I have shared the story of my five-day mindfulness retreat in Petaluma with multiple people, and I’m still trying to figure out what happened. First of all, who gets to go on a five-day retreat, leaving family behind, spending a chunk of cash, and being that selfish? Me, that’s who. Wow, am I grateful. In fact, I spent a lot of time being grateful while I was there. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
My intentions in going were to take the next step in my MBSR training (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and to get some tools to cope with stress better. I’m often ‘stressed out’, and it affects how I treat people, especially my children. I may or may not become a certified MBSR teacher, but as Arianna Huffington said, “Meditation and mindfulness are no longer reserved for people who live in Berkeley. It’s mainstream now.” So I’m just following the trend. But unlike most trends, this one gives me hope.
For those who don’t know, No, seriously. Meditation too often seems like something reserved for “other people” or something we should do but never have the time for. Mindfulness gives those of us who suck at meditating a way to lower the water level of current and historic stressors in order to make better decisions in this now moment. Having a semi-regular practice of mindfully noticing, breathing, pausing, paying close attention, and being still, results in a state of mind that is more relaxed, focused, and adaptable. And all change, big or small, starts with noticing and acknowledging what is before you can ever hope to change it.
Trust me when I say that I am no paragon of virtue in this endeavor. Case in point was the retreat experience itself. The two facilitators, renowned experts in the field and trained by the Mindfulness Master himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn, irritated me from the get-go. There was no way they could be that mellow, grounded and centered no matter what anyone did or said. It was like Bob Ross was leading us with two heads, always mellow, sometimes hypnotic, and completely unflappable. (Ah, happy trees…) And they threw us in the deep end. Without remorse. I tried desperately to “trust the process”, but I went to bed Sunday night thinking, “I better feel more mindful soon.”
That first night was a warning. I didn’t know it then, but they were telling us that we were about to embark on a journey that would seriously mess with our heads, challenging the stories we have always held dear about ourselves, our histories and the world around us. How? By leaving us alone with our minds. I would be stuck in my own head, trying again and again to not attach to the thoughts that barge in. This isn’t the meditation style of “clear your mind completely”. Can anyone even do that? Like the guy on the top of the mountain after spending 7 years in Tibet. Can he do that? Or does even he suddenly think, “Did I leave the iron on? What am I going to say at the meeting? Am I happy?” My mind is never blank. Often the best I can do is force some of the thoughts into separate corners so I can just finish something. Like this post I started 3 weeks ago…
The first full day was sitting. And standing. And sitting. And walking. And then we learned how to sit better so our knees would forgive us later. (They could have said that earlier. Oh, hey, look! Judgement! sigh) More sitting. And we weren’t getting some guided imagery like walking through the woods into a cave, no. That would give us something to think about. We were focusing on our breath. Not changing it, just noticing it. (Who knew I was such a shallow breather? I’m sure I need more oxygen than that…) In and out. In and out. (Is anyone else having trouble with this? Be quiet!) In and out. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. (Is it better to breathe out through the nose? I thought that’s what they said in that yoga class I took with Mandypants. I wonder what she’s…Stop it!) In and out. (Wait, how much time did I lose in that last thought process? Did I…Knock it off!) In and out. Breathing. Breathing is good. (Oh, hell. It’s just now breakfast? I’m never going to survive 5 days of this…) And on and on.
We did everything mindfully, with a huge focus on transitions. Normally I just stop doing one thing and start another. Or start another while I’m still doing the first thing. (I can multitask, you damn researchers, you!) And it was weird. It was like a really small ritual of saying goodbye to what I was just doing so I could go do something else. “And before we go to lunch, let’s take 3 breaths together.” Then I would walk mindfully to the lunch area, go through the buffet line, (I think I put more weight on my second tarsal bone. The air in the lobby feels different than the air in the ballroom.) and eat mindfully. Looking at, smelling, and thoroughly tasting everything I ate. I will forever be in love with roasted nuts. So amazing! And I ate a lot less, going slow and really getting into my food. Weird.
