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Archive for January, 2013|Monthly archive page

Coming Clean (I’m Not a Professional Tap Dancer)

In Mindfulness, Self-Reflection on January 30, 2013 at 7:22 am

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I’m afraid that I may have given the wrong impression over the last few posts. The truth is that I’m no happiness expert. I’m a regular person, one of millions on this planet, just trying to live out a peaceful life. We all like to think we’re special, and I am no exception to this rule.

If self-importance were a drug or a disease, its prevalence would easily be classified an epidemic. I’m not certain whether Washington D.C. suffers especially from this syndrome or if it just seems that way to me because I know it best. It isn’t hard to find multiple examples each day that speak to this point.

Speaking of unabashed self-importance, I wish you could see or hear the things that pass through my brain all day long. You’d possibly be shocked or at the very least would realize that I’m no model of perfection (or sanity, for that matter).

Just this morning as I was shampooing my hair in my warm shower, a thought came to my mind: “What if the world were to end today? What would I do?” I spent the next few minutes exploring possible scenarios.

Scenario #1: Go to work anyway and just pretend everything is normal. Maybe have a glass of wine or two with lunch, just for the hell of it.

Scenario #2: Grab my partner and head for the hills – neither one of us is much of a survivalist, but we’ve got a lifetime supply of granola bars, which has to count for something. When considering this scenario, I rued my recent crossfit flunk-out (yes, it’s possible, but that’s a different story), thinking it would have been helpful to have serious muscles for end-of-the-world survival.

Scenario #3: Run out into the streets and begin a spontaneous tap dancing flash mob. I’ve wanted to do this ever since the urge came to me one rainy Friday morning a month or two ago. I should note that my tap dancing credentials are woefully lacking, but in the event of imminent apocalypse, I’m pretty certain that no one would bother to judge. Well, maybe a few people, but it’d be on them if they chose to spend their last few hours of existence judging mad tap dancers.

I probably could have spent all morning coming up with similar scenarios, but the fact is that the shower started running cold and after all, I had a bus to catch and memos to write. Oh, and it turns out that world isn’t ending today anyway, so it probably wasn’t the most useful exercise to begin with.

But enough of that. What I’m trying to say here is that if sometimes, in the course of these posts, I wax a bit too rosy or project an all-knowing aura, please forgive me. I’m just an imperfect person. I’m an idealist, an incurable optimist, and a quirky thinker (witness my end-of-the-world plans), but I’m certainly not a saint or guru.

Every once in a while when I start feeling a little too smug, I have to take myself down a notch (or else life gladly does it for me). In these moments, I remind myself of how little I know and of how much I have yet to learn. It’s a comforting, yet terrifying realization, knowing that the world can and will go on without you.

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Love, Here and Now

In Friendship, Mindfulness, Relationships on January 28, 2013 at 7:44 am
Love hieroglyphics. When word's can't quite capture the moment...

Love hieroglyphics. When words can’t quite capture the moment…

Most mornings, the feeling of my partner’s warm, sleepy body curled next to mine is enough to fill me with an indescribable sense of peace and gratitude. There are, of course, exceptions. Sometimes, I wake up cranky and grumble my way out the door without giving him so much as a peck on the cheek. Other times, when we’ve fought the night before, I painstakingly avoid touching him (not even a toe is allowed to break rank), thinking to prove my point. Never mind that he is sleeping blissfully beside me, having already put the whole thing behind him.

In the past year, the experiences of people close to me have been a poignant reminder of the importance of treasuring these quiet, beautiful moments. Their experiences have reinforced the necessity of strengthening our relationships each and every day. It’s easy to get caught up in the motion of the days and weeks, without ever stopping to be mindful about the people who make our lives worthwhile. Career-building, work travel, bills, family, children, social obligations, digital distractions – they all take their toll.

I’m reminded of Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages. Chapman’s theory is that humans “speak” five love languages – words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, gifts, and physical touch – and that among these, we each have a “primary” language. When our partners “speak” our primary love languages, we feel content and our “love tank” is full, but when they don’t, we are more likely to feel unhappy. It’s a simple but useful lens for promoting mindfulness in relationships.

Skeptical? I would be too, especially since we know that relationships are never simple. Humor me, though, and push that skepticism aside. Take a moment to reflect: what’s your primary love language? What are the things that make you/your partner/family feel most loved? Think you’ve figured it out? Try a little experiment. If you think your partner thrives off of words of affirmation, write them a series of love notes. If you think they prefer physical touch, take Gretchen Rubin’s advice and give them “a kiss in the morning, a kiss at night.”

