Mindfulness and Me

Photo by user juliejordanscott on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Photo by user juliejordanscott on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Next week, I am leading a webinar on mindfulness at work, specifically in the library. Mindfulness, since I learned about it earlier this year, has truly changed my life. I have struggled with depression and anxiety my entire life. While mindfulness and meditation are not cures or catchalls, they are tools for the repertoire, swords for fighting the beast. There are many factors that produce depression and anxiety, and not every technique works for everyone.  It doesn’t even work for me all the time. But now, I practice these skills every day, with the intent of building them bigger and stronger.

I’m doing these posts for the students in my webinar, but I’m also doing them for anyone who wants to know more about this practice and how it helps one individual person. I don’t speak for everyone, and I have so much more to learn.

My road began with the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris. I’ve talked about this book ad nauseam since then. Harris, a television anchor, had a panic attack on air. He was struggling with drug dependency and anxiety, and he decided to look into ways to help himself. He interviewed Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, and he went on a ten-day retreat with no speaking. The stories are fascinating, but it’s his conclusions that meant the most to me. I wrote down his tenets, “The Way of the Worrier,” as he calls them, and stick to them as best I can every day.  Among them: don’t be a jerk, hide the zen if you have to, and realize everything is temporary.

Next I went on to Taming the Drunken Monkey by William Mikulas. I picked that one up at ALA and added it to my already overflowing bag of ARCs. This book stresses three concepts: awareness, flexibility, and concentration. It progresses in stages through the levels of exercises, so if you’re a beginner, you can start with the first level and move up. I’m somewhere in the second level right now. It’s extremely practical, and if you want to practice meditation, it’s a good place to start.

On the plane back from ALA, I read another advanced reading copy, The End of Stress by Don Joseph Goewey.  My takeaway from that book was that there were even more techniques and tools I could be using, and more that I’m probably not even aware of. My favorite tool in that book is simple – when you’re feeling stressed, tell yourself, “I could be at peace right now.” The anxiety in my head is temporary, created of my own nervous mental energy, and unnecessary. When I use this tool, I feel all the stress disappear from my body instantly, and all my breath goes out in a whoosh.  Focusing on the breath is very important in this practice.

Here’s how I currently apply the skills I learned in these books:

  • A lot of my stress comes from interpreting inconsiderate things said to me, often by people who care about me. By understanding that everything is temporary, and that I should focus on the moment, I know that what they think or say doesn’t matter. I am the only one in control of my own destiny. If they don’t like me, it only harms them. I strive to be a good person, so if I make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. I can take responsibility for my actions and move on to the next thing.
  • My calendar is packed. I work full-time and do a lot of freelance side work. I also have a toddler and a husband. Balancing it all can be stressful. Focusing on the moment allows me to put my concentration and efforts on what I’m doing right now. I can put aside the endless to-do list and know that it will get done another time, as long as I write it down for later.
  • My child will only be two once. Knowing that helps me catalog the special moments and soak them in so I remember them forever.
  • Awareness of the moment has helped me connect with the world more. When life flies by, it’s easy to ignore everything and put blinders on. When you are focusing on the moment, you notice more: the beauty of a sunset, the unique softness of a child’s skin, unusual names on tombstones. Lately, this has created a powerful awe in me, and a profound gratefulness that I have this life, that I live in this world. My writing has improved with these observations as well.

Recently, I started wondering how I could apply these principles to other anxieties and neuroses I’ve held for a long time. I’ll talk about those in my next post.

 

SinC Blog Hop

Books

Photo by Ed Dubiel

So if you didn’t know, I’m an officer on the national board for Sisters in Crime, an organization for lovers of crime fiction: mystery writers, readers, and everyone in between.  I’m the Library Liaison, which means I help writers get hooked up with librarians and vice versa, to the mutual benefit of all involved.  This is a good role for me because I’m a librarian and a writer, so I know what it’s like from both sides.  (Even when sometimes those two identities have a hard time coexisting!)

Fellow librarian/writer/board member Barbara Fister and I created this September Blog Hop.  Okay, Barbara created it, and I’m just along for the ride. But this is a good idea, so I’m here to add my two cents. All this month, SinCers are posting their answers to prompts and tagging others to do the same.  I choose the following questions… (dun dun dun)

What’s the best part of the writing process for you, and what’s the most challenging?

I often ask myself why I write.  Sometimes I get so caught up in the drama and angst of it that I can’t even answer that question. I say to myself, I could be reading right now instead of beating myself over the head.  I think about my friends who don’t have the writing bug and get jealous. I start to wonder if the grass is greener.

I started writing because in third grade, a teacher handed me a pen and a Garfield notebook and told me to. Until that blank page stared up at me from the desk, I’d never entertained the idea. But this was part of our classwork, and like a good student, I followed the rules. Then I realized I didn’t want to follow the rules: I wanted to make up my own stories, for sport. My first story was called Trapped in a Video Game, and it followed the exploits of a main character whose name I cannot recall, but was, indeed, Trapped in a Video Game – Super Mario Brothers, to be exact. Also, she had a crush on Wesley Crusher.

