Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Enjoying the Present Moment

            Years ago I was addicted to watching the TV show Jeopardy everyday.  My TV was in my den and every afternoon at four o’clock I would go in there and half-sit, half-lie on the daybed and spend half an hour with Alex Trebek and his contestants, guessing at the answers to the questions (or actually guessing at the questions, the answers to which appeared on a board under the categories of the day and were selected by the contestants, as in, “I’ll take famous restaurants for $200”).   I always picked one contestant to root for.  For some reason my contestant hardly ever won, and I hardly ever got any of the questions right, but I felt delight every time I did get something right and I felt competitive satisfaction when my contestant won and minor grief every time they didn’t, especially if it was during a play-off when there was a lot at stake. 
            I did that almost every weekday afternoon for maybe a year.  Then I got together with Viktor, rented my house, and moved to Fairfield to live with him.  I lost my study, my daybed, my TV, and even the ability to watch TV since we didn’t have one in Fairfield that you could do more than watch a DVD on.  By the time I made it back to my house and to Iowa City, my life had changed and I no longer had time, or even a space in my house, for watching Jeopardy. (The former den was now Viktor’s and my bedroom, my former bedroom was now my study, and Viktor’s kids had the upstairs to hang out in on the weekends.  All of that has changed once again, but I still don’t have my old den back or a Jeopardy-getting TV. )  
Every now and then I still feel a strong pang of sadness when I think of how I used to watch Jeopardy every day and the spaciousness of my life back then. (At that time I had come into some money and didn’t have to do anything to make a living and could devote myself pretty much to writing.)  But the truth is, when I look back at those times when I had the house, the study, the schedule all set up so I could watch Jeopardy, I see that there were many times when I didn’t really enjoy that half hour of television.  Even then I kind of knew that there was a certain state of mind that would make it possible for me to enjoy that little window of time and another one that would keep me from enjoying it, and that I was in the latter a lot more than the former. 
Often, back then, as I was sitting there watching Jeopardy, part of me was focusing on whatever problem or fear or worry was on my mind at that particular moment.  And I was usually feeling vaguely guilty, thinking that I probably shouldn’t be doing what I was doing.  I was feeling tense, distracted, rushed, and worried about what I was going to do next.  I wasn’t close to enjoying myself to the maximum, for all those reasons.
            I like to think that now all that would be different.
            Since then, I’ve become a lot more able to stay in the present moment than I used to be, although I haven’t gotten there via the route I used to think would take me there. I used to think that if I just made up my mind to stop worrying and obsessing and thinking all the time, to look around and see, really see, what was there, I would become permanently more mindful.  But I kept forgetting to make up my mind to be more mindful, and in the end the wanting-to/trying-to approach to becoming present in the moment didn’t work for me at all.  What did work, practically without my even noticing it, was doing certain things day after day, things that automatically made me more mindful.  
One of those actions has been planning my days in a certain way – deciding at the beginning of the day what I’m going to do and when I’m going to do it -- and another has been checking in about my day’s plan with someone else.  Planning my day is sort of like visualizing my day -- because I’ve touched down in every part of it during the planning I’m more likely to be present in it as I actually go through it.  I consciously make space for anything I need or want to do and then I’m more conscious as I do what I’ve made space for.   And knowing I’m going to be telling my friend (my regular time partner) specifically what I did when I check back in tomorrow, makes me more mindful today too:  Everything becomes a story I tell myself in preparation for telling my friend.  I imagine how I’ll describe for my friend that half-hour of sitting there in my study watching Jeopardy (if only I were doing that these days!), which activates the observer part of me, which activates mindfulness.  Mindfulness, after all, is about observing ourselves as well as everything around us, observing ourselves as we notice and interact with everything else.
            And because I’ve harnessed my time and planned my day, I know that at this moment I’m doing exactly what I should be doing.  I don’t have to worry that I should be doing something else, don’t have to fret and rehearse and mentally engage with what I did before and what I’m doing next, don’t have to feel distracted and guilty, the way I used to when I was watching Jeopardy.  Now I can use the mental energy I used to spend on that sort of stuff, actually paying attention to and enjoying what I’m doing in the moment.  I can even plan to tell myself that I’ll be present while I’m doing whatever the these-days equivalent of watching Jeopardy is.  I can write that little goal of being present down on my plan, which will remind me of it, will make me mindful that I wanted to be mindful, and I can tell my time partner that that’s my goal and then tell her later how it went, which will also make me mindful of being mindful. 
