fixation and focus are very different things fixation festers and ferments multiplies and consumes the subject grows until it suffocates focus is freedom from distraction submerged in the present moment the soft flow of inspiration over a thirsty soul finally silencing all inner doubt there is no comparison between the two though they seem so similar at first glance one state we chase the other chases us
I recently read that one of the most important tips given to new race car drivers is, “whatever you do, don’t look at the wall.” When I heard this, it immediately reminded me of one of my very first practice driving sessions with my mom when I was a teenager. As I was driving 25mph down a street in my dinky little home town, my sister yells out from the back seat for us to look at a house to our right. Without thinking, I turn my head to look. In just that one split second, turning my attention away from the road and just to the side, I had swerved the car and nearly driven up onto the sidewalk. Whether you realize it or not, where you place your focus is the direction you are heading.
We say something similar when teaching arm balances in yoga. In teacher training when we practiced cues for bakasana (crow pose) we were told to always make sure to emphasize the importance of our gaze. If you look straight down between your hands as you try to lower your body’s weight forward onto the backs of the arms, you’re inevitably going to tumble forward and possibly hit your head on the floor. The trick is to look a few inches ahead of you. Looking forward, but not down. Our gaze is a reflection of our focus and intention and a reminder of how important these things are.
I think these physical examples are an excellent demonstration of how this same principle applies in more abstract matters. If you look at the wall, you’ll hit the wall. If you look at the floor below you, that’s where you’re going. If you focus on the potential problems or possible ways you might fail, that is where you’re going to find yourself in the future. It seems so obvious when I think about it in this context.
My anxiety is always directing me to the worse possible outcome. It would be great if I were able to print out a pie graph of my mental energy expenditure from day to day. I’d be willing to bet that 90% of my thoughts are about what I’m afraid of or what could go wrong. Even when things usually go pretty well for me, I always immediately find the next fear to latch onto as soon as one disappears. Somehow my brain convinces itself that it is doing this to keep me safe. And to a certain extent, it is smart to contemplate obstacles that may come up and how we can deal with them in the event that they do. However, this is not really what my anxiety is doing. It’s not coming up with calm, rational contingency plans. It’s telling me that the experience will be inherently stressful and traumatizing and trying to find a way to avoid it all together.
It’s really helpful for me to remember the real life examples of the way our focus determines our experience and even has an influence on future outcomes. Yoga gives us ample opportunities to practice these principles before putting them into action in other areas of our lives. Getting into an arm balance is scary. You’re quite likely to fall down the first few times you try. But if we focus on that fear or how it feels to fall and hurt ourselves, we’re never going to master bakasana! Focus on what’s in front of you. Focus on where you want to be or what you want to see happen. If you focus on falling you’re going to fall or perhaps never let yourself try in the first place.
Realizing and reminding myself that my focus on fear is not helping me to avoid it, but instead propelling me toward it, is exactly where I need to begin. Normally when I contemplate shifting my thoughts to the positives and letting go of my anxiety about any given situation, I become afraid that by not looking at the scary bits, they’ll sneak up on me or something. It’s like trying to keep your eyes on a spider at the corner of your room so that it won’t suddenly appear on your arm. But what if staring at that spider was an invitation for it to come over to you? You’d probably keep yourself busy with whatever you’re doing and leave it alone.
It’s time for me to start giving my energy to the good things in life that I want to create, not the parts that I want to avoid. If I focus on the good, I’ll naturally move past or through the obstacles in due time. When I let myself focus on only the scary parts of life, that is all I’m going to experience, whether my fears come to fruition or not. I’ll have already lived the worst of them out in my mind anyway. It’s okay to let myself think about the good things that might happen too or the things I hope will happen. It’s safe to let myself be happy. It’s safe to imagine a future full of positivity and light. In fact, that’s the first step towards manifesting that future.
For years now, I have practiced yoga, meditation, and gratitude daily. While I’ve definitely noticed improvements in my mental health since implementing these practices, it still feels like the changes I’ve experienced have been underwhelming. I thought that after such diligent effort over so many years, that I would be further along in my spiritual journey by this point. I still struggle daily with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, anger, jealousy, fear, anxiety, etc.
