task, instead of spreading out our focus?

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According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, we do not do this nearly enough. When I first read the book summary, presented by my “GetAbstract” subscription at work, I felt immediate resonance with the concept. Then I heard an interview with him on the Hidden Brain podcast last July, and I knew I would need to figure out how to do more deep work in my career.

In the age of social media, overflowing email boxes and communications technologies like WhatsApp and Jabber (my company’s instant messaging platform), it is a challenge indeed. But I like a challenge. And I think the ability to focus deeply and intentionally on things we care about is worth it. Some may argue that this is what makes a happy life.

So how do we make that more possible? For me, it has involved cutting WAY back on my daily consumption of social media. I used to turn on my phone in bed in the morning, read facebook posts and the news from the coziness of my bed (it was -12F when I got up this morning -26F with windchill – ugh). Then I would usually open up the email, first personal and then work to see if there were any urgent items.

This would put me into “reactive” mode, taking in all of this information before even giving myself a chance to truly wake up. Not the best way to start the day. That practice shifted to consuming podcasts rather than FB and news about a year ago. I decided my emotional state was not equipped to consume news in the same way I used to devour it daily. I really love public radio, and I still listen sometimes in the car on the way to or from work.

We all have choices about what we do, and how we engage with the world. It is pretty mind-blowing to realize we have more control over our thoughts and emotions once we learn to separate them out from circumstances. Learning this has helped me understand when my “anger” button has been activated, or in neuroscience terms, the amygdala. Anger can be a useful emotion, when we are fighting injustice, but rage tends to be destructive. Fear can be a useful emotion, when we are outrunning a predator or facing a potentially dangerous situation, but panic is rarely helpful.

So I choose to cut back. I need to keep flowing, keep working toward things I believe in. I work toward more peace, more justice, more access to the rights and freedoms I enjoy for more people. Overflowing with inputs, distractions, material possessions, entertainment, and other “over” indulgences does not serve me. So I make deliberate choices about how to spend my time.

Distractions may always be a factor for me. My mind runs and plays like a puppy, roaming around, picking up random scents and running down those trails. But that is also conditioned behavior, following the urge of distraction. And it can be unlearned with practice, thankfully. My meditation and yoga practices are teaching me that.

May you be clear-headed and focused today. May you engage in whatever deep and important work you are doing right now, with full mind and heart. Thank you for reading, and now go get back to your creative effort. Namaste.

 

Un-buffering your life

We are often taught that going “outside our comfort zone” is where the most growth happens. I believe this is true, to a large extent. Our human species evolved to seek comfort or pleasure and avoid pain. These impulses largely kept us alive, along with developing communities which could provide protection and safety in a wild world.

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But as humans evolved to go beyond our basic necessities, we must also evolve in our consciousness. We must make different choices beyond survival day-to-day in order to respect the long-term sustainability of ourselves and of our planet. I write this knowing that many people around the world lack clean water, or sufficient food to eat, and I am aware of my privilege in writing these words.

The practice of creativity and if making things purely for own pleasure is one magnificent part of our existence. Whether composing songs, decorating one’s home, writing a story, or playing with color on canvas, we are a species that delights in using our imagination and creating something from nothing.

Liz Gilbert writes and speaks so elegantly of this in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear and in her podcast Magic Lessons. I am grateful to have re-discovered her work, along with uncovering the Joy Diet book I have by Martha Beck last fall. Also around that time I found the work of Brené Brown on vulnerability and courage, Daring Greatly among them, but I recommend any of her books.

As I confronted my habits of “buffering” my emotions through alcohol, food, over-working, etc, I realized that I needed to slow everything down. Right before I reached for that drink, or chocolate, or “buy” button to get myself out of my feeling of discomfort, I needed to pay attention to what was going on in my body.

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Typically what I discovered was that an uncomfortable emotion was present. It might be loneliness or fear. It might be a response to avoidance I had about doing certain tasks at work, or anticipating a difficult conversation and not knowing how I wanted to speak my truth, while respecting another person.

Mostly what I found is that I used my buffers to avoid or resist the truth that I was feeling in my own body. When I learned some tools like meditation and yin yoga to help me get “comfortable with discomfort” I realized that I could sit with a feeling and just experience it all the way through, without resisting it and without attaching to it.

