Sick of Self-Care

Acts once performed with the intention of loving kindness
have become just additional burdens of mindless routine
every little task now resonates with resentment
self-care disfigured and transmuted into self-harm

Somehow I turn even healing practices into poison
to punish myself for not meeting my own expectations
what is there inside me that turns self-love so sour?
why doesn't putting in the work work for me?

Tools I was told would transform me if I was patient
were twisted into weapons of perfectionism
just more masochistic mutations of all the miracles
I used to think would some day save me

I'm so tired of this futile self-improvement project called me
the pearls of ancient wisdom I've turned to soot within my fingers
the internal pressure of trying to get better is
the terminal illness of my inner-most essence
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It Doesn’t Feel Like a Choice

Can a broken brain really fix itself?
maybe it requires a lot of help
but how can you seek out something
you're already certain you don't deserve?

I've tried relentlessly to turn
the tides of my mind toward the sun
but the familiar shore of rage and despair
is magnetic as it resists every effort

It's gotten no easier to resist this automatic
under toe of self-defeating thoughts
when it pulls my head below the waves
so swiftly and with such strength

Self-love practices that once felt like salvation
have turned sour under the miasma of this mind
shame and disappointment have piled onto the
frustration of not being able to be different

I had really hoped that it was a choice
that I could decide to feel better
but now I doubt that it's fully true
there are more factors to change than sheer will

It feels like an attack to keep hearing it's up to me
when I've been trying my very best
but it's still not enough to get by
I guess I should be glad it worked for a little while

When Gratitude Stops Working

It has been over six years since I started practicing daily gratitude. I have journals upon journals filled with lists of things I’m grateful for. After all of this, after so much time spent training my brain to find gratitude, how can it be that I still feel like a terminally ungrateful person?

The main issue I have with a lot of mindfulness practices is the way my clever brain figures out ways to get around them after awhile. It’s ironic that most of the “mindfulness” I have incorporated into my everyday life isn’t done very mindfully at all anymore. Whether it be meditation, journaling, or mindful eating my brain seems more adept at learning to avoid the conscious effort rather than learning to be more present like I had intended.

Finding Novelty

If you can relate to this issue, you’re probably already asking, “How can we solve this problem?” While I don’t yet have a definitive answer, one thing I’ve noticed is that of all the self-care tasks I do every day, the one that never seems to get stale is my yoga practice. The only difference between yoga and my other practices is that the yoga flows I do are ever changing and evolving. I don’t practice the same poses in the same order everyday. If I did, I’m sure that would just as easily become a mindless habit like the rest. So the only advice I can give to you and to myself is: Keep changing it up.

This isn’t the perfect solution, I know. It is frustrating to constantly have to be reimagining ways to keep yourself mindful. It would be so much nicer if we could just do a few short little identical practices everyday and reap all the benefits of a more compassionate, mindful, spiritual life. I guess the old saying that nothing worth doing is easy still rings true.

I’ve found that novelty is essential to keep me mindful, even if it is aggravating to have to always search for it. Luckily, sometimes that little tweak for my practice finds me on it’s own like it did yesterday. I stumbled upon a Podcast that referenced The Book of Delights by Ross Gay. In his book, he talks about savoring little things throughout our day that “delight” us. For some reason, just this small, almost insignificant shift in perception has made a huge difference for me. It’s amazing how powerful the slightest change of framing can completely shift our perspective on something.

Replacing Gratitude with Delight

Despite sticking with my gratitude practice for so many years, I noticed almost immediately that it was not providing the mental benefits I had hoped. Sometimes it even seemed to backfire. There are a lot of days where I struggle to think of things to be grateful for. This makes me feel awful, because I know I have such an amazing life. I know I should be able to come up with dozens of things to be grateful for every day. The guilt spiral begins and I end up harming my mental health instead of helping it.

The most important part of gratitude is actually feeling it. As someone who struggles to stay grounded in my body and emotions, “grateful” is a rather vague sensation for me. There are lots of other emotions that compile this more complex feeling. It’s hard for me to just drop into a sense of gratitude on demand. However, “delight” feels a bit more tangible most days. Just the word alone makes the corners of my mouth twitch into a soft smile. Delight. Now that I can feel.