            All of which can, will, and does make me able to be more present in the present moment.  Makes me enjoy what I’m doing more as I’m doing it.  Which makes life worth living.   More and more worth living with every passing day.  It’s as simple as that.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Putting on the Oxygen Mask

In the twelve step meetings I go to, we talk a lot about self-care.  There’s a reading in one of our daily meditation books about how in an airplane emergency you’re supposed to put your own oxygen mask on before you put one on your child or on someone else who can’t do it for themselves, because if you pass out you won’t be able to help someone else with their oxygen mask.  The reading goes on to talk about how that can be seen as a metaphor for what we should do in our lives.  Often the impulse is to put our own needs aside when someone else needs help, but we should make our own needs a priority, not only for our own sakes – because after all we count, we’re people too – but also because if we’re not taking care of ourselves we won’t be able to be any good for anyone else.
            All of that my friends and I are totally clear about, although we can’t always put it into action in our lives.  The thing we’re not always so clear about it is how to put into action in our lives.  How do we take care of ourselves?  Do we luxuriate in bubble baths (for some reason there are many references to bubble baths in the twelve-step literature that talks about self-care), eat well, exercise, go to the doctor and dentist when we need to?  Yes, all of that.  And self-care has a lot to do with how we use our time, with whether we take time to rest and have fun or make ourselves work all the time without ever taking breaks, with whether we take time to nurture ourselves or just do things for other people all day long, joylessly, relentlessly, sometimes resentfully.
            I’ve been using my own harnessing time tools consistently for several years now, and lately I’ve been noticing that I seem to have taken self-care to a new level, noticing that I have many opportunities for self-care that I never thought of before I started working on harnessing my time. What I’ve noticed, specifically, is that I don’t make myself do things any more that don’t feel right in the moment.  Of course, I have obligations like everyone else and I honor those obligations; I don’t skip out on work, whether it’s coaching dates with clients or something else, and I don’t skip out on writing either.  Unless there’s an emergency or some other really compelling reason, I write and do whatever timely thing I need to do for my work life whether I feel like it or not.  (Otherwise I might never write or work at all, because I often don’t feel like getting to work at the outset, then I start enjoying the work once I’ve gotten involved.)  But there are many things I can choose to do or not do that don’t fall into those categories, and those things, it turns out, are more negotiable than I used to believe. 
Almost anything that’s not nailed down -- because of some previous arrangement with myself or someone else -- can be postponed.  And because I’m planning my days in a certain way, I know that there’s no chance that “postponing” equals not doing at all.  I have confidence these days that I will do what I need to do and do it in a timely way, but that time just isn’t now.
              For example, a couple of days ago I had it on my plan that from five to six o’clock I was going to prepare a presentation.  The preparation had to be done by a certain date and my days had been very full and I was a little nervous about getting the preparation done on time, so I was pleased to have found a spot in my day when I could do it.  But when the time came, there was a part of me that really, really didn’t want to do that work then.  In the old days I might have forced myself to do it anyway, or at the very least I would have felt bad – felt like I was bad – for not doing it.  But now I simply noticed the feeling – oh, I don’t want to do that right now – acknowledged it, paid attention to it, and acted on it.  I looked at my calendar and identified a couple of other time slots in the next few days when I could do the preparing.    And then I promptly lay down on the daybed in my study and took a nap. 
I felt great:  I was resting when I needed to rest.  And I wasn’t forcing myself to override the inner voice that told me (in the form of a deep felt sense that I didn’t want to work right then) that what I really needed to do in that moment was rest. I wasn’t feeling guilty and therefore ruining my rest; I wasn’t telling myself any negative messages about myself at all.  Instead I was showing myself that I cared about what I wanted. I was showing myself that I -- like a good, loving, attentive parent -- can, do, and will notice what I need and take care of myself.  And I was proving to myself that later, having put on my own oxygen mask and worn it for a while, I’ll feel renewed, restored, and able to go out into the world and do what I need to do.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Sometimes It's Not Just About Not Having Enough Time

I had an interesting experience a few days ago with how you can be stressed about time without even knowing that’s what’s making you miserable, and with the ways that problems with time can be more complicated than just not having enough of it.