In the beginning, these daily practices were done very intentionally. It was easy to remain mindful because everything was so new to me. However, after solidifying these routines, they became just that, routines. Many days I find myself just going through the motions. That is the reason I haven’t been able to enjoy more of the benefits ever after so many years. I also think this may be a reason some people find themselves giving up on yoga, meditation, and mindfulness all together.
We must always be careful not to allow these things to become just words, just routines. Going through the motions may be better than doing nothing at all, but it isn’t going to result in the profound changes we’re seeking in ourselves. Yoga isn’t about the shapes the body takes, it’s about where the mind goes, learning to watch our own thoughts, learning to let go, to make peace with our perceived flaws or shortcomings, and so much more. In the same way, a daily gratitude practice isn’t about how fast you can list things off, or being able to fill up a whole page. It’s about the energy, the emotion behind the things your listing.
It’s almost funny when I think about it. I don’t know why I would expect writing a list of things I’m grateful for to be any different than writing a grocery list considering the way I normally feel while doing so. I usually don’t feel anything at all. If anything, I feel annoyed. “Ugh, I don’t have time for this. I can’t think of anything to write. Why am I such an ungrateful person? Why is this so hard for me?” That’s usually the kinds of thoughts occupying my mind as I struggle to think of enough bullet points to fill the page in my gratitude journal. Saying the words, “I am grateful,” isn’t enough. You’ve got to feel it too.
Now for some people this may just be something that blossoms naturally from doing the practice. That’s how it is for all of us at the beginning I think. But for an emotionally blunted person like myself, after the initial novelty of the practices begins to wear off, it takes a bit more effort to uncover that emotional energy. Words and actions may help to illicit certain feelings, but we can’t allow ourselves to become to distracted by the words and actions alone. It’s the energy, the emotion, the sensation, that really matters. Having the emotion without the words, will still work wonders. Having the words without the feeling behind it, does nothing.
So the next time you embark on any mindfulness practice, try to focus on the energy behind your intention. What is your goal in doing this practice? What types of feelings and emotions are you trying to invite into your life? Are you trying to train your brain to quickly list things? Or are you trying to train your brain to actually experience a certain kind of energetic state? If you want to be able to more easily experience gratitude, you’ve got to actually practice feeling grateful, not just telling yourself you are.
This may be a lot more difficult of a practice, if you’re like me. I really struggle to get in touch with my emotions. If someone told me to imagine what love feels like, I’d feel confusion and maybe anxiety rather than love. If that sounds like you, try this short exercise:
- Close your eyes.
- Take 5 slow, deep breaths in and out.
- Now, imagine someone or something that you love. At first, you might still struggle to feel anything. If that’s the case, keep concentrating on more and more details. You might try to remember and recreate in your mind a memory with this person/animal/object.
- Once you’ve got a clear image in your head, move back into your body. What types of sensations are you experiencing? What do you feel and where are you feeling it? Maybe you feel an opening in your heart space or a lightness in your stomach.
- Whatever you’re feeling, focus on those bodily sensations. That is love. Not the words, not the thoughts, but this, right here, this feeling.
- Stay with that feeling for awhile, breathe into it, explore it, try to savor the subtleties of it so that you may more easily call yourself back to this energetic state in the future. Try to memorize every aspect.
- When you’re ready, you may release the practice and open your eyes. You can come back to this practice as many times as you need to. Eventually it will become easier and easier to cultivate this feeling whenever you want to.
If you’ve been practicing for a long time like I have and are just now coming to this realization, no worries. Obviously it took me this long to realize too. No need to be harsh on yourself about it or feel like you’ve just been wasting time up until now. The foundation you laid by “going through the motions” has led you to a place where you’re now able to delve more deeply into your practice, to add a new layer to your daily routine. We all move through our spiritual practice at our own pace, with our own unique obstacles along the way. Honor where you are now and keep moving forward.
If you have a daily gratitude practice, maybe today try to list only 1-3 things. Rather than quantity, focus on the quality of emotion behind each listed item. Let me know how it goes! I’d also love to know: What does love feel like in your body? What does gratitude feel like to you?
“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.