Once I acknowledge the emotion, named it and thoroughly sense where it resided in my body, I can move on, and not let it hijack me or my behavior. But that process of slowing down, feeling an emotion all the way through, without reaching for my phone, something in the fridge, or some other distraction, has radical implications.

Paying attention and becoming fully aware of what is happening not just around me but within me feels like a “magic” tool. I accept things as they are, embrace the suck, or just note when I feel fear, uncertainty, doubt, rage or discomfort. That allows me to examine what thoughts and stories feed these feelings.

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When I back up and understand that emotional and physical cascade that resulted from certain thoughts, I can question whether those thoughts are even true. Sometimes I can do this from a “thought download” or a hand-written journal I use daily to get out all the junk that piles up in my curious monkey mind. Other times, it is locked in there pretty deeply, so I use some other medium, like pastels or watercolors to tease it out.

I joke with my husband that these always turn out like 2nd grade art projects (I posted some examples today). They are not really for anyone but me, but at the same time, they sometimes give me clues to what is really going on in my psyche. Words can do this for me, but sometimes they fail me. That logical, rational, ego-driven part of my mind can protect me mightily from my inner truth.

The ego knows some truths may be painful, and require me to make certain changes in my life, definitely stepping outside the comfortable world I know. Since my brain is trying its best to take care of me, to keep me ensconced in safety, it does what it knows best, seek pleasure and avoid pain.

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And yet, this is not the path where personal and spiritual growth happens. Often it takes a painful life event to get us to a place where we MUST make some change. Sometimes there is a powerful realization within us that we have become too comfortable. In my past, I find that I tend to “make trouble” for myself when things are a little too comfortable.

Looking back, I see how many times I was running from something, rather than facing up to it. Or how many times I tried to avoid my discomfort and fear, by keeping myself from know some truth that was billowing up within me. I feared as soon as I acknowledged it, I would need to change MY WHOLE LIFE and would disrupt my loved ones’ lives around me. I did not realize I could take action steps toward what was next, at a pace that worked for me.

Sometimes we must leap into the fire and destroy the previous life (or lie) we have lived, if it was not authentic to the essence of our being, who we really are. And I believe sometimes this fire burns from within, and allows us to rise from the ashes of our prior belief systems which no longer work for us.

As we un-buffer, and become comfortable with discomfort, we develop courage and determination to rise up and do what our soul calls us to do. May you, dear reader, slow down and know when your buffers are getting in the way of your highest purpose.

 

 

Yin and Yang

As I was on the mat yesterday for my favorite yin yoga class, I could not help thinking about the practice of “yin” which in yoga terms means surrender. We spend so much time pushing forward, trying to be productive and striving to accomplish things. The culture in which I live promotes and supports that.  It is all about action and results, the yang side of the balance. But what I love about yin practice, is that it complements all of the yang activity that I normally do.

In doing the research for this piece I encountered a nice little video from “Ed Ted” that you may enjoy if you are interested in learning more about the Taoist concept of yin and yang. It is only 4 minutes and really quite beautiful. For example, the inside space of a cup is “yin” but the cup itself is “yang.” Each side contains the seed of the other within it.

The Tao is the power or the way of the universe. Living in harmony with the way means we do not have to fight with the universe’s natural flow. Listen more; argue less. Be ready to back up or undo something and you will make even faster progress. Don’t worry about being the best; be who you are. The wise person is flexible. The Tao Te Ching has even more wisdom in it, and when I read it years ago, some parts of it resonated with me, while others I was not ready to understand. I will probably return to it now, as I feel like I have been in a period of yang in my life generally. However, the yin beckons to me and I realize that I have not been living in the most sustainable balance.

Yin Yang Wikipedia image

One of my favorite yoga teachers, Ruth Silva, has said in some classes:  there is no hurry. And this echoes another mantra that I often use when I meditate: “I have time for everything I need to do today.” When we tell ourselves we are too busy, then we live that way. When we acknowledge that, technically, all we need to do to stay alive in this moment is breathe, we are telling the truth.  And everything we do beyond that is a choice. There is no need to “spin” into tales of woe and self-pity about what we “need” to do. Instead, we can be honest about many of the actions (or non-actions) in our life as choices we make. The choices have consequences, but when we are honest with ourselves, we can see so much more open space in our lives.