There’s no guarantee, of course, that this experiment will succeed. If it works, it’ll take time to fine-tune and will require concerted effort from the both of you. Even if it fails, however, you’ll have accomplished three things. First, you’ll have done something special for someone else. Consider it your good deed of the week. Secondly, and perhaps unexpectedly, you’ll have learned more about your own needs, as well those of your partner. Finally, you’ll have cultivated mindfulness in your relationships, which if sustained over time, will bring positive dividends of its own.

Following My Bliss…On the Bus

In Meditation, Work/Life Balance on January 25, 2013 at 8:00 am
Fresh sprinkling of snow - perfect for a morning walk.

Fresh sprinkling of snow – perfect for a morning walk.

It’s a blustery day, with light snow disrupting commutes and making people grumpy. I’m combating the cold by thinking of the many things I’m grateful for: my warm socks and boots, a thick coat, and fairly reliable public transit. Above all, I’m just trying to be mindful.

It’s so easy to shift into “auto drive” mode each day on my commute. The sounds and movements on the crowded bus can be hypnotic, a dull hum that I easily drown out by diving into the columns of emails piled in my work inbox. But I don’t want to drown it out, at least not today, so I try to focus on the present moment.

Mindfulness on the bus can take a lot of shapes. Being aware of my emotions as I encounter strangers, being aware of the people sitting near me – the way they sit, the things they say to one another, embracing the simple pleasure of the commute itself, which is an island of (relative) peace before I enter the perpetual busyness of the day.

Having just finished Don Lattin’s book, Following Our Bliss, I can’t help but wonder at the roots of my quest for mindfulness. Lattin attributes much of today’s fascination with meditation and mindfulness to the LSD-inspired experiences of the 1960s hippies, who were trying to connect to a broader global consciousness.

I would argue, however, that my motivations for seeking mindfulness are somewhat different. Unlike the 1960s, today we take for granted the inherently global nature of our interactions. Technological breakthroughs have spurred communication. It doesn’t matter what message you’re trying to spread – you can find a venue and an audience for it in the digital world.

The interaction is non-stop. The internet, in fact, seems to stand almost apart from time.  Our lives have expanded past the traditional bounds of nine-to-five, workplace and home. We’ve transcended, but we’re not certain what it really means. It’s a new infinite, one of our own creation, which makes it all the more puzzling.

In the midst of this, mindfulness provides a mental refuge. Taking a deep breath and focusing on the moment can help center us and remind us of what is real. Mindfulness challenges us to let go of the ceaseless wave of our digital lives and competing workplace demands and instead appreciate the value inherent in simply being alive. This is why I turn to mindfulness: to help remind me that even a crowded rush hour ride on a creaky, muddy city bus can be something special, because it means that I’m here.

Deep Breaths: Meditation and the (Tricky) Art of Letting Go

In Meditation, Work/Life Balance on January 19, 2013 at 11:45 am
The serenity we see in nature is not always as easy to capture in our own minds.

The serenity we see in nature is not always as easy to capture in our own minds.

You’ve probably heard about the recent lipservice paid to the physical and mental benefits of meditation. Better focus, renewed energy, calm, and peace of mind. All of this great press reinforces my NYE resolution to meditate daily. For me, meditation is about grounding myself, reflecting on my core values, and increasing deliberate mindfulness. You could say that meditation is my way of savoring life (thanks, Leo), although it can never replace my daily chocolate addiction. Thankfully, I’m pretty certain that you can savor more than one thing, otherwise I’d be in trouble.

My first, brief flirtation with meditation was back in my college days. I was freshly arrived on the East Coast and waved around my California suntan and Santa Barbara beach stories like some kind of protective flag. A friend, convinced by my hippie/surfer charade, told me about a flyer they’d seen advertising a meditation group. Afraid to dispel my carefree image, I declared that I would go. After all, don’t all Californians meditate? Needless to say, I arrived at the class wholly unprepared for what was about to happen.

The room was bare, bathed in gloomy light and suffused with the spicy, make-your-throat-itch smell of incense. Myself and the other newbies uneasily circled the instructor, a thin, grey-haired man in his late fifties, who was calmly seated cross-legged in the center of the room. He invited us to join him, and we awkwardly plopped to the ground, the wiser of us landing on the sad-looking pillows we’d brought from our dorm beds. The instructor briefly explained the concept and then we closed our eyes. Therein ensued some of the longest, most drawn-out minutes of my life.

For those who have never meditated before, allow me to shed some light. We spend our days wrapped up in a frenzy of mental and emotional activity. We’re hardwired to be “on” constantly, and give ourselves little room to relax, much less empty our minds. Meditation runs against the very grain of this paradigm and challenges us to attempt (what seems) the impossible: to turn off our thinking minds. No time. No judgements. No emotion. Nothing.

