Anxiety is living life in the periphery a mind afraid to focus on direct experience like eyes left straining into the blurry images produced from the outer angles of sight Endlessly missing the opportunity to see what's right in front of me distracted by the desperation to see it all before making my next move Walking blindly into the future while believing there is some safety in focusing all attention on the sidelines absorbed by unclear, obscured visions Mastering the practice of mindfulness the ever evolving effort to stare straight ahead being present with what's before me rather than apparitions hovering just out of view Keep walking faithfully forward syncing each breath with firm steps resting in the reality of perpetual uncertainty softly savoring all the surprises of life Allowing myself to become engrossed in the ever unfolding mirage of right now releasing all tight tendrils of assumed control to be submerged in this moment
Attention torn away from the hot victory of the sun distracted by shadows that dance in dark caves the slow drip of time crashes with violence against the surface of the well of history cadence of madness a frenzied race into all consuming blank space that blinds and binds the invisible magnetism of addictive illusions shrouding the coal black soot of the inevitable unknown
The internet is great at giving us a false perception of the way other people live and conduct themselves from day to day. Despite this flawless image YouTubers and other influencers give off, one thing still seems real to me: their ability to focus their talents and efforts and present them in a consistent format to their followers. They find their content niche and stick to it diligently until they manage to build up a following.
This is an impressive feat in my opinion. My creative interests are so scattered and fluctuating. It’s pretty apparent if you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time. I can never seem to pick a theme or pursuit and stick to it. I have far too many things I’d like to work on. I realize that I can’t do them all. If I want to monetize these creative outlets for myself or create cohesive finished products for a personal brand, I have to focus my energy on one thing at a time. Focusing on one thing, feels like abandoning all of my other interests though. I tend to lose momentum and start feeling stuffy and stagnant when I work in one arena for any amount of time.
I should consider myself lucky. Maybe these influencers really only have a small set of interests or talents, and that’s what makes it easy for them to narrow down their creative range to catch a consistent audience. I’m truly blessed to have so many passions and creative gifts that I could turn into a personal or career path. My biggest obstacle is wrangling my attention and fixing it on a single endeavor to complete a bigger, well thought-out project. Maybe on some level I’m just afraid that if I devote too much time and energy to one creative medium and don’t receive a return on that investment, I’ll feel like a fool or a failure.
Just for context, here is a list of all of the things I’ve been swirling around in my head that I’d like to work on:
- Podcasting (no idea what of the thousand topics I’d be able to settle on)
- YouTube (same issue)
- Online/Livestream Yoga
- Private Yoga lessons
- Vegan mentorship
- Art (selling prints, commissions)
- Writing (Poetry, short-stories, fiction, non-fiction)
- Positive Affirmation Coloring Book (publishing and marketing it)
Obviously I can’t expect myself to actualize all of these possibilities. The vague idea of each and every one of them fills me with excitement, inspiration, and motivation. When I get down to the details and the physical steps I’d need to take to turn these ideas into something concrete, I become paralyzed with fear and uncertainty. I may have a lot of creative energy and valuable talents, but I have no idea how to market them or myself in any meaningful way. The idea of creating a mediocre finished product leaves me feeling awful. There is also a fear that by turning any one of these ideas into a business would rob me of the joy I have just doing them for fun.
If I had any money at all, I would likely go out and find myself a manager or someone to help me stay on track and advertise one of these skills. However, anxiety over money is the only reason I’ve been so eager to find a way to profit off of these ideas in the first place. For now, I’m planning on finishing the steps of publishing my positive affirmation coloring book. I’ve already got 30 drawings to compile for it and a good idea of who I would be able to market it to in my community as well as online. I’m just stuck in the limbo of trying to navigate self publishing and perfecting the tiny details about compiling them into a presentable book.