Then came Wednesday. The Silent Day. No taking, social media, or even eye contact. We heard only ambient noises and the facilitators gently telling us to transition to something else. I didn’t even make it to lunchtime. Something just swelled up inside of me. Not something. Anger. Pure, unbridled anger. Rage. I was so amazingly pissed off. I hated. I hated everyone and everything. That woman two yoga mats over doing advanced yoga moves when we were supposed to all be doing the same basic stuff. The facilitators and their smarmy calmness. The hotel and their stupid carpet pattern. All the people who have ever wronged or slighted me. All the people in power who were too dumb and/or selfish to be leaders. All the everything and everyone. Especially myself. All the things I woulda/coulda/shoulda done, my mistakes, my inaction, my fear. Ooooohhh, it sucked. Every time I tried to let go of a thought, it came back with a vengeance.
Being someone who would rather lose a finger than make a scene, (Can we say therapy?) I felt trapped. I had a wild urge to run out of the door. (They can’t keep me here!) I restrained myself only because I didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s experience — and because I had paid for this, dammit! So I did the only thing I could think of. I thought. I thought and thought and told myself stories and imagined myself starting a pie fight at lunch and running through the hotel screaming, “I am a fish!” I rebelled. I rebelled in my head, where I was in total control. I thought mean, absurd and naughty things. Because I could. So there. And then I walked to lunch, completely ignoring how I walked. I scarfed my food mindlessly. That will show them! But the anger didn’t dissipate. It seemed to get worse, and I still had almost two hours to kill before the next session. I was pacing in the hotel room. I had to do something. So I left.
The hotel is next to a wildlife preservation marsh with walking trails. I started running before I hit the trailhead. I ran like the Hounds of Hell were after me. I am so not a runner, but I didn’t stop. I kept running until my chest hurt and I was gasping for air. As I stopped to gasp for oxygen, I saw I was next to a pedestrian bridge. I decided to hide under the bridge. Like a troll. I’m sitting under the bridge, and an image of me jumping out in front of innocent passersby booming, “I am the troll under the bridge! You cannot pass until you answer me a question!” just cracked me up. I sat there with a hand over my mouth trying not to stifle the laughter. I was being ridiculous. The whole thing was ridiculous. I crack me up. I went back.
After lunch we did a walking meditation with guided imagery, for the first time. It was called the Open Heart meditation. We were supposed to imagine our hearts opening up as we walked. Feeling like mine was already wide open and raw, I began to forgive. I forgave the yoga woman who was probably frustrated she couldn’t do her normal routine, all the people who may or may not have known they hurt me, and myself. I walked up and down a yoga mat naming every mistake, bad thing, and missed opportunity I could think of, and forgiving myself for them and being grateful. And I felt lighter, somehow. Like the anger was a stack of weights inside and I got rid of a few during my run. By the end I was smiling and crying. When they finally brought us out of the silence with a whispering activity, then talking, and finally sharing, I told everyone how hard it was and that I almost left. But that I had forgiven myself. The facilitators looked at each other, then at me, with those knowing smiles that told me they had heard this story before. Well, maybe they aren’t all that smarmy. Maybe my story just isn’t as original as I had thought.
But it is my story, and it continues. I unpack a bit more of what I uncovered at the retreat every day. I am definitely more committed to being mindful when I’m eating, walking, driving, and working. I have noticed hundreds of things in the past month that I didn’t before, mostly my own word choice, internal and external. (You know, I really am a decent cook.) I’ve started going to yoga classes, and I love it. I’m starting a new MBSR series next month. I’ve even managed to sit and meditate a few times. But most importantly, I’ve noticed a pause. Not a big one, but just a second or two has been added between when the kids do something that angers me and when I respond. I don’t feel like an amazing parent or anything, but I do feel like I have a bit more perspective and control over how I respond to things. Maybe that’s not much. But maybe it’s just the beginning.