Not only am I more easily able to feel delight in my body, it also somehow feels a bit more lighthearted than gratitude. There is something very daunting and serious about being grateful. Not to mention the reverse, being ungrateful, is tied to a lot of shame. Delight, on the other hand, brings up a sense of buoyancy and silliness for some reason. Imagining being delighted makes me want to giggle and wiggle my toes in a way being grateful does not. There is a joyous, uplifting, lightness about the idea of feeling delighted. It also seems easier to pick small things in a practice about delight versus a practice about gratitude. Saying I am grateful for the way a stinkbug stopped and looked at me when I tapped the counter next to it feels strange, but to say the same scenario delighted me fits perfectly.

Putting It Into Practice

Today, instead of a gratitude list, try listing some things that delighted you. I’ll go first. Here are just a few things that brought a sense of delight into my life this morning:

  1. Hitting that snooze button on my alarm and snuggling back into my warm blankets with my dog for those few precious moments before getting up.
  2. Enjoying that first hot, black coffee.
  3. Feeling my house get warmer as I waited for the furnace to get going.
  4. Listening to music and singing as I drove to work.
  5. The smell of the perfectly ripe, beautiful, big apple I brought for breakfast.

Regardless of what kind of list you write, it’s helpful to be as detailed as possible. Add lots of physical descriptions, trying to incorporate as many senses into it as possible. I have to admit, I couldn’t help but smile as I wrote down my morning’s delights just now.

My favorite part about learning about this new way to practice bringing mindful moments of pleasure into your life was the idea of sharing it with others. Yesterday I asked a few other people to tell me something that delighted them about their day. It brought me just as much joy and happiness to hear about their experiences and imagine them savoring those small delights.

I hope at least some of you find this helpful. I would love to hear about any other ways you’ve found to keep a spark of novelty in your daily practices. Please, please, please leave a comment and let me know what delights you’ve had so far today!

Amateur

I am an artist afraid to practice
because each effort must be a masterpiece
inspiration extinguished under the weight
of violent, consistent self-criticism

Repulsed by the bitter taste of trail and error
searching for a sure formula for success
unable to reconcile the necessity of
an amateur's imperfect products

I marvel at the innocence
the way a child creates with an open heart
with no concern for mastery or exceptionalism
content with whatever comes

Surprising their own curiosity
the natural progression of true talent
disguised in the simple joy of creation itself
satisfied to make anything at all

Where Am I Trying To Go?

It’s hard to find a moment where I’m not rushing blindly into the next. As if there is some final destination that I’m frantic to reach. Without even realize it, I’ve spent half my life in fast forward. It just feels like the past and the future are somehow more tangible and quantifiable than the present moment ever can be. I’m afraid to rest here precisely because it is so fragile and fleeting. Fearful that if I live in this moment, I won’t have anything to show for it a few years from now. But focusing on an imaginary future can never serve me. The happiness I say I desire above all else, can only be found right here.

For someone who is so caught up in mental machinations, it’s extremely hard to settle into the simplicity of bodily sensation and experience. Language and logic cannot hold onto the slippery, ineffable value of being just as I am. The effort to try to make sense of everything pulls me out of every moment and places me in an artificial bubble of self-awareness, severed from the here and now unfolding before me. It feels foreign to forget myself in the soft feeling of fabric against sensitive skin. My mind has become so powerful and proficient at wrestling my other senses into stale submission. Finding myself suddenly surprised to scan my body and realize, once again, I’ve bitten my finger until its stinging and bleeding. How can I continuously be so cut off from the physical manifestation of me?