Why am I so anxious? The age old question. At some point it seems like my anxiety became the sole focal point of my life. Everything I do is in an effort to avoid feeling anxious. The problem is even when your intention is to avoid something, you end up concentrating on the very thing you’re trying to avoid. Therefore you’re attracting even more of it into your life. I’ve been spiraling in that space for a while now.
Listening to my anxiety instead of trying to ignore it taught me something. When I’m running through the list of everything I have scheduled for the day, panicking that I may not have time for everything, I never really took the time to wonder, so what? I followed my panic to it’s logical conclusion and found only myself waiting there to hand out the “punishment” I so feared. Spending a few days away from my normal routine with my boyfriend really emphasized that point.
This is what happens when we lose our intention, when we stop checking in with ourselves, when we forget to take the time to find grounding. It’s almost as if I had completely given up the power I have over my own life. I have been living as if I have to do this or I have to do that, never pausing to ask why I’m doing it in the first place. I’ve been so fearful, running from myself for so long that when I finally looked back, what a relief it was to realize that I’m the only one around. I’m the only one handing out these consequences of fear and displeasure.
After doing things a certain way, living in a certain way, for so long, I nearly forgot that I don’t have to keep following this road I’ve laid out. It’s almost like following a path through the forest. I’ve gotten so used to the path that I’ve become afraid of the dense woodlands on either side. However, the path I’m on leads me in circles. I’m the only one making the rule that “I must follow the path.” I am completely free to make a new path. It seems silly, but just realizing that fills me with so much joy and excitement. I don’t know what I’ll encounter once I step into the woods, but I am so eager to find out.
When it comes down to it, most of the unpleasant feelings we try to avoid in life are completely up to us. We make so many rules for ourselves without even realizing it. If I sleep in too late, I’m going to have a bad day. If I don’t accomplish my goal, I have to feel badly about myself. If my friend can’t hangout, I’ve got to be sad all day instead. We have these unspoken rules about the things that make us feel a certain way. Then we work so hard to justify our reactions to ourselves, perpetuating moods and emotions that aren’t serving us.
It’s funny. I used the restrict myself the very same way with my anger. I felt like I didn’t have a choice other than to get angry when certain things happened. I felt that was the only logical, appropriate response. Thankfully, I finally realized that I get to decide what’s worth getting angry over. (Turns out hardly anything.) Yet I failed to apply this lesson to my other emotions. Just because something happens doesn’t mean I have to feel a certain emotion about it for a certain length of time.
If I make a mistake, there is absolutely nothing forcing me to feel badly about myself because of it. If things don’t end up going as planned, I get anxious partly because I am afraid of the emotions and feelings I feel must follow. I’d forgotten that I’m the one writing this story. I get to decide how I respond to whatever happens to me. I’m the one calling the shots. I get to choose happiness and inner peace no matter what is happening around me.
My anxiety has been a response to my own self-rejection. I’m afraid if I don’t do everything perfectly, I’m going to lose my own love and compassion toward myself. My self love has been so conditional that it could hardly be considered love at all. My anxiety is my inner child, constantly afraid of a manipulative, emotionally abusive parent. The first step toward healing that fearful child is to stop abandoning myself if I don’t live up to my own expectations. Just reassuring myself that this deep love with always be here inside of me, will always be available and freely given to myself no matter what, fills me with peace and frees me from this oppressive fear that has been looming over me for so long. Regardless of what happens, regardless of what I do or don’t do, I am going to be here, supporting and loving myself with everything I’ve got.
Each morning when I sit down at my desk, laptop in front on me, WordPress open and waiting, I struggle to think of something to write about. I have a list I keep of a few ideas I could expound upon, but a lot of them seem too depressing to dwell on first thing in the morning. I keep losing sight of the reason I started writing again everyday in the first place. This is for me, this is to amp myself up, to get excited, to have fun. I don’t have to find a new fascinating topic to delve into every day. It really doesn’t matter what I write at all. Rather it’s the simple act of creation, of pouring myself into words on a page, with no other goal than to enjoy doing so.