Saying good-bye to 2013
As part of my final farewell to 2013, I wanted to share some of the things I do to let go of the old and bring in the new. I believe it’s very important to move through life with intention, and one of the ways I do this is to make a big deal out of certain things.
For this reason, I like New Year’s Eve. It’s a clear demarcation, not only that I need to write a different date on my checks, but that the wheel of the year keeps on turning. One of the most successful quotes I ever originated was, “And in a year, you will be a year older. Whether or not you go for it, a year will have passed. Will you regret it or celebrate it?” As a result of saying these words, I helped encourage two bachelor degrees, a military enlistment and a marriage.
Time passes. Move forward with intention.
Anyway, to say good-bye to 2013, I write an annual letter. I include it in my holiday cards to family and friends, in part to make sure I haven’t left anyone out of our life updates, and in part to recognize all that has happened to myself and my family. In my business, I write down all our accomplishments and share them with my team. We work very hard, and we don’t always take the time to recognize it. This is a good reminder to do so, and a great chance to thank the people who helped make it happen. (I also close out the books, but that’s not as exciting.)
Let go of 2013. The New Year doesn’t need extra baggage.
Going into 2014, I decided to change things up a little. I usually choose a theme for the year in retrospect. Writing my annual letter for this holiday season, I decided 2013 could best be described as “Epic”. Our growth as individuals and as a family exploded, not the lease of which was starting OmniConsultants. The difference for 2014 is that I’m choosing the theme in advance — “Celebration.”
The most worthwhile tradition is to plan for the New Year.
I intend to celebrate my life, my family, my clients, my work and all that I do as often as I can. I will make more of an effort to be grateful, show my appreciation, and be generous in all that I do. There are so many little ways to pause and appreciate what we have every day, and I intend to incorporate them. I think I will start early and go hug my kids.
What do you do to celebrate life? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments section below. Happy New Year, everyone!
Superhero Self Care – Part 6
Your space affects you.
My war with the dust bunnies has reached epic proportions, and with all the holiday activities, it’s become increasingly difficult to keep up. I just cannot focus on my Good Work (i.e. Heroic Good Deeds) when the piles of paper are falling over, there’s sticky notes all over the place and three used coffee mugs sit on my desk. Clutter in front of me clutters my mind, and I need both to be clear in order to save anyone’s day, including my own.
And I’m not the only one. Studies (like this one) have shown that when your environment is cluttered, you are less able to focus. You are
more distracted with competing visual cues, like multiple piles of paper, and less able to process information.
Look around. What do you see?
Do you have a room, a surface, a space where you can start fresh every day? Does it uplift you when you walk in? Or do you fear going certain places or starting up your computer because the mountains of to-dos and messages make you feel anxious and overwhelmed?
Whether your superhero headquarters is made of crystal shards or is in a cave, it’s important to set up a space of your own that supports your Good Work. It can be a spare room, a desk, or even just a shelf where you keep some of the tools of your trade.
This is more than just cleaning or organization.
There are many good systems out there for getting your “stuff” organized. You can start small, set aside a weekend or hire help to get things to the level of “maintenance mode.” That’s a great goal, but it’s a big project with a lot of steps to take. Go ahead and take the first step, but I also know that…
You need a safe, supportive space, right now.
If you don’t already have a space, choose one that isn’t frequented by everyone else in your family or office (depending on where you do the majority of your Good Work).
Remove everything. Put it all aside for now.
Dust/clean the surfaces.
Replace only the tools that you need every day, or for that day’s Work. (Everything else can go into a box or drawer for now. Trust me.)
Add a few things that inspire you, like a book, figurine or favorite quote.
Sit with it for a few moments, and check in with your response.
How does it feel? Can you breathe easier? Focus better?
Calendar an hour in the next week to go through the box or drawer that you put the non-urgent items into. During that hour you will papers & folders into:
Put only the “Need to do today” pile in your space and put the rest aside again. Then schedule time on your calendar to review those piles every week, prioritizing the new stuff and shifting everything that’s not urgent into the “month” pile. If something stays in the “month” pile for more than a few weeks, maybe you don’t need to do it at all. On the computer, you can use email folders, file folders, flags or reminders to prioritize your to-dos the same way. Then you are only working on what needs to happen “today”.