When I find myself struggling with these practical steps, I can’t help but feel pulled to abandon the idea all together and chase a different goal. Logically, I know I’ll eventually face the same problems with anything I try to produce. At the end of the day, I think lacking self-confidence is what’s holding me back. As I continue to try to move forward towards securing a self-determined future for myself, I’m going to try to imagine what I would do if I were confident. A confident person doesn’t get bogged down with the little details and agonize over making everything utterly perfect. I have great ideas. I’m extremely intelligent and talented. And I am going to make something incredible to contribute to the world. That’s the kind of energy that’s going to carry me forward into the next phase of my life.
It has long been said that if your time is not being occupied with something productive, you will find yourself getting into trouble instead. I feel that the same applies to the mentally ill mind. According to an article by Origins, higher IQ is not only associated with “more and earlier drug use,” but also with more mental illness including anxiety and depression. My intelligence has always been something I take great pride in, but I also understand that it can be a curse at times.
It’s difficult to tease apart correlation and causation, but in my personal story I would say that high intelligence led to mental illness beginning at a young age, which then led to early drug use as an attempt to disassociate or slow my mind down for a while. I still love to self-medicate, but I believe that mentally healthy people have no interest in using drugs. If you are happy, you don’t feel the need to take any amount of risk in order to find relief, so why would you?
In recent years I’ve been keeping myself pretty busy. It seems like each and every moment is filled with a task or activity for me to direct my attention toward. I’ve begun to actually fear not having anything to do. I know I will start to worry, ruminate, and subsequently spiral if I’m left with nothing to occupy my mind for any significant amount of time. Even once my daily habits become too routine to demand much of my attention, I begin to notice negative, stress-filled thoughts clouding my thoughts.
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.Proverb
The original quote is referring to keeping the physical body busy so that we don’t start making mischief. This is a lot simpler than keeping the mind busy, and that is especially true for highly intelligent minds that need a lot more stimulation. It’s a beautiful thing when my mind is set to work on a difficult problem or complicated task. I am energized, focused, and engaged. However, it isn’t always easy to find something my mind deems worthy of it’s full attention.
Depression and anxiety can make it hard to focus. And that inability to focus exacerbates the anxiety and/or depression. It is a viscous cycle that sometimes feels impossible to break. Similarly, depression and anxiety can cause us to lose interest in even things we once greatly enjoyed. This also makes it harder to find things to occupy our minds adequately. It’s quite difficult to focus on anything that you aren’t interested in or motivated by.
I think this is one of the reasons that I enjoy reading so much. When I’m reading, my brain is fully engaged in the story unfolding before me. My anxiety all but disappears while I’m losing myself in a book. It’s also a relief when we can redirect ourselves towards thinking about other people rather than our own problems. It requires a lot of attention and thoughtfulness to help others or work with them to solve their problems. Other people are always interesting and complex in their own way, which makes them excellent opportunities to get out of our own heads.
Sometimes my anxiety won’t allow me to focus on anything else. It tells me that it’s concerns and fears are urgent and pressing and must be at the forefront of my awareness. Then the difficult thing becomes not only finding something I’m more interested in to do, but to convince myself that it’s safe to redirect myself to that other task or train of thought.
If you notice yourself sinking deeper into depression or working yourself up into a frenzy whenever you have a lot of free time on your hands, consider implementing some safe guards to help prevent this pattern from occurring. When you find yourself in a good mental space, make a list of some activities that you enjoy or tasks you’ve been wanting to work on. Then when you have spare time, you’ll be able to refer to your list even if your mental illness has raised it’s ugly head and already begun to affect your ability to think clearing and redirect your attention.
In these stressful and/or depressed states, none of the items on your list are likely to sound very appealing to you. Just pick one and do it anyway. Trust that if you surrender to the task and allow your mind to be fully immersed in it, inevitably you will start to feel better. Don’t worry about the quality or outcome of whatever you decide to focus on. Remind yourself that it’s the focused attention you’re after, nothing more. Mental illness tends to fester in an unoccupied mind. A focused, busy mind is a happy, healthy mind.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from my meditation practice, it is the importance and value of focusing our minds. I’ve gotten to the point where I genuinely don’t think it matters what we decide to focus on. The simple act of focusing itself is what brings us clarity and calm. As someone who is easily distracted, it’s hard not to get caught up on the decision of what to focus on, even during meditation. Should I focus my attention on my breath, my heart space, my connection with the earth, a visualization? There are so many options that it becomes overwhelming. I find myself switching back and fourth a lot of the time, unable to settle on just one.