Never would I have imagined that one of my life’s greatest challenges could be participating in it. I’m much better at meticulous planning and pushing and pulling myself than planting my feet mindfully in front of me with every step. How bizarre it is to attempt to do nothing, and fail so reliably. Sitting on the bank of a river, utterly unable to keep myself from casting a line again and again. Not even noticing that I’ve been fishing, then suddenly coming back to reel my over eager hook back in for the thousandth time. Not even finishing setting my intention to be silent and settle into the stillness before realizing that damn bobber is already back on the surface of the water. The stamina of my persistence and patience needs to be built up, and that will take time. I’ve been strengthening my practice of falling into frustration these past 28 years. I must allow myself to surrender to the possibility it may take 28 years to rectify that habit.

It seemed simple and exciting when I first stumbled upon the ancient knowledge of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation and learned all that I truly desired was already mine. Little did I know that getting to a point where I was capable of granting myself permission to enjoy it would be a tremendously tedious and time-consuming trial. I must constantly remind myself that my repeatedly frustrated efforts, my failures, my relapses, my misdirections are all worth it. I want life to be easy, but I need it to be challenging so that I may learn and grow and develop into a being I can be proud of.

Every moment can be a celebration, a chance to be grateful, when I remember that I’ve already reached the destination I’ve been striving for. Every time I take a deep breath and notice the world around me is a victory. I won’t be discouraged by my many mistakes and missteps. They cannot spoil the joy contained within the rare moments where I manage to be fully present. Small successes still count. Whether I feel like I’m moving forward or backward, in the end I will always be right here. And right here is the only place I need to be.

Peripheral

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

Deep Belly Breaths

The hardest part of yoga
is letting myself breathe
after 7 years of practice
it still feels impossible

I've heard that meditation
can turn toxic if you let yourself
spend it ruminating on the negative
listening to that hateful little voice inside

I don't know how to avoid
that sharp pang of self-criticism
and still breathe into my belly
to find deep, full, relaxed breaths

I've spent my whole life
disassociating from that area
avoiding myself even in the internal
mirror of my own self awareness

Only on my back can I let myself
fully expand and take up space
with the help of gravity to hold me
and keep venomous thoughts at bay

How can I learn to love all of myself
when some parts cause me so much pain
this undercurrent of overwhelm at the idea
of accepting it's something I cannot change

Moving Forward

Stepping back
taking a moment
to savor and celebrate
the seemingly small
but utterly transformative
changes I have made

Silencing the voice
in my head that says
not good enough
long enough to recognize
that at least now
I can hear it

I cannot ask for more
in this very moment
than the subtle awareness
I've taken years to cultivate
the bliss that breaks over me
as I reflect on my progress

The first step has been achieved
I've made the space to witness
chain reactions that were once
overwhelmingly automatic
I watch them with interest
and deep curiosity

I cannot always stop myself
but just to see is a greater gift
than I've ever expected to receive
knowing what I need to do
visualizing the path to peace
is more than I had before

I cannot expect to rush this process
of compassion, patience, and healing
I have a lifetime to play with, ponder,
and polish this gentle, loving practice
as it continues to unravel and reveal
new complexities and insights each day

I am so excited to see where this 
ancient knowledge of spiritual wellness
will lead me as I stumble faithfully
forward into my own mysterious future
my heart overflows with gratitude
for the lessons I have gathered

So thankful for the wisdom passed down
from strangers in foreign lands
and long forgotten times 
for the outstretched hands of spirits
guiding me from beyond the grave
I will not squander their selfless generosity

I will make my ancestors proud
as I continue onward through the unknown
with a recklessly radiant open heart
and the fervent intention to heal
not only myself, but the wounds left open
by those who came before 

Deceptive Mental States

Every day I wake up I choose love, I choose light, and I try.

The Submarines – You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie

What are we supposed to do when we cannot trust our own minds? This is where I believe faith comes into even an atheist’s life. At least for me, this is where I try to practice faith. You might be asking, well why wouldn’t you trust your own mind in the first place? If you are one of the lucky few who have no mental illness, then you may never encounter this dilemma. However, for someone like me, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, there are many times I’m left unsure of whether something is a genuine concern or if I’m spiraling into delusional, distorted perceptions and over reacting. It can be extremely difficult to tell the difference. Not only that, even if I determine logically that I am being a bit dramatic, it doesn’t make it any easier to calm myself down emotionally or silence my racing thoughts.