I was feeling “stuck” the other day in my job, wondering what would be next, getting annoyed over the tasks I thought I “had to do” and wishing I could be somewhere else, or do something else. Granted, I have been contemplating a change for quite some time now, moving outside the corporate world to work in a way that allows me to fully engage my creativity. But then I realized that, when I allow myself to see ways to apply creativity to some of the challenges I face every day, it opens my soul to the possibilities to act right in the moment where I exist.

It is about balance, finding that yin that co-exists within the yang. I know that my own life affords me much privilege to do work that I enjoy, and get paid a fair amount for it. For that I am profoundly grateful. I also know that rest and renewal are a necessity for my work to be high-quality, which is why I never leave vacation days on the table… As I consider my Friday yang activities in anticipation of the yin of the weekend, I wish you peaceful surrender and plenty of rest.

 

Mindful return to daily life

Sunset on Isla Holbox
Sunset on Isla Holbox, a favorite vacation spot in Mexico

Returning from vacation is always bittersweet. The lovely days of enjoying the time without a focus on schedules, plans, to-do lists and routine activities can be hypnotic. I treasure the restoration that accompanies this slow and easy life that allows one to appreciate the luxury that is time, and the abundance that is our life.

When I return to work, I sometimes struggle with keeping the composure that seems to accompany “island time” while on vacation. We visited Isla Holbox while on a brief honeymoon trip after our wedding. It was a location we had visited before, 2 1/2 years ago during February. This time, it was hotter and more humid (77F dewpoint), so that forced me to go much slower than the pace I usually move. Never a fan of heat and humidity, I treasure the crisp autumn weather in Minnesota. But in any case, the island temperature called us to slow down, to walk more mindfully and to adjust our overall pace.

For many years I have been a runner, and in the past couple of years have focused more on developing my yoga practice as a component to living a more mindful, intentional and conscious life. While I still enjoy running and it helps me calm myself in some ways, I realize that slowing down is also a necessary and vital component of my wellness and vitality. Tuning into that “frequency” deep within, that is so easily drowned out by so many other noises in the outer world has become fundamental, not optional, to the way I choose to live.

In returning to work after the wedding and the vacation trip, I am realizing that this is when the “rubber hits the road” as far as putting that mindful, slower, intentional practice to work in my life. Retreats from the world and from the daily routines can help us re-establish a rhythm that is more amenable to those quieter forces within us that wake up only when we really listen. And to listen, we must sometimes turn off the outside influences that may appeal to our minds and our desires for more knowledge, more data, more connections in our neural networks. But in the same way that pruning the old, dead blossoms from a flowering plant helps the other flowers to flourish, our minds seem to require this pruning.

By meditating, and for me this means watching my thoughts come and go, I am able to give myself that necessary quiet space to allow for greater growth in the long-term. Now that it has become a daily practice (sometimes for as much as an hour, but more often, as little as 5-15 minutes) I have begun to understand, and just lightly “taste” the benefits, while opening to new insights. Yesterday while traveling home a number of different situations presented themselves that in the past may have caused anxiety, but I was able to handle them gracefully. I am far from perfect, but I am learning to see how this practice can help me bring some of that vacation mindset back to my daily life and to my work.

Martha Beck recommends a practice of “vacation from predation” which I believe comes from her book, The Four-Day Win. I am paraphrasing and giving my interpretation of this, but what it means to me is to realize that whatever stress we may be feeling, most of us, at any given moment are presently safe. I realize this reflects privilege to say this, and indeed there are many instances when people are not safe, but there is also so much stress and suffering that are added by our minds, by our thoughts about whatever is our current situation. It is actually those thoughts, not the situation itself which cause anxiety and stress. The situations themselves are neutral and to a large extent we can choose our reaction to them. We can observe our emotions and become aware of our thoughts and then realize that the “stories” we use to interpret, filter and process those situations are what drive and feed those emotions.

As I return to my email inbox, the appointments that will pop up on my calendar and the responsibilities of my day-to-day life, I will strive to remember this wisdom and to practice compassion for myself when I do sometimes over-react. My amygdala is trained and has its habits, which require some re-training.  I also have better tools to calm these over-reactions and to keep events in perspective. This makes me profoundly grateful.