Until recently, I was under the assumption that breath awareness was one of the simplest forms of meditation. I often get frustrated with myself for having such a hard time with it after so many years. But recently I heard a meditation teacher discuss the challenges of this type of meditation, validating a lot of the recurring thoughts that pop up for me during my practice. For one thing, saying “focus on the breath” isn’t a very clear instruction. The breath is a very complex thing. It is fluid, ever changing, and tied to a lot of difficult emotions.
Another problem with breath awareness is the body image issues that often arise with it. Until hearing this person speak about it, part of me thought I was the only one that struggled with allowing a natural belly breath during a seated meditation. (It’s a little bit easier for me when lying down.) People, especially women, are told to suck in their stomach, to flatten and hide it. Yet now we are expected to allow it to expand fully and breathe deeply into our diaphragm? It’s hard to let go of years of emotional baggage in order to do so. I always get distracted by my feelings of shame and self-judgement while trying to breathe into my belly. Then instead of focusing on the breath, I’m meditating on negative self-talk, which is only harming me.
One thing that I’ve found helpful more recently is to get even more specific with my breath awareness. There is so much going on when we think about our breath. There a lots of different areas we can choose to focus on. For instance, I’ve been narrowing my focus down to the way the air feels as it leaves and enters my nostrils. You might also choose to focus on the way the breath feels in other areas of the body, or the temperature difference on the inhale vs. the exhale. Maybe you’d like to focus on the sounds you make while breathing. There are lots of different things about the act of breathing to pay attention to, if you find the “breath” too amorphous and vague.
At least for me, it’s very beneficial to pick something very small and specific if I want to achieve that soothing, flow-state of focus. Even though it’s tempting to bounce back and forth between options, it’s important to commit to whatever you decide to focus on and stick to it. Rest assured that regardless of what you choose, the result will be the same. It’s the act of focusing that we are trying to practice, so the object of that focus is irrelevant.
Racing thoughts are a common part of anxiety. It feels like there are just so many things demanding our attention. It becomes overwhelming. Focusing our minds is a great way to calm ourselves down when we are feeling stressed out. Even if you don’t have time to sit down and do a formal meditation, you can always find a meditative state no matter where you are or what you’re doing. All you have to do is decide on something small to focus on. If you are walking, you might decide to focus on the way the heels of your feet feel when they contact the ground underneath you. If you are drawing, you might focus on the movement of your hand or the sensation of touching your brush or pen to the surface of the paper or canvas. If you are cooking, maybe focus on the way the foods smell as you prepare them, or the sounds of chopping and heating the ingredients. If you’re washing the dishes you might focus on the temperature of the water and how it feels against your skin. Or the sounds of the dishes as they clink against one another.
In today’s world filled with endless distractions vying for our attention, it can be especially difficult to stay focused on anything for very long. If you’re someone like me who has had trouble keeping your attention where you want it, try choosing an even smaller, simpler point to focus on. While it hasn’t made things perfect, it has definitely helped me a lot during my meditation and also when stressful moments arise. Most importantly, practice offering yourself compassion when you’re struggling. I promise you it’ll be worth the struggle. Focus is a muscle that we can build up more and more of over time. The older I get the more I realize just how important our focus is. It genuinely shapes our entire reality. The more we strengthen our ability to direct that focus towards what we want, the more ease we will begin to experience in our lives.
I’ve never been a very competitive person. Growing up with an older sibling, you quickly realize that you’re more than likely always going to lose anything that isn’t purely chance. My odds were only slightly better even in those scenarios as I never seemed to be lucky either. I have always blamed this dynamic in my childhood for creating the largely apathetic attitude I have regarding any type of competition. I expect to lose. I don’t care much if I win. So what’s the point? I’ve always preferred to avoid any chance of failure.