This happens to a certain degree every single night. As the day dwindles away, my brain is running low on my natural mood stabilizing hormones and dopamine/serotonin stores. I am always at my lowest and most stressed in the evening hours when I am physically and mentally tired. Even though I am consciously aware of this skewed perception at the end of the day, I never fail to fall pray to the thoughts and worries that arise. I know that no matter how serious my problems appear at night, if I just allow myself to sleep on it, I’ll have a completely different and more balanced opinion and perspective come morning when I feel energized and refreshed again.

It’s important for us to pay attention to our moods and thoughts at different intervals of the day, month, and year. Eventually we may notice a pattern. For instance, as I mentioned, I feel more vulnerable to anxiety in the evenings. I also feel much more susceptible of falling into depression during the winter months. I become more irritable and emotional about a week before my period each month. Once we notice these factors and the way they affect our thought patterns and sensitivity, we can begin to acknowledge when we may not be in a great place to make big decisions or judge a problem or situation accurately. Then we can try to adjust our actions accordingly.

Now, I said try to adjust, because even once we notice and acknowledge these patterns, it’s not as easy as you might think to convince ourselves we’re being irrational in the moment. Last night I felt like the world was falling down around me. I couldn’t stop thinking about financial concerns. I was distraught about my elderly dog’s health. I was ruminating on the way the seemingly minuscule issues of today could potentially snowball into unavoidable catastrophes decades in the future. What if my parents die? How will I afford retirement? What if I develop health issues? Should I leave the job I love for a better paying one? What if that’s a mistake? All of these basically unanswerable questions were swirling around in my head demanding to be answered and planned for accordingly right now. All of these concerns felt terribly urgent despite the fact the day before they weren’t even on my radar.

The deceptive part about anxiety is that it does serve a real, evolutionary purpose. Stress feels urgent and important because in our past as a species, it was. We weren’t made to be able to ignore these mental signals. It wasn’t an option to distract ourselves or even simply sit in our anxious discomfort when it was a life or death situation. Back then, we really did need to act immediately in order to survive. So don’t be too hard on yourself if it seems impossible to talk yourself down from these mental states. Your brain and body aren’t broken. They are simply doing what they were designed to do to protect you. It just doesn’t exactly transfer over well to our modern, often long-term, problems.

This is where faith comes in for me. I don’t exactly know what I am putting my faith in exactly. Maybe I am just having faith in myself. After all, how many millions of times have I felt like I was going to burst into flames if I didn’t solve all of my problems immediately, only to realize it wasn’t that bad the next morning? How many times have I feared I wouldn’t be able to cope with a worst case scenario, only to discover I’m much stronger than I ever believed I could be when I actually have to face one? I’ve made it this far. I have to believe in myself and trust that no matter what happens, I’ll be able to handle it somehow, even if I don’t know the exact details in this moment.

It’s may be hard, but in the moments when we find ourselves most likely overreacting or stuck in a distorted perception of ourselves or the situation at hand, we must practice faith. Just try to notice how your body feels instead of trying to “fix” everything so you feel better. Breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders. Give yourself a massage or activate a few acupressure points. Notice when you get tangled in your thinking mind and gently draw yourself back to the physical sensations in your body. Your brain is most likely telling you: You can’t just breathe. It’s not safe to allow these feelings. We have to do something! Don’t let these worries dissipate. They are too important. Notice whatever inner dialogue that arises to try to convince you of the urgency of the moment. Say to yourself: I know these thoughts feel really big and important right now. But I also know I am not at my best mental state to judge that at the moment. I’ve felt this way many times before. I trust that, just as it was those times, everything is going to be okay. I am okay. I am safe. I have faith in my future self and his/her/their ability to handle each issue as it presents itself. I don’t need to be prepared for every eventuality before it arises.

You’ve got this. I believe in you.

Keep Calm and Take the Anxiety Test! - My Mental Health