Many ‘experts’ encourage you to touch a piece of paper or an email only once. That would be great if we could always do that. But when you can’t, give yourself the space, physically and mentally, to do what you can.
Incorporate all your senses.
A friend of mine once said that whenever she needs to change her frame of mind, she vacuums. Something about it allows her to be calm and start on the next task. Personally, I have always had an association of fresh air and open space with the smell of lemon, so I use lemon juice cleaners in my work space. I also use task lighting and background music to put me in the right frame of mind. And if I’m feeling particularly anxious or have very little time to wind down, I turn on the chair massager!
Set yourself up for success.
Setting up your space is also really important for specific tasks. An excellent way to be and feel prepared for a meeting, a call or a project is to set your space up in advance. Take at least five to ten minutes to gather your notes and tools, open the necessary files, and move everything else out of the way. Then sit in your space for a few moments and think about your desired outcome. Are you looking to participate fully? Finish a project that’s been dangling over your head? Get a new client or partner? Setting a clear intention before you begin will focus your actions and your mind.
Doing your best work every day is demanding, so make it easier by creating an environment that supports the best you!
How do you set up your space? Share your ideas with our community in the comments section below.
Superhero Self Care – Part 5
Where Do We Get Such Wonderful Toys?
Lately I’ve been contemplating my superhero toolbelt. Superheroes that are not born with the gift of flight or superspeed definitely benefit from a well-stocked utility or toolbelt. So I was thinking, what do I carry close at hand to help me move forward, even when times are tough?
Why do you need a toolbelt?
Let’s say you’re in the middle of a great conversation, making an awesome connection, when someone comes up and interrupts, and whoops!—before you know it, the conversation has veered into a whole new direction. How do you keep a momentary glitch like that from ruining your whole evening, or worse yet, keep you from making the authentic connection you were headed towards?
Perhaps you’re in a rough spot financially, lost a job or contract, or just can’t seem to get ahead. You’re taking all the actions you’re supposed to, and yet you’re not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. You’re trying to be patient, but how do you keep a good attitude?
And the big one, what about good, old-fashioned stuck-ness? Your relationships aren’t where you’d like them to be, your forward momentum has slowed to a crawl and everything you do feels like you have to slog through a foot of mud to do it. Help!
What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
Anything! Something! It’s true. Before you spiral down into the cycle of feel bad—do nothing—feel bad, stop where you are and take a compassionate look at yourself. What do you notice? Is your heart racing? Are you completely unmotivated? Totally exhausted? Pay close attention to your emotions, as they are the indicator lights on the dashboard of your current state. Even if you don’t know *why* you’re feeling a certain way, acknowledge where you are. The first step of any intervention is awareness.
Now that you’ve checked in, you can choose to grab the appropriate tool from your toolbelt and address the problem. Or not. Emotions themselves are not good or bad. It’s a question of where you want to be. If you want to change your mood or your current state, reach for your tools.
What’s on your toolbelt?
I’ve been working on my toolbelt for years, and I’ll bet you have, too. It’s the kind of thing that you can add to, with every single life lesson. You may call it something else, but you have strategies and coping mechanisms you pull out when necessary. Let’s name a few of the things you can pull out to stop a vicious cycle:
Find the humor
Visualize a positive outcome
Breathe deeply/meditate/pray/relax — even five minutes can turn everything around
Write a letter to someone that you may or may not ever send (especially a love letter!)
Look at pictures/cartoons that make you smile
Make/listen to a playlist of songs that always lift your mood
Set boundaries (as discussed here
Keep a gratitude journal, and write in it!
You may have some other tools I haven’t even thought of! Write down all the things that make you happy someplace where you can easily refer to it. Pull out a tool — or two — whenever you want.