Simple enough, right? To the uninitiated, meditation feels more like slamming the brakes in a semi-truck going 70 miles per hour. Instead of stopping, what happens is that everything suddenly clamors for immediate attention. You hear the brakes screaming, the tires skidding against the pavement, horns honking all around, and little voices telling you that this was a bad, bad idea. This, my friends, is what it was like for me to meditate that first time. I was wholly unprepared for inner battle that would ensue the moment I closed my eyes. At the end of the thirty minutes, I was exhausted. Instead of feeling connected to some greater energy, I felt like I’d been pounded by waves for hours.

I only went back to that meditation circle once or twice more. I hadn’t expected meditation to be so challenging and I was ashamed of my failure. Several years went by sans-meditation. Occasionally, I’d feel a glimmer of guilt. Then one day, I realized that I was ready to give it another try. This time, it was much easier, especially since I knew what to expect. I had matured enough  that I didn’t give up when I didn’t instantly achieve a state of nirvana.

This brings us to today. My meditation practice is going well, thanks in part to some lessons I’ve picked up along the way. Lesson #1: start small. I try to meditate a minimum of ten minutes a day. I’m gradually building from there, but ten minutes is small enough to seem achievable, especially when balancing a busy schedule. At the stage I’m at, even ten minutes can be a challenge.

Lesson #2: acknowledge and release. The first time I tried meditating, I felt like a failure because I couldn’t empty my mind. I now know better. Instead of trying to instantly empty, I try to acknowledge the thoughts and emotions running through my brain and then one by one, let them go. This is a remarkably cathartic process. As I am discovering, sometimes peace of mind is as simple as recognizing that for ten whole minutes, I don’t have to fix everything. The world no longer rests on my shoulders, and I am free to just be.

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Currently Reading: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi dissects creativity with a highly objective eye. He asks us to let go of our preconceptions of creativity as something whimsical and erratic; instead, he paints a picture in which true Creativity (with a capital C) stems from rigorous work and interactive processes. One of his most intriguing claims is that in order for anything to be creative, it needs to be validated by others working in the same field.

Me vs. The Wedding Industrial Complex

In Minimalism on January 13, 2013 at 10:45 am

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I never dreamed that planning a wedding would be such an uphill battle against what I not-so-affectionately call the  “Wedding Industrial Complex.” Part of this is my own fault because I had never paid attention to the world of weddings and had no clue what I was diving into. I never wanted to get married, never daydreamed about my color schemes or first dance songs. I could care less about designer dresses, don’t believe in high heels or make-up, and think that traditions such as “giving away the bride” that hearken back to misogynistic practices are annoying. There are all kinds of terms for people like me, but the most common seems to be “anti-bride,” a title which doesn’t come close to capturing the reasons for my resistance.

As a minimalist in the making, I resent the implication that weddings should be elaborate (read: expensive) affairs. In this day and age, even people who tell you that they are planning a “small wedding” are still looking at paying thousands of dollars. I stand here before you guilty as charged, but I also admit that I have been conscious of this paradox from the beginning and struggle with it each day. Ironically, while anti-brides may have presented an initial obstacle to the Wedding Industrial Complex, the industry quickly adapted. Today, you can find all kinds of services offered to the anti-bride, designed to make the process more bearable, or at the very least, more unique and indie. Ah, Adam Smith. Your invisible hand is still alive and well in the world of wedding planning.

My anti-bride stance is aided and abetted by my feminist roots. Even as a kid, I liked to walk around telling people I was a feminist. No doubt I terrified a lot of boys in the third-grade who had no concept of what that meant, but who were convinced that it meant trouble for them. Honestly? At my core I resent the term anti-bride. Why not path breaker or modern woman? The “anti,” by its very nature, implies something negative, a sense of opposition and struggle. This doesn’t have to be the case. After all, folks, it’s 2013, not 1600. Many of the traditions that people consider to be a regular part of weddings today only date back to the rigid and restrictive Victorian era. I find it so odd that on one hand, people wholeheartedly decry the evil of objectifying women (hello, human rights), while on the other hand, they feel offended or, at the very least, non-plussed when someone suggests modernizing traditions that for hundreds of years have been doing precisely that.

Engagement rings are a great example of the Wedding Industrial Complex at work. It’s common today for men to give women engagement rings. I get it. Some women are practically raised knowing what this ring will be like. I knew one woman who had set a “minimum carat” limit for herself – she wouldn’t dream of accepting a proposal from someone who offered anything less than her bottom line. Then there’s me. I don’t wear jewelry and my mother never had an engagement ring. It doesn’t make much sense that my partner should need to give me a ring in order to seal the deal. Isn’t the fact that we are getting married symbol enough? Also, you have to admit that there’s some serious inequity here. Bride gets expensive engagement ring and groom gets? What? A new shaving kit? A game for his Playstation? A fancy business card holder? You get my point. This is even assuming that there is an exchange of gifts, which doesn’t seem to be the norm.