            Last Thursday morning, a rather distinguished retired professor, an acquaintance of an acquaintance, showed up at my backdoor.  He apologized for dropping by my house and said that that was the only way he knew how to get hold of me, and he asked me if I, in my capacity as a writing coaching, would have time to read his friend’s manuscript and talk to her about it sometime during the following week.  It had to be during the following week because that was the only time she was going to be here in town to meet with me.
            I didn’t have time.  I was going to be teaching on the weekend, then leaving on Wednesday to spend three days away from home resting and retreating at a local monastery. But instead of saying I didn’t have time, I said, “Let me get my calendar.”  I looked at my calendar and saw that if I really pushed it I could spend one hour looking at the woman’s manuscript on Monday, and one hour meeting with her at the library first thing on Tuesday morning.  I told the distinguished retired professor I could do that if it would work for him and his friend and he agreed to it as a plan.  He said he would drop off the manuscript in my mailbox over the weekend, while I was teaching. 
            All weekend, during the brief moments when I was home during my incredibly busy and exhausting teaching schedule, I kept looking for the manuscript, hoping, when it didn’t arrive, that the professor had somehow forgotten or changed his mind.  Then late on Sunday evening, when I got home from the grocery store where I’d gone as part of catching up on the errands I had postponed all weekend, it was there.  I felt disappointed and irritated and tired at the sight of it, but I was already tired anyway. 
I’d had insomnia the night before – I was awake, tossing and turning from one-thirty until about six in the morning.  For some reason, I just could not let go and sink down into the deep healing inner space of sleep.  Instead I felt tense, burdened, anxious.  I kept worrying about how I was going to be able to teach for four hours the following day on so little sleep – less and less sleep as the minutes and hours went by as I checked my digital clock:  It was 1:22, then 2:47, 3:23, 4:36, oh my God 5:32.  And during all that time I kept returning to the thought of that manuscript that I had to read.  I didn’t think there was anything I could do to get out of reading it because I had already said that I would, and the woman was only going to be in town for that one week and the distinguished retired professor seemed to think that I should meet with her in person.  And after all it was only one hour of reading and one hour of meeting with her.  Still, it was going to be hard because I was going to be tired from teaching, even more tired now because I wasn’t sleeping and …  on and on.  I must’ve cycled through that thought loop at least five times as I was lying there hour after hour, wondering how I was going to manage to teach the following day on so little sleep.
            I did teach the next day.  I don’t think I taught any differently than I would have if I had had a normal night’s sleep, but I felt absolutely awful.  It was a huge relief when the class was over at three and I could go home.   I lay down and fell into an exhausted sleep for half an hour. But that night, when the time came to go to bed, once again I couldn’t go to sleep.  And once again I kept returning to the thought of that manuscript, going over and over in my mind the fact that I had said I would take it and read it on Monday and meet on Tuesday and that I shouldn’t have agreed to that, worrying about how tired I was going to be and how much I wasn’t going to be up for reading the manuscript, and so forth. 
            I finally did manage to go to sleep, and when I got up on Monday morning, after I did my little meditation, connecting to the deep place inside myself from which all good decisions seem to come, I knew exactly what I should do:  I picked up the telephone and called the distinguished professor, whose cell phone number I had at least been smart enough to get when I agreed to read the manuscript.  I told him that I was too tired to do justice to the manuscript; that I usually meet with my coaching clients, many of whom live very far away from where I live, on the telephone; and that I was going to have to make a phone date with the manuscript author for sometime in the next few weeks since I was booked up until then.  The distinguished professor had no problem with that at all.  He put me on the phone with his author friend, who was staying at his house, and she and I made a date to meet on the phone in three weeks.
            I hung up the phone feeling jubilant with relief.  Then I called the two coaching clients I was supposed to meet with that day and rescheduled their appointments to future dates.  Everyone was very understanding and sympathetic.  All the stress that I had felt earlier was suddenly gone.  I was still tired, but instead of feeling overwhelmed, resentful, anxious, and crabby, I now felt light, free, relaxed, calm, powerful or at least empowered, and happy.
            And I felt as if I had learned a lesson, the same lesson I apparently need to keep learning over and over.   What I learned is that when I say I’ll do something without thinking about whether I really can or want to do it, when I just jump right in and agree to something because I think some other person wants or needs it, without considering whether it truly works for me – it often blows up in my face. 
(In the twelve-step meetings I go to, we call this tendency to make other people’s needs more important than yours, people-pleasing.  Sometimes it might seem like it’s the other person’s fault, for asking us for to do something we don’t want to do, but we’re the ones who are doing the agreeing and we can’t after all expect other people to know what we can and can’t do unless we tell them.) 
            I’ve learned that people-pleasing gets me into all sorts of trouble.  It makes me grumpy, because I end up feeling like I’ve got to do something I don’t want to do.  And it makes me feel powerless, because I’ve put someone else’s needs ahead of my own and therefore given them more power than I’ve held onto for myself.   I also feel powerless because I feel trapped by my own agreement.  All of these feelings are an illusion, of course:  I didn’t have to agree to anything I didn’t want to and I’m not trapped because I can always change my mind; all I have to do is allow myself to call the person back and tell them nicely (it doesn’t work as well if you don’t tell them nicely) that I need to cancel or change the plan.  As long as I’m nice, they’re always nice too, and often we find some alternative that works better for both of us.   I learn that I had the power all along, I just didn’t remember that in the beginning when I considered what they wanted and needed and forgot to consider what I did.  (There are various reasons for doing that, depending on the situation.  One of them is what I call the flattery factor, where I feel so flattered by someone asking me to do something, say, in the professional arena, that I don’t want to say no.  Another factor can be that the person who’s asking is someone I’m a little bit intimidated by, someone I have a pre-established sense of as more powerful than me, so I want to please him.  And sometimes I feel a little rushed to give an answer, like I don’t have time to really think about what I want before I say yes, so I jump the gun and agree to something that I shouldn’t agree to, and then I have to back out later.  All of those factors were present the other day in my initial interaction with the retired professor.)
            Most important of all, I’ve learned that a lot of my stress and struggles with time, my feelings of anxiety because there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it, have at least as much to do with people-pleasing as they do with how much time I have to get everything done.    And I think it’s probably safe to assume that that’s true for most people.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Power of Real Rest

            A couple of weeks ago I spent Wednesday afternoon through Saturday morning at New Melleray Abbey, a Trappist monastery an hour and a half away from Iowa City.  I went up there feeling tired and a little frazzled after an intense spate of teaching and while I was there I got completely, radically relaxed.
I spent the whole time lying on the single bed in my plain little room napping, reading – I ploughed through large chunks of at least four books -- staring at the recessed lights in the ceiling, and sleeping for nine hours a night.  Occasionally I got up to sit in the chair in the corner of my room and stare out the window, and I took two showers in the shower stall in my room’s little bathroom.  The showers felt like a big effort, and I postponed them for as long as possible.  At seven-fifty every morning and at noon and six p.m., I went down two flights of stairs to the guest dining room, crossed the floor to the cafeteria area, got a tray and a bowl and a plate, piled globs of farm-raised food – coleslaw, home grown beets, corn, mashed potatoes, greasy baked chicken – on the plate and joined my friend Dave Rogers, my partner for this particular trip to the monastery, at a table.  Sometimes after lunch and dinner I went for walks – with or without Dave -- on the long driveway that circles the big dewdrop-shaped lawn in front of the monastery.  And at five-thirty I went to vespers and at seven-thirty I went to compline – two of seven “hours” celebrated every day by the monks in the long, high-ceilinged, limestone chapel.  Guests can sit in the back of the chapel, cordoned off by a low black wrought-iron fence, and watch the monks chant and pray.  During compline you can leave the guest section and line up at the end of the monks’ line and get a little splat of holy water, and during any part of any of the services you can sing along with the monks, referring to a prayer book which I never figured out how obtain.  I didn’t want to sing the monks’ songs anyway but some other guests did, adding their wavery off-key voices to the deep, soaring, resonating, sometimes-off-key voices of the monks. 