I keep writing for the thrill of it. I like to see text unfurl on the screen, a scarf unraveled. I like to inhabit the mind of a character, figure her out, find out why she ticks. I wait for the aha moments and the quiet revelations that appear on the page. I turn my computer off and write longhand so I can concentrate, block out the noise in my mind and go to someplace that is entirely my own.

The hardest part of writing for me is dealing with the psychological burden that comes with it. I am only one tiny voice in a chorus of millions.  Why would anyone want to read my work?  Why would anyone care? Lately, however, I’ve been ignoring those questions, the little internal cry of Why bother? I’ve been sending out my work and letting others read it. Sisters in Crime has helped give me the courage I need for this. For years I’ve questioned my own self-worth in a number of areas, but I’m too old for that now.  I know I’m good at what I do, and it’s time to start showing myself off before I die.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I’m a librarian and a book podcaster, so I have to answer this one.  Next in my queue is The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness.  Alas, I’m mystery/thrillered out, having finished several good ones within the last few weeks.  So, Harkness it is.  That is the last book in the fantasy series about a vampire and a witch who fall in love. I also have the advanced copy of Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult waiting for me.  When I do eventually get back to thrillers, I’m looking forward to Ice Shear by M.P. Cooley and The Secret Place by Tana French.

Bright Star

Henry 1Just before I got pregnant with Henry, I was helping a homebound patron edit her book.  She couldn’t come to writers’ group, so she sent me her pages each month, and I’d take them for feedback and send it back to her.  The book was on astrology, and she’d created a new system for reading the stars.  While she asked me not to share the details of the system, she did a reading for me as a thank you.  She said this decade, my thirties, would be the best of my life and most successful.

Now I am not much of a believer in anything beyond the physical world.  I have a thorny relationship with religion and am a skeptic about most everything else.  But this stuck with me.  Thirty was the age where I let go of fears, accepted my limitations, and came to terms with the fact that happiness was not a thing bestowed open me but a thing I had to work for. Things are not always easy – I’ve also dealt with some of the worst depressive episodes of my life – but overall, my thirties have been far and away more productive and happier than any other time in my life.  I have to attribute some of this happiness to Henry.

I don’t write about him much.  When I’m with him, I soak up every moment of him, good and bad.  That’s the way I parent, and it works for me.  But it makes me want to escape when I’m not with him.  At work, I focus on work; when he’s in bed, I’m thinking about other things.  He exhausts me.  There is also the background thought, all the time, that other people don’t want to read about him.  That people are inherently tired of children.  Children are so glorified in our society, seen as such a reason to be alive and to be fierce and proud, that we get tired of parents who are too vocal.

Today I wanted to write about him, though.  There are some things I wanted to document.  Henry, at almost 20 months, is a reason to be alive and fierce and proud, even if I don’t want to talk about it all the time.  He drove me crazy today, not wanting to sit in the cart at Target or Acme, and I had to alternately carry him and let him walk, pushing the cart with one hand.  I was sweating, as the temperature rocketed from 30 to 50 in two hours and my head began to pound with the change.  Yet there were small moments, like when we left the house and a random teenager was strolling past playing his guitar, and Henry stopped to dance.  When I asked him, “Do you love Mommy?” and he said “Yes!”  When Ed asked him if he had something he wanted to tell Facebook, and he said, “Bus.”  ”Bus” was today’s word of the day; everything was a bus.

He knows how to turn on my Nook and find his spelling game app.  He can spell words within the app.  He knows how to find his Babyphone app, too, and he knows how to turn on the Wii and start Donkey Kong Country.  He knows letters: O, I, A, M, E – but he’s confounded by W and J.  He will climb into the lap of a stranger and dance to cell phone ringtones.  He loves to sit with me and read.

Before he was born, I was so worried that having a child would mess up my life, the way it was.  That all my free time would be sucked away in an instant – that I would be a different person, an obnoxious person who thought and talked about her kid all the time.  I reminded myself that it was going to be hard, and that I needed to remember that life is not all about me anymore.  This is the way it is now: I am still me, like I said I would be.  I was prepared for the difficulties, so I wasn’t shocked.  There were only pieces of this life that I wasn’t prepared for.  He has so much power, this small bright star.  He has so much ahead of him, so much discovery, and I have so much to learn about being his mother.

Children don’t make you happy merely by existing.  No one wanting to improve their marriage or their lives in general should have a child to accomplish that.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you should or should not have a child.  That is your decision.  My decision was to create and shape this little person, and I’m glad I made it.  As Ed would say: “he’s pretty awesome.”  When he’s exhausting, when he’s fascinating, and when he’s shining.