I mentioned before how visualization before bed has helped me to wake up feeling better, more animated in the morning. Today I wanted to try that same visualization but in order to prepare me for the rest of my day. I have taken the next few days off from work because I had some PTO hours I needed to use up before July. Even though I am always excited for a day off, I never seem to let myself enjoy it. I get all in my head about every little moment, feeding my anxiety all throughout the day. I’m hoping that by sitting down, taking some mindful time first thing in the morning to mentally walk through my day, I’ll be able to feel more present and happy as I move through it.
Today is going to be a great day! I got to sleep in so I am feeling nice and rested. What a beautiful gift to be able to dream all through the night and wake up gently of my own volition. It’s a rather chilly day outside so I am going to spend my time warm and cozy indoors. I am going to have a very productive day. It will be a delight to clean up my house and organize things later. It will be an act of self-love. Tending to my nest so that I can feel more at home, more at peace. It will also be a great joy to show off all my hard work to my vegan boy tomorrow when he comes over again. Once my work is all done and the day is winding down, I’ll reward myself with a relaxing evening playing my new favorite video game.
Before I start my cleaning for the day, I have a lot of wonderful self-care to complete. I do most of these things every single day, yet the intention behind them has faded over time. Theses small acts aren’t supposed to be more chores for me to begrudgingly trudge through. These are small gifts to myself, chances to be present, chances to appreciate myself, my life. Today I am going to be mindful of this sweet, loving intention as I move through my to-do list.
I’ve noticed that a lot of the time while I am going about my business, I’m holding my breath! Or I’m breathing very shallow and quick. Today I am going to keep coming back to my breath. How might it feel to breathe mindfully, lovingly for an entire day? Won’t it be fun to try it out and see? Yes, fun. Above all I want to have fun today. I’m going to keep a light heart, a soft eye, a kind energy. I’m going to be curious and playful, grateful for this new day to spend with myself. My yoga practice today is going to be a celebration of this life I’ve been given, a beautiful flowing dance in tribute to my lovely body, my mother Earth. My meditation will be a much deserved rest, a surrender to that sweet mother. As I kindle that inner fire, that prana, with my workout today I will rejoice at all my body is capable of doing for me. The theme for today is passion, fire, playfulness, admiration, devotion. Each a simple word, yet able to bring such powerful emotions bubbling up to the surface.
One last intention to set before I finish up and move into the rest of my day. Today is just one day. I will focus on the time I have, not the foggy future to come. Perhaps I will have time for everything I’ve got swirling around in my busy mind eventually. Perhaps not. Either way, all I am able to do is focus on the day in front of me. There is not enough time for me to do everything. Instead I will concentrate on doing what I can. Doing it well, with deep breaths, and with many sips from the well of my own self-love.
I saw a post on Tumblr the other day that said: I think the key to a happy life as an adult woman is to channel your inner weird little girl and make her happy. There is so much truth behind those words. Without realizing it, I have been doing exactly that. By setting goals for myself to write and draw everyday, I am actually giving myself permission to enjoy the hobbies I use to enjoy as a young girl. For as long as I can remember I loved to create through these two mediums of artist expression.
Even though I have already been unwittingly following the advice of that post, doing it with a conscious intention of taking care of that strange little girl inside me, makes it feel all the more special and rewarding. At some point as I began to grow up, I started to need a reason behind everything that I did. Which seems strange to me, given that ultimately nothing really matters except what you decide matters. Did I have a reason to play Pokémon and Hamtaro for hours? Was there a good reason for printing out stacks upon stacks of Sailor Moon pictures I found online to color? Was there a purpose to all of the magical time I spent playing outside in nature with my sister and friends? Were these experiences any less important, any less meaningful, because I didn’t have a direct, practical goal in mind?
Perhaps this resistance to doing anything without a clear purpose is merely an excuse, a lingering symptom of mild depression. After all, what better reason is there than to make yourself happy? Sometimes it feels as though I’ve forgotten how to make myself happy, how to enjoy my life from one moment to the next. Only once I’ve begun a project, given myself the time to lose myself in it, do I feel true joy and freedom. It’s taking that first step that is always so very difficult. For example, most days I simply dread the idea of beginning my yoga and meditation practice. I contemplate cutting it short every time. But when I actually sit down and begin, it always becomes the very best part of my day. Despite this, that initial dread never seems to go away.