Recently I’ve realized that my lack of a competitive drive has also bled into my relationship with my own personal challenges. I’m a huge quitter. I’ve never had any problem backing out or giving up if I believe I am going to finish short of my goal. In addition to that, academics have always come easily to me. I never had to struggle to understand or accomplish anything as far as my school work went. I got pretty used to being ahead of my peers. It felt good to always be the smartest person in class, even if intellectually I knew I didn’t attend a very good school. When I got to college and found myself actually having to study for my chemistry and biology classes, I was quick to change my major rather than put in the extra effort. Psychology came much more naturally to me than science, so I finished out my formal education at the top of my class, no studying required.
I still think back on those college science classes every now and then though. I take pride in the fact I still managed to get A’s even though it was hard. Whereas I don’t really care about the grades I got in my psychology courses, because in my mind, they were easy. I was more shocked that anyone managed to do badly. I’ve started to recognize this recurring theme in my life though. I’m so afraid of failure that I only allow myself to do things I know I’ll excel in. Yet, whenever it does happen that I find myself in a challenging situation, it seems I enjoy it more in some ways. I definitely take more pride in accomplishments that were difficult for me. Sadly, despite my many accomplishments, I only have a few that fall into this category.
I think in a certain way, society encourages this type of behavior. “Do what you’re good at” seems to be the message. There is this idea that we have natural gifts. Once we find out what those are, that is where we should focus our energy rather than wasting our time improving at something we may only ever be mediocre at. Only after learning about the 10,000 hour rule, did I really begin to question that idea. While it is still widely believed some people are simply born with special talents, the 10,000 hour rule explains that if someone devotes enough time to a certain art or discipline, they will surely master it, regardless of innate ability. This idea puts the locus of control back on the individual.
After spending the last few weeks absolutely obsessed and in love with my new electronic drawing tablet, I started to view this whole issue from a different perspective. At first, I was terribly intimidated by this new software I had no idea how to use. A large part of me wanted to quit and just go back to pen and paper which I already knew I was good at. However, knowing how much money I spent on this tablet, I pushed through the discomfort of being an amateur. In doing so, I ended up having so much fun learning something brand new.
Through this experience, I’ve begun to realize that I actually enjoy being challenged. Once I get past my initial fear of failure, once I overcome my massive ego telling me it will be the end of the world if I’m not the best at something, no matter how frivolous, I inevitably start to have fun. Sure there is frustration along the way as I struggle to do something new, but that makes it all the more satisfying when progress is made. Ultimately I don’t even care if I can eventually master whatever it is I’m doing. The enjoyment itself is all I’m after.
I remember hearing about how highly intelligent students may do poorly if their lessons don’t keep up with their ability. The smart kids get bored and lose interest while waiting for the rest of the class to catch up, causing them to lose focus and motivation, or even start to act out. This never made much sense to me growing up. I liked that school was easy. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want their lessons to be harder, even if they found them laughably easy. Now I think I’m finally starting to get it.
A happy mind is a busy mind. A bored mind will tear itself apart. In my opinion this is why we often see the most intelligent people also suffering with the most extreme mental illness. Being intelligent is simultaneously a gift and a curse. High intelligence demands high levels of intellectual stimulation. The brain was made to create, to investigate, to learn, and to solve problems. Without these healthy outlets for mental energy, the brain begins to make problems for itself.
When all I do is things that only require half-assed effort, my brain has plenty of extra energy to run amuck. Boredom breeds rumination. With nothing to occupy my mind, it begins to pick apart little details of the past or fret over the future. To me, this is the opposite of the “flow state.” When we are in that coveted flow state, our brains are fully engaged in what we are doing. The rest of the world falls away, and we are able to exist in the present moment. When nothing in the present requires our full attention, the mind is free to wander. With enough wandering, it’s only a matter of time until we find ourselves in the uncharted territory of our own mental illness.