Gratitude for my teachers

I woke up this morning so excited to write and start this blog process. For many years I have been a journal writer and my personal, still hand-written journal will likely remain an important part of my (nearly) daily practice. I notice a distinct difference in the quality of my days when I write versus when I skip the writing. My journal is a way to clarify my thinking, sometimes to process thoughts that do not serve me, sometimes just to record the latest threads of my life that I am attempting to sort, to weave together, and to understand. I wrote this morning that my journal is like a “lab notebook of my evolving consciousness.” I like that line… it appeals to the scientist in me, the part of me that has always loved to catalog and make sense of data. I suppose making sense of ourselves and our reason for being is the ongoing spiritual quest of all humans.

I feel intense gratitude in these early hours today, and such powerful energy. It is fitting, on the first day of school for so many young people, that I thank to the many teachers in my life. From my parents, my first teachers and actual teachers (their chosen vocation) to friends, professors, wise people, mentors, authors who I read and “converse” with, I have been blessed with such wealth. I delight in ideas and new ways to understand the world, and I am constantly on the search for voices of wisdom, mentors and teachers who share their beliefs, practices, adventures, and struggles. It helps me feel less alone, when I realize the commonalities we all have as humans, and the reality that our these commonalities can unite us in a profound way.

Some of the authors I have read (and re-read) in the past year include Martha Beck (ever present in my library since I read Finding Your North Star so many years ago), Elizabeth Gilbert, Brene Brown, Krista Tippett, Adam Grant, Liane Moriarty, and Louise Erdrich (and many others, but these are the first that jump out at me my from my bookshelf). How interesting that so many of those voices happen to be women. I have also been listening and consuming a lot of podcasts in the past year, starting from a recommendation toward Brooke Castillo’s Lifecoach School podcast, and continuing to Hidden Brain, Only Human, Magic Lessons (another Liz Gilbert creation), the Robcast, and a number of health and wellness related podcasts that have taught me from many perspectives.

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I am grateful to all of these voices, and to what I have learned about the process and necessity of creation, of creativity to human flourishing. Any endeavor can have a creative component, as I now realize, even navigating a large bureaucrazy (I always mis-spell this word automatically. I believe it is my soul’s way to communicate truth to my brain, which can be slow to catch on.) I also realize that I am part of this dialogue, this interaction with ideas, this attempt to make sense of our world, and to create something new.

Why create the mexi minnesotana blog now? I am overwhelmed ubiquity of social media and differing opinions floating out in the blogosphere, and I expect you may be as well. I had to severely curtail my Facebook habit for some time after the 2016 U.S. election because I realized that, while social media fosters an ability to connect with other like-minded people around the world, it can also be an echo-chamber that amplifies negativity. The democratization of media, the way in which more people can have a voice by opening up shop at a domain, is a fascinating phenomenon to watch.

We have a natural questioning of authority, a real and evolving process of learning to make choices about what we follow, who we choose to believe. Facts, which used to be considered sacrosanct in journalism, are subject to a myriad of interpretations and misrepresentations. While this has always been true, the amplification of some of these notions can have troubling implications for our culture. As a firm believer in democracy, I see this as an evolution for us, and for myself, a realization that I am also search of some “authority” to help me make sense of it all.

While spirituality will be another aspect I explore in the future, this need for authority, one emerging truth has been the validity of my own experience. In the past year and a half or so I have developed a very consistent meditation practice, a process of going inward and forgoing the distractions of the outer world. (Thank you to Nirav Sheth and Rajinder Singh for teaching me as I committed to the practice more fully in 2016). My own voice is but one of many, but it is a unique one, and I have felt increasingly moved to share my voice, to write about my observations of the cultural zeitgeist from my point of view.

My goals are largely personal, in understanding the broader world around me, and perhaps inviting dialogue on topics I believe are important. It can be a vulnerable experience to put one’s thoughts out there, to enter into “the arena” as Brene Brown (Daring Greatly) would say. But something tells me it is right to do this now, to start this process, and see where it leads. I am not expecting a particular outcome, but my hope is that, if someone reads and the words or ideas resonate, that they will feel less alone, perhaps less lost in this cacophony of voices. We all must find our own way, but with our wise teachers and mentors, we do this knowing we are surrounded by a powerful tribe, and one that bravely shows up and defends the values we hold most dear.