You control your attitude.
I know. You’ve heard that before. And it is so much easier said than done. But at the end of the day, or week, or in that moment, who suffers if you wallow in a dark place? Yep. You. You could choose to stay there, but why?
I know it’s tough sometimes. Trust me. I’ve been there. My life lessons have added to my toolbelt, and I’ve noticed some fundamental themes. These are my “4 Ps,” each of which is represented in one way or another in every single tool I use:
Patience — The sun will rise, the sun will set. And repeat. Just breathe. Find good things to distract you from thinking about waiting. Like…
Persistence — Keep doing the “stuff”, the little actions every day that will move you forward. No matter what, in a year, a year will have passed. That should give you some…
Perspective — What was the biggest heartbreak you experienced in school? How did it feel at the time? How does it feel now? Are you at…
Peace — Have faith that you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. You have lessons to learn, growth to experience and wisdom to gain.
Oh, and Practice. I guess that’s 5 P’s, because I keep practicing every day, using my tools to be the kind of superhero I want to be. Even when I fall down, no matter how many times I fall down, I get up again. And I know you do, too.
What’s on your toolbelt? Share your favorite tools in the blog comments section below, and we can all add to each other’s toolbelt!
Superhero Self Care – Part 4
The Secret Ingredient
I started this newsletter last week with the idea of going back to the basics. I wanted to remind you how the choices you make every day fundamentally support or dismantle the life you want to lead. Healthy foods, consistent physical movement and getting enough sleep are key to your well being. Period. Without these ingredients you cannot thrive, let alone be the superhero you strive to be. I thought that talking to you about the most basic building blocks of self care was the best thing I could share with you right now.
Then I jumped out of an airplane.
Don’t forget to breathe!
It was my nephew’s 18th birthday, and he wanted to do something that was “all him”. He has had more than his share of challenges in life, so reaching adulthood was a cause for celebration for all of us. I am so proud of him for all his growth in striving to be more and more independent every day. So I agreed to go skydiving with him.
I know many people who have gone skydiving and most have loved it. I wasn’t really worried about safety (although I did find myself telling people I loved them more than I usually do that morning).
We signed all the paperwork, waited our turn, and got suited up with our tandem instructor. Then our plane took off. Every time my nephew looked over at me, you can be sure I had a reassuring smile on my face. Once in the air, I never considered changing my mind.
Talk about commitment.
I got nervous after the first person jumped at 9,000 feet. We were going up to 13,000, and I kept thinking about all the things the instructor had told me to do — Where to put my feet, when to move my hands, how to breathe. Was I going to remember it all? What if I did it wrong?
And then I was falling.
There was no going back, no changing course. I had made a decision, and in the most concrete way possible, could not undo it. So I completely surrendered myself to the experience. For the first time in a long time, my mind got quiet as my whole world condensed to focus on that ‘now’ moment.
Everything was so small below me. All the fields looked like an exercise in learning my shapes — squares, rectangles, trapezoids. All these man-made divisions drawn around the curving rivers of nature. The crops had the textures of a fuzzy quilt. The cars looked like Hot Wheels. If there were people down there, they were just dots on the paper. Then I got it.
It’s all about releasing fear.
Talk about perspective. Not my insecurities, my failures or what I imagined people thought of me mattered in that moment. There was nothing about how I define myself or what I do or don’t do that seemed all that important. I had jumped. I was doing something that not everyone could do, and as much as I love my nephew, I was doing it for me. The secret ingredient isn’t something you put in. It’s something you strive to keep out, let go of and release — fear.
Odds are you will survive the fall, so why not jump?
So I encourage you to jump. It can be speaking up at a meeting, volunteering to lead a project or deciding what you’re going to do with the rest of your life, but I say go for it. Do it and have fun with it. Maybe even flap your arms a bit.
Oh, and I’m still serious about the getting enough sleep part. Don’t even mess with that.
How did you get past your fears? Tell me about your “jump” in the blog comments section below, and let me be inspired by you!