But back to me. I told my partner from the get-go that I didn’t want a ring. So he complied. No ring. And we were happy, thrilled to tell our families and friends that we were getting married. End of story. Or maybe not. You would be amazed at how trained we’ve all become. The instant that you, as a woman, tell someone you are engaged, their first reaction is to look down at your hands for an engagement ring, at which point, you have to awkwardly explain yourself. Most people will politely smile and pretend to understand. Some women will say, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And a few honest ones, like a particular cousin of mine, will point-blank tell you that you’re crazy.

This leads to my mother-in-law, who is more traditional, and who, when she discovered that my partner had failed to buy me an engagement ring, launched a full-out campaign. After failing to directly convince him, she turned to recruited my father-in-law, who told my partner, “Sometimes women want things, even if they don’t say so.” This tactic also failed, so my mother-in-law turned to me. Our conversation went something like this: (MIL) “Oh, I’m so happy for you! But don’t you want a ring?” (Me) Nope. I don’t wear jewelry and I told your son I didn’t want one. (MIL) “But really? There are so many nice ones! I can speak to him for you if you want.” (Me) “No, really, I don’t want a ring.” Picture this conversation on repeat for about 20 minutes and you’ll get the gist. We thought we’d finally conveyed the message, but then Christmas came around. As she shopped in department stores, my partner would receive phone calls along the lines of: (MIL) “Hi Honey. I’m at Macys. They are having a great sale on rings. Should I buy one for you to give her?” (My partner) “No, Ma. We went over this. No ring.” And so on, so forth.

I should add here that I love my in-laws-to-be. The reason I share this story, however, is to give a sense of the uphill battle involved in fighting off the Wedding Industrial Complex. Our families and friends are happy for us, to be sure. But would they feel more comfortable, more at ease, if we were to conform to the expected wedding conventions? My guess is probably so, but I’m not particularly worried about all of that. I’m more concerned about spending time with my partner and our families, and building happiness in our everyday lives.

I mentioned at the outset that I never really wanted to get married. That is true. As a feminist and non-traditionalist, it was never something I would do for myself. It’s important to my partner, though, and so we’re working together to build a new tradition for ourselves, one that embraces a more modern, equitable perspective. Will I succeed in squashing out every vestige of past inequities? Probably not. I will feel better, though, for having tried. There is much truth in the saying that the greatest happiness comes from the journey, not the arriving at one’s destination.

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I’m interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on how to address these kinds of situations, not limited to wedding stuff. This is just one example of the kind of ingrained beliefs and complexes that we encounter each and every day.

Quelling my Inner Over-Achiever

In Work/Life Balance on January 7, 2013 at 11:09 pm
Beautiful winter sky before sunset.

Beautiful winter sky before sunset.

Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a delightful holiday. It’s about this time every year that the post-holiday hangover kicks in, that precise moment when we realize that the fun is over (for now) and we have to get back to our normal lives. Laundry, grocery shopping, paying the bills…the list goes on and on. I feel the post-holiday hangover too, but I am excited about what lies ahead.

Granted, I am typically an optimist, so I can’t help but think of all the possibility that comes with each new year. It’s not quite a tabula rasa situation, but there is some kind of mental release, perhaps a willingness to forgive ourselves for past mistakes and lapses, and an embracing of renewal and improvement that makes the new year always seem brighter. I am reminded of a Vietnamese friend who shared the Tet tradition of throwing out all the old chopsticks from the past year as a symbolic gesture of ushering out the old and welcoming the new. I am drawn to such meaningful gestures, however small they may seem.

My own new year’s tradition would not be complete without setting some goals for the coming months. Instead of choosing broad, over-arching resolutions for the entire year, I prefer to set smaller, achievable goals for each quarter, which help me track my progress and, if need be, can be tweaked for subsequent quarters. I know that certain quarters have begun to embrace the “no goal” lifestyle (think Leo Babauta), but as a strong “J”  in the Myers-Briggs world, I find that setting goals helps direct my energy in a constructive way. There are times when I wish I could simply “let go” and let life happen as it may, and I think I’ve succeeded in doing more of that over the last few years. For me, “letting go” is only possible, however, within the context of some basic guideposts.

I’ve set two goals for the next three months. Goal 1: Write for at least 45 minutes every morning. I chose the morning because I really am a morning person – I’d much rather wake up an hour early than stay awake an hour later. The early mornings are also free of distractions. My partner is still soundly snoring in bed