For a lot of my life, I relied on inspiration to spur me onward. Without it, I felt like there was no way I could continue with anything I was doing. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that most of the time that inspiration follows rather than precedes my actions. Most days I have no idea what I want to write about when I sit down to begin. I never know what to draw in the evenings. Yet I’ve learned that if I just force myself to start, I can surprise myself with what I’m able to create. I think that is what art is all about, surprising ourselves. Most of my best creations were not the result of careful planning and intention. They were spontaneous accidents that allowed me to unconsciously share a piece of myself with the world that I didn’t even know was mine to share.
So when I’m struggling with that stubborn resistance before beginning something, I’ve found it very helpful to remind myself that this is a gift for my inner child. It’s almost like the joy you get from playing with a child, in fact. As an adult, you may not be very interested in the game itself at first, but to see the happiness and pleasure in that innocent little face makes it worthwhile. It makes me so happy inside to imagine my younger self in my place, happily typing away, working hard on stories that will never be published or even read by others. To imagine that little girl I once was drawing anime without a care in the world, her excitement at how good we’ve gotten at it.
Channeling my inner child is one of the best ways for me to remember how to be in the present moment. It reminds me how to enjoy for enjoyment’s sake. I am so grateful for the children I get to meet everyday at work. Their lighthearted energy has been a great help to me as I work to reconnect with the child within myself. I am able to see myself in them and remember what it was like to be the age they are now. They inspire me to keep the child in me alive, to keep her happy, to keep her close. It’s definitely something worth practicing.
I’ve been drawing something every single day for around a year now. It has been a great habit to start. It helps me spend some time being playful and creative each day. The only issue I’ve encountered at this point is running out of ideas. Well, that and the ever-increasing stack of drawings I’ve started accumulating. In an attempt to think of some interesting drawing ideas, I came up with the idea to start doing drawings for the children I work with. A few people had suggested that I make a collection of my sketches into an adult coloring book. While this was a great idea, given that I don’t ever like to color my art, I didn’t feel much inspired to do so. After thinking on it for awhile, I decided I would feel more passionately about putting it together if it were a coloring book full of positive affirmations for children and teens.
One day early on in my career when I still felt very awkward about waiting with the children while my coworkers spoke with their parents, I decided to make a drawing for a little girl while she was busy playing. Even though I was too anxious to go join her or carry on a conversation, I didn’t want it to appear that I was cold or disinterested. So I did what I could, in my own socially awkward, anxious way. I drew a picture of a cute Japanese-style dragon with cherry blossoms around it. I added a banner that said: You deserve to be happy. Before she left I crouched down by her side and gave her the picture. I told her that I drew it especially for her while she was playing. I told her what it said and that I wanted her to always remember that and believe that it’s true. Even though it took a lot for me to build up the courage to do that, it was all worth it when I saw how happy it made her. She was so eager to show her mom. I can still hear her precious mousey voice saying, “Look mommy, she made this for me!”
Just thinking about that day makes me tear up. That experience is what inspired me to make more drawings with positive affirmations for kids. The first few I drew made me so happy and excited. I couldn’t wait to show my coworkers and see what they thought about the idea. I already knew they liked my art, but I really underestimated how much they would love this new endeavor. They immediately started talking about copyrights and publishing, selling them to therapists and other child advocacy centers, all the potential money there was to be made. They urged me not to do anything with them until I put legal protections in place. I was excited and flattered and more than a little embarrassed. I never know how to respond to praise or compliments. Soon those feelings began to fade, though. They were replaced by hesitation, regret, anxiety, and fear.
I went from making a new coloring page every day to once a week, to not at all. It feels as if all the passion behind this idea has drained out of me. Now whenever I think about it I become lost in a fog of copyright law, fees, plagiarism, business plans, and marketing. I had only been waiting for my coworkers’ approval before happily handing them over to each kid that came in. Now it seemed like a much longer wait was ahead of me before I could start giving them away. All I had been thinking about was being useful to my advocacy center, to the children I see every day. I was excited about how this gift would impact them, if the words on the page would some day make a lasting impact on their hearts and minds. However, dollar signs were first and foremost for everyone else.