The ego looms large over the mind with mental illness. The ego tries to keep us in our comfort zone, tells us challenge is too hard, that failure is painful. But if we can push past this flawed perception, if we can overcome our ego, we actually find that it’s fun to be challenged! Challenges are what help us to learn, to grow, to stay interested in our day to day lives. It’s new. It’s novel. It’s engaging. Challenges are true workouts for the brain. And just like physical exercise, it makes us happier.
Now my problem has become coming up with ways to challenge myself. My brain is quick to catch on to anything new I try. Therefore I’m constantly required to switch it up and try new things if I want to keep my mind engaged. However, just like with my workouts, it’s always hard to motivate myself to take things to the next level. It’s called a comfort zone for a reason. It feels good to be good at something. I’m going to work harder from now on to remember that it also feels good to be challenged and practice facing difficulties with enthusiasm rather than dread.
If you haven’t heard the term default mode network (DMN) before, you’re not alone. Yesterday was the first time I did. Although I still am new to this concept, I wanted to talk about it today. I just wanted to get that disclaimer out first thing. I’m certainly not an expert on this. I hardly know anything about it. What I do know, however, is already enough to enthrall me and make me eager to learn more. So don’t take my words here as gospel. Go read about it for yourself.
I first heard about this term while continuing to read How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. If you’ve read my other posts referencing this book, you already know where this is going. That’s right, psychedelics. Scientists have discovered a very fascinating phenomenon in the brains of people tripping on LSD or psilocybin. These psychedelic substances inhibit or turn off the default mode network in our brain.
So what is the default mode network? From what I’ve gathered, the default mode network includes many different parts of the brain that are active when we are “in our own heads” so to speak. These are the pathways we are using when we are ruminating, daydreaming, planning, remembering the past, contemplating the future, etc. Basically this is the network that is active when we are lost in thought, rather than focusing our attention on something in the outside world. In the book, it also specifies that this DMN kicks on when we are thinking about ourselves.
This aspect of self-awareness encompassed in the DMN is one of the reasons why we are able to experience “ego death” while using psychedelics, which switch off this network. It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that ego death and transcendent experiences are both known to occur while tripping. The DMN, while useful, is also being linked to depression and other mental illnesses. People that spend a lot of time in the DMN are often less happy overall than people that spend less time in this brain state.
I find this very fascinating because it seems to reflect a lot of the advice you hear given to people that are unhappy. “Try to focus on someone else for awhile.” “Rather than ruminating, use that energy to help someone you love.” “Become a more active part of the community.” All of these shifts in focus are actually helpful, but now it seems science is getting a better idea exactly why that’s the case. And I don’t know about you, but I find it more easy to follow through on advice if I know the facts back it up.
Another thing I found interesting is the idea that social media tends to strengthen the DMN. When we are scrolling through Instagram or checking how many likes we got on our last Facebook post, our brains are in the default mode network. Apart from all the other reasons there are to disengage from social media, this one is quite compelling. No wonder I feel happier and less anxious now that I don’t use those apps!
If you’re looking for a way to experience the bliss of brain states outside of the DMN, but don’t want to take a drug to do so, you can try meditation instead. Surprisingly fMRI scans of experienced meditators and those of brains on psychedelics are remarkably similar. Training our minds through meditation can give us the power to focus. That focused attention in itself is another way to get ourselves out of the DMN. I believe that is why the “flow” state we experience when we loose track of time while working on a task that completely absorbs our attention is so pleasant. It’s a great feeling to “lose ourselves” in our work.
I have yet to see any research related to this, but I’m interested to know how the DMN functions in adolescence. I hypothesize that it may play a role in the unhappiness a lot of us experienced during this time in our lives. It also appears to be a time in life when we tend to be the most selfish. We’re learning who we are and what we want, finding our own identities. While this is an important and necessary part of growing up, it also requires a lot of self-centered thinking, which as we now know, can lead to a greater sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. As we get older and start to think more about others, the emotional turmoil of youth also seems to subside somewhat.
