Living With Intent

A few weeks ago, I read a book that turned my brain upside down for a while. Living with Intent, by Mallika Chopra, raised so many new questions. I am naturally a goal-setter and a planner, but this book wanted me to take things to a new level. I had to take the meditation and mindfulness principles I’d been studying and apply them to life planning. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that concept. With mindfulness, you live in the moment, experiencing things as they are. How does that translate to planning for the future, when the future doesn’t even exist?

Chopra gives an acronym for the process: Incubate, Notice, Trust, Express, Nurture, and Take Action. I realized I’d always been in the Take Action stage. And to be fair, I’ve accomplished a lot, especially in the past year. Setting specific, achievable goals is the way to finishing what you start. But as I stepped back to the Incubate phase, I started to realize how much expectation I’d built around my achievements. I expected perfection from myself, for one. I wanted to be the best at everything I did, and receive only positive, glowing, grateful feedback. When it wasn’t that, I beat myself up. I expected my friends and family to be proud of me. In some cases, they were; in others, they were dismissive. In some cases, I received biting, unfair criticism – as opposed to helpful feedback that inspires growth.

I wasn’t enjoying anything. I was rushing around, adding more things to my plate, wanting the shot of dopamine that never came.

I asked myself: what fulfills me? I realized that my work was more about the process than the final result. I felt fulfilled by writing a short story, not by getting it published. I felt sad after my bassoon group was done performing – rehearsal was more fun. Why did I want that validation at the end? Because I wanted to believe my work was meaningful. I wanted others to tell me that what I was doing was right. From Brene Brown, I’ve learned that I am enough, no matter what stage I’m in, no matter what anyone says to me. I have to believe it.

How does this lead to intent? Normally, I would spend hours thinking about what concrete things I want to achieve in the next year. I want to write this many short stories (or words). I want to finish this many house projects. I want to teach this many webinars. And so on, and so forth. I still believe that specific goals are important (Chopra covers this in the Take Action phase). But I’m not going to be as focused on the final products. I’m going to see where this journey carries me next year. I have a full-time job and freelance work, and I’m going to have two children. I need to be able to go with the flow. Be proud of my house even when it’s messy. Let stories go unfinished. Let my mind spin out to sea from time to time. Say no. Stick up for myself.

I don’t know how I will measure this success, since these goals aren’t measurable. I’ll just have to see how much gray hair I have by the end of the year, I guess.

How and Why I Do It

gifts of imperfectionLate last year, I read The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. This book gave me a nervous breakdown, but it was worth it. Part of Brown’s guide is encouraging us to tell our stories. This is one of mine.

I work full-time and have several part-time gigs, mostly teaching webinars and facilitating online classes. I’m on the board of Sisters in Crime. I play the bassoon and write short stories. That might be it. It’s easy to sum up, but not so easy to talk about. People often ask me, “How do you do it?” I believe there is a hidden question: “Why do you do it?” Because I have a little boy, who clearly should be taking up most of my time. How could you give up all that time with your child? is the big judgment lingering in the air. The answer is, simply, that I don’t. I have plenty of time with my child. I’ll get to that.

Why I do it: I love everything I do, and I need the money to build my child a better life. Those are the simple answers. There are definitely times when I feel so frantic, so overburdened by responsibility, that my head swims and my mouth speaks (it has a habit of doing that, beyond my control). But usually, that’s because my brain is on Fast Mode. We are all so tethered to our e-mail and our task lists. Sometimes I maintain the illusion that I can control my inbox (or the actions of other people) and that’s when things go off the rails. When I surrender to Slow Mode and the immediacy of The Moment, I feel free and grateful for all that I have.

The reality of How I Do It has so much to do with mental energy and skill, using the right brain and the left when appropriate. I manage my calendar and task lists with precision, while also blocking out chunks of time to be spontaneous. It doesn’t always happen the way I plan (especially when one works with the public) but giving myself the extra time allows me to breathe. I do this with both my personal life and work life. At work, I can “manage by walking around” and see problems I might not have seen if I were holed up in my office all day. While on the floor, I am more attuned to patron needs and possible behavior issues. At home, I have time with my son. I don’t answer the phone or read email. We play, snuggle, read books. I commit him to memory, one hug at a time, because he won’t always be like this.  In a year, he’ll be some new wonder.

It’s not perfect. Of course, there need to be more hours.  My husband and I could use more time together. I could use more time with friends. I miss reading as much as I used to. But mostly, what I’ve given up is feeling guilty, and that’s the key. Sometimes my house is not perfect (most of the time) or all the laundry isn’t done. Some nights we don’t cook at home. Sometimes things wait till tomorrow. There’s no point in working yourself into a grave. You take every moment as it comes, feel the feeling, take ownership, and move on. That’s an ideal, and it doesn’t always work, but I am happier than I ever have been.

I used to spend all my time worrying and manufacturing drama I didn’t need. I acted like a victim. When I realized I had the power to change my own life, the world opened up. I know the dark depths of chemical and hormonal depression, and I know that there is no magic bullet. I have been struggling with this again in recent weeks, and I have had clawed my way out of many holes. But I have more tools in my toolbox now. I can lean on myself rather than expect others to bring me happiness like a present from Santa. And when I started doing that, magically, I had more time and was able to accomplish more.

Now excuse me while I go read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and have another nervous breakdown. It’s coming. I can feel it. 

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.