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that my friends at work thought so highly of my art that they want me to protect it and make a profit from it. I’m sure they have no idea how this business advice left me feeling deflated and frustrated instead of proud. I never wanted to make any money off of this idea. My only desire was to make children happy, to introduce them to the power of intention, self-talk, and positive thinking. Now I feel pressured to secure my claim to these images before sharing them with the world. I feel pressured to come up with a way to profit from this work. I feel as though it would be stupid of me not to do these things. That others would think me stupid for not doing these things.
It reminds me of a study I read about once. One group of children was told to do a fun activity, then rate their enjoyment afterwards. Another group was told to do the very same fun activity, but with the added bonus that they would be paid afterwards. This group surprisingly rated their enjoyment much lower than the first, non-paid group. You see once money becomes a motivator, it becomes work rather than play. When you shift your focus from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic, a task becomes much less fulfilling. Making art to positively impact the lives of children, means a lot to me. Making art to make money, leaves me feeling empty.
It all comes down to caring too much about what other people think of my actions and decisions in the end. No one is forcing me to guard these drawings and add price tags. I am free to give them away whenever I see fit. The only thing holding me back is the opinions other people may have about that. But I’ve got to trust myself and hold on to the passion that led me to start this project in the first place. This was never about money or even what other adults would think about it. This is about helping children. This is about making small, vulnerable humans feel happy and loved. That is what motivates me. That is what sparks joy in my heart.
The other day I was texting a friend of mine, and we began to playfully tell one another about how good the following day was about to be. We were saying things like, “tomorrow is going to be incredible” and “we are going to have such an amazing day.” At the time I didn’t really think much of it. We were just messing around. It was almost bordering on sarcasm. However, I noticed something about that “incredible” day that came after. It truly did end up to be one of the nicest days I’ve had in a while. I felt calm, happy, energetic, light-hearted. My anxiety didn’t seem to be bothering me as much as it normally does. I thoroughly enjoyed my day at work and the company of my coworkers. There was so much laughter, so many smiles.
I genuinely think this day was a direct result of that conversation my friend and I had the night before. Even the words alone, without much belief or intention behind them, were able to have an effect of my reality the next day. To me, this was a shining example of the power of mere words. How often my inner voice has the opposite effect on my reality. Without even noticing it I have been ensuring my own discomfort in many experiences. I look towards the future with apprehension and fear. I tell myself that everything that lies before me is going to be so unpleasant, so difficult, so unwanted. Then I end up unconsciously affirming my own expectations.
Since that talk with my friend, I’ve been trying to intentionally get myself excited about my life. I’ve been trying to wake up early and exercise before work the way I used to instead of wasting my whole evening with workouts. Even though I dreaded the idea at first, as I was falling asleep the night before work, I visualized my alarm going off the next morning. I didn’t just imagine the motions that I would go through. I pictured myself waking up feeling well-rested and excited for my renewed morning routine. I tried to feel exactly how wonderful and happy I was going to feel when I woke up. I was somewhat surprised to find that it actually worked. I have been doing this thought exercise as I’m drifting off to sleep each night and this week I have easily been able to accomplish my goal of waking up earlier. And I have thoroughly enjoyed it every day.
I would like to start utilizing this newfound mental tool for the other events throughout my day as well. Rather than dreading the boring, tedious things I do each day like driving to and from work, making coffee, feeding my pets, doing my makeup, I am going to start using visualization to make each of those normally humdrum experiences enjoyable and meaningful. I figure that if I am unable to stop myself from thinking about the details of the future, I might as well start at least changing the way I think about them. I’m working on shifting my internal dialogue from “oh, god I have so much to do, I don’t want to do this” to “I am so excited about being able to do all the things I have going on today.” Even during the times that I really don’t believe it.
I used to view this type of thing as useless self-denial, as a form of lying to myself. And some days it does still feel like a lie. Some days are much harder than others. But that’s okay. I am going to keep trying anyway. Because I’ve realized that emotions are not something that are true or false. They are not solid, immovable facts. They are things that I get to create and interpret any way that I please. The ability to interpret our own reality is one of the most miraculously powerful things we have in this life. I want to train myself to make the most of it.