As this term was only coined in 2001, there is still a lot that science doesn’t understand about this brain state. A lot more research needs to be done. I’m excited to see what else neuroscience will discover about our brains and how exactly they work in the future. But as I said earlier, I am not at all a voice of authority on this subject. I just couldn’t resist sharing the concept and the things I’ve learned that have got me so excited about it. I highly recommend doing your own research and reading more about the default mode network for yourself. Feel free to correct me if I have misinterpreted, misunderstood, or misrepresented any of the things I’ve shared about this network. Also Let me know in the comments if you find out anything interesting that I didn’t mention.
“Just take it one step at a time.” “Live your life one day at a time.” We’ve all heard these familiar platitudes a million times. A perfect counter platitude would be “easier said than done.” It’s always an interesting moment when a phrase such as these really sinks in and starts to feel meaningful in a significant way. I don’t know what causes these moments to occur, but sometimes a lesson you use to roll your eyes at and ignore, becomes piercing and poignant. I had one of these moments with the idea of “taking one step at a time” a few days ago.
Often I don’t start moving towards a goal unless I have every step of the process planned out in detail. This rarely happens though. It’s a big challenge to map something out from start to finish. Therefore, I don’t take action steps to achieve most of my goals and aspirations. I spend most of my time waiting and hoping one day everything will become clear. The perfect moment will materialize and everything will magically start to fall into place. Unfortunately, that moment never comes.
On the flip side of this I am often paralyzed and overwhelmed when I do try to plan out all the details of something I want to accomplish. Even something as simple as doing the laundry or cleaning up around the house can become a daunting task when you are constantly ruminating over each little step in the process. When you look at all the components lined up in a row, a goal can become an impossible feat in your mind. “I’ll never be able to do all of that,” I end up telling myself, which leads me to give up before I’ve even started.
Intentionally reminding yourself along the way to only focus on the step you’re on is a great way to lessen both of these extremes. If you have a goal and you only know the first step towards that goal, go ahead and take that step. Trust that the universe will reveal the next step once you’ve taken the first one. If it feels too hokey to “trust the universe” then trust yourself instead. Once you’ve taken that first action, you’ll have a new vantage point or new information with which to decide what the next action should be.
Now, I’m not saying this works for every situation (although it might.) But I wouldn’t advise something like quitting your job because you know you want to be an entrepreneur instead, if you haven’t the foggiest clue what you want besides that. I’m speaking more about smaller goals, at least in the beginning when you’re working on building that trust. For instance, I’ve been wanting to start a podcast with my two best friends for years now. We’ve all talked about it dozens of times. It’s almost become an inside joke. “We’ll talk about this for our podcast” or “Wouldn’t this be a great episode? Why aren’t we recording??” The idea never went much farther than that though. Even though we all wanted this to happen, none of us were willing to take the first step. I can’t speak for my friends, but for me, this was because I couldn’t visualize where it would go from there. None of us know anything about podcasting or marketing ourselves.
I’ve finally decided to take that initial leap of faith though. I downloaded a free podcasting app, made sure my friends were still on board, told them to brainstorm ideas, and made a plan for us to meet next week to discuss. Sure enough, the next steps have already been appearing before my eyes. I’ve been having such fun coming up with ideas for taglines and topics. I’ve even been doodling ideas for a logo. It even finally gave me enough momentum to purchase an electronic drawing tablet which I’ve been wanting to do for awhile. (I may be going too hard on the logo part, but fuck it, I’m having a good time.)
Focusing on one step at a time not only helps us make our goals more achievable, it also reminds us that the end goal isn’t necessarily what’s most important. Life isn’t about reaching the goalposts, it’s about thoroughly enjoying the moments leading up to them. When you just focus on what’s right in front of you, it’s easier to reevaluate as you go. Is this still what I want? Is this still making me happy? Sometimes just by taking small steps towards one goal, we uncover new things about ourselves and/or new opportunities along the way that completely alter our trajectory. When we get fixated on the goal itself, we can end up trudging toward it for years only to realize once we get there, it isn’t what we want anymore. That kind of tunnel vision can also stop us from recognizing the other avenues that open up for us along the way.