            Going to the monastery seems like an odd way to have fun; the rooms are Spartan, the food is basic, and there isn’t anything much to do.  It’s probably not for everybody, but I absolutely love it.  In fact I crave it, the way you crave some food that contains a vitamin you have a deficiency in.  Time goes slowly at the monastery, at least twice as slowly as it goes anywhere else. When you’re lying on your bed staring up at the ceiling, no email, no phone calls, no errands, no money worries, no chores or pets or needs and wants of other people to distract and annoy and make you anxious, time stretches out before you vast and empty, like an endless snowy field.   You have all the time you could ever need and then some to nap and read, to think and not think. 
And that’s why I want to go there, of course, why I keep going back whenever I can.  It’s the complete rest that comes from the complete removal of everything you have to do and everything you want to do along with the wanting itself, the worrying, the sense that you should be doing something better, faster, more fun, different or differently – it’s the removal of all that, the complete rest that comes when it’s been removed, that’s what I crave.
            The first time I ever went to the monastery – alone, to try to figure out a writing problem in 1994 – someone I knew a little was coming out as I was going in.  “I always hate to leave this place,” he said, yawning.  I think of that now, every time I leave that place.  And every time, as I’m driving the hour and a half back to Iowa City, reentering real life after my few days’ retreat from it, I ask myself, How can I hold onto some of what I get at the monastery in my regular life?
            I believe I’ve figured out the answer to that question, at least part of the answer:  What I need to do is deliberately make space in my days to rest the way I rest when I’m at the monastery.   Really rest.  Rest every part of me, rest my mind as well as my body.  It’s not that easy to do, of course.  It’s a lot easier when there’s something outside yourself keeping you on track, like a monastery where you couldn’t do anything even if you wanted to.  I suppose if you were really addicted to being busy, you could stand outside the monastery guest house and talk on your cell phone for large chunks time and you could spend hours writing emails and surfing the Internet. (When I went to the monastery this time I discovered that I could log on to the monastery’s Internet connection in my room).  But you know you’re not going there for that.  And nobody else is doing it, and you’d be negating your entire purpose in being there by doing it yourself.  And even if you spent some time emailing and talking on your cell phone, you’d still have lots of time left over to rest.
            When you’re on your own at home, immersed in your regular life, it’s a lot harder to put up the kinds of barriers and boundaries to busyness that naturally exist at the monastery (or some place like it, where people go for retreats).  At home it’s nearly impossible to ignore all the shoulds and have-tos, all the worries and guilts and desires and anxieties about what you should be doing that come pouring in like water seeking its own level; almost impossible to ignore your list long enough to do nothing on it, to think that rest is important enough to put on a list and make time for. It’s hard to create even a facsimile of retreat conditions – leading to the retreat state of mind -- in your own home, but it can be done.
It’s gotten easier for me than it used to be.  It used to be that when I got back from the monastery, I’d jump right into the fray and the franticness and not even look back for a moment at how I’d been feeling just a few hours earlier, when I was still wrapped in the monastery’s protective silence and nothing-to-do-ness.  Even though I would have just been telling myself I wanted to hold onto as much of that peace and serenity as I could, all that would be gone in a heartbeat and I wouldn’t even remember it all. 
            Now that I’m harnessing my time and thinking about how to harness it in ever better ways, I’m a lot more consciously aware of what I’m doing from one day to the next, and I’m much more able to hold in my mind the goal of holding onto some of that deep monastery rest.  Not only that, I’m more able to do the resting itself.  I can’t do it for days at a time the way you can at the monastery, but I do it for relatively brief periods – a couple of hours here and there – whenever I can.
            I make a conscious decision to make space -- a certain period of time – to rest.  I write it down in my daily planning book as if it’s something that needs to be done, and when the time comes I do it.  I rest.  To get into the right mood, I think about what I feel like on those long afternoons at the monastery.  I think about how much time I’ve planned for this particular rest time. (I sort of look at it like naptime in kindergarten, except that unlike when I was in kindergarten I love nothing better than the chance to rest and do nothing).  I think about when my rest time is going to end so I don’t have to worry about when it’s going to end, should end, at any other point during it. 
Then I turn off the computer, the telephone, the radio, and everything else.  (I’d turn off the TV if I watched TV, which I don’t).   I turn off my worries, my sense of obligation, my feeling that I should be doing something else.   And I lie there on the daybed in my study, reading, napping, staring up at the ceiling, with time stretching out before me like an empty field, a field with borders and boundaries instead of vast unlimited field like at the monastery, it’s true.  But an empty peaceful restful rejuvenating field nonetheless.