So if there is something you’ve been wanting to do, but you’ve been waiting for the right moment, this is it! The stars have aligned in the form of this post. I’m here to tell you that you’ve got this! It’s okay if you don’t know exactly how you’re going to get to your goal. You probably know at least one step you’ll have to take. Just start and I promise the rest will begin to unfold naturally from there. The only questions you really have to ask yourself as you go are: Am I going to enjoy this step? Does the idea of this process excite me? Inspire me? When you’re working towards a goal your enthusiasm is the only compass you need. It won’t let you down.
I’m still rather new to the practice of setting intentions for myself. I’ve been trying to take a moment each morning to set daily intentions and then return to those intentions throughout my day in order to guide me back onto the path I want to take. Trying to set intentions so far has only really emphasized exactly how scattered I am throughout the day. It’s quite hard to focus on the energy I want to cultivate. Half the time I have completely forgotten what intention I’ve set before I even leave for work.
My experience with intention setting has still been able to serve me, albeit not in the way I thought it would. It has shown me just how often we lose sight of what really matters to us. Even though we’d all like to be kind, we can instead be very short-tempered and aggressive. Even though we’d all like to be generous, we still pass up dozens of opportunities to share our abundance each day. Even though we’d like to be closer with our family, we end up arguing over dinner instead. Even though we’d like to relax, we end up pressuring ourselves to do more.
This just goes to show why setting intentions for ourselves is so important. Rather than setting one for the entire day, at first it may be easier and more realistic to set intentions for smaller tasks. I think often we have been so pressured by society to embody goals such as productivity and progress, that we forget to ask ourselves if those goals are in alignment with what we really want for ourselves. For example, every weekend I get excited at the idea of having time to relax and unwind from a hectic work week. Yet somehow I end up being just as busy on my days off. Instead of giving myself permission to rest, I see this free time in front of me and immediately start to fill it with errands. After all, I don’t want to “waste” this time.
If you take a step back and think about it, wasting time is really a matter of perspective. What makes something a waste? Is it a waste of time to play catch with your dog instead of doing the dishes? Is it a waste to watch a movie with a friend instead of writing that essay due next week? It all depends on what you’d like to prioritize. If you want to prioritize a clean house, do the dishes. But if you’re prioritizing taking good care of your fur babies, playing with your dog is the right choice. If your schoolwork is most important to you, you’d want to take care of that right away. But if you find it more important to set aside time to bond with your friends, go ahead and watch that movie. We get to decide what the best use of our time is, not our parents, not our friends, and especially not society.
Most of the time when we do something we regret, it’s because we lost sight of what really matters to us. We say we want to be closer to our loved ones, but when we talk to them, we end up getting angry at every little thing they say, correcting them whenever we get the chance, or arguing about things that aren’t even that important to us. When emotions like anger or fear bubble up inside of us, that is a great cue to take a deep breath and try to remember our intention. What do I want to get out of this conversation? Am I trying to be right? Am I trying to be the smartest person in the room? Or am I trying to show this person I care about them and have a lighthearted chat?
I love the question: would you rather be right or happy? It’s a great model to use for whatever intention you may set for yourself. If you’re like me and you find yourself spending your only day off giving yourself more work to do, try asking: would I rather be productive today or would I rather give myself a chance to rest and recover? Usually both options are completely valid and valuable in their own unique way. It’s not about what you should be doing. It’s about what you’d like to do.
Try setting an intention for at least one small part of your day today. You might decide to set the intention to be calm and mindful on your drive home from school or work. Seems simple enough right? But notice if you still manage to become enraged when another car cuts you off or is driving too slowly. When this happens, as it likely will, gently guide yourself back to your intention. Was your goal to get home as fast as possible? Or was it to have a calm and enjoyable drive? No need to be hard on yourself for getting off track. Stay curious about your automatic reactions. Isn’t it fascinating how our minds are able to defy our best efforts? Keep practicing and it will feel even more rewarding when you notice your ability to focus become stronger and stronger.
Waking up. Cool morning air. Start the coffee. Hear the dripping as the hot water saturates and spills past the grounds. Feed the cat. Let the dog out. Brush your teeth. Walking back and forth, daily repetition, absent minded, heavy footed. These are the moments we rush to get through, moments we skim over and ignore. Our attention is focused elsewhere in these moments. Making to-do lists. Ruminations about the day before, the day ahead. Frustrated by monotony. Bored by actions repeated hundreds of times. Angered by the uncertainty of it all, the futility of doing something only to do it over again, and again…
Rushing back and forth between the meal I was preparing and the garbage can at the other side of the kitchen last night, I realized something: This is it. These “worthless” moments, the “wasted” time of washing, eating, using the toilet, cleaning off counters, sweeping the floor, opening and closing doors, these are the moments that make up our lives. How we spend these moments matters. Trying to rush through and gloss over these moments does not serve us. Rather, it trains us. How we perceive and live these moments becomes the way we live and perceive the rest of our lives.
Are these daily tasks obligations or are they opportunities? Are these experiences arbitrary or are they important challenges to be faced with curiosity and attention? Yoga has taught me the importance of repetition. It has taught me how to find nuance in the mundane redundancies of life. Though the different postures we assume with our bodies are limited, our experience of them is unlimited. A sequence of poses performed precisely at dawn each day will never result in the same practice twice. There are always differences, slight subtilties to take notice of if we have the patience to look for them, if we practice truly being there in our bodies from moment to moment.
It’s easy to be present in a new place or performing a new task. The mind is not clouded by expectations. It is unable to fall into auto-pilot. However, we are creatures of routine. The longer we live, the more deeply these grooves of routine become. Of course there is value in routine: efficiency, mastery, and many other wonderful things. Eventually the challenge changes from the task itself to maintaining mindful attention to said task.
We have been conditioned to view some parts of life as pleasant and other parts as meaningless, unpleasant, or simply maintenance. There is nothing enjoyable about waking up early and getting ready for work, doing the laundry, or mowing the lawn. This is the narrative that most of us recite unconsciously each and every day. But when it comes down to it, don’t these activities comprise the majority of our lives?
Enjoying life isn’t just about traveling, partying, playing, or whatever else we may label as “fun” or “meaningful” experiences. Enjoying life is something we practice in each moment. If we pay attention, there is pleasure to be found in even the most insignificant of activities. Pleasure is not derived from the experience itself, rather the attention we afford the experience.
To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur to us only when we are not doing them. Once we are standing in front of the sink with our sleeves rolled up and our hands in warm water, it is really not bad at all. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have dessert, the time will be unpleasant, not worth living. That would be a pity, for every second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!Thich Nhat Hanh
I’ve found that the easiest way to be present is to get curious, to ask myself questions. The answer to these questions doesn’t really matter. What is more important is the focus my mind experiences while searching for an answer. Use the morning routine I mentioned earlier as an example. As you wake up, ask yourself: What does it feel like to be awake? How does the air feel this morning? Is it humid? Chilly? What do my sheets feel like against my skin? As you prepare your coffee, ask: What does coffee smell like? What is happening in my mind and body as I pour the grounds? Do I feel groggy, excited, calm, impatient? How are the hills and valleys of the piled up grounds different than they were yesterday?
It may be difficult to hold your interest in these kinds of mindfulness practices, especially if you’re in a bad mood. The good thing is, this disposition is also something we can take notice of, be curious about. Sometimes trying to be mindful feels like a poorly veiled attempt to force myself into a more positive headspace. This type of heavy handed energy can defeat the whole purpose, creating anxiety, frustration, and resentment, rather than patient acceptance of what is. It is important to remind ourselves of this and to constantly reconnect with our true intention: simply to notice, to observe. There is no need to judge or change how we are feeling. No need to feel upset or guilty about how we are feeling or what thoughts are coming up. Just notice, examine whatever is there with interest and equanimity. That is enough.
Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profaneThich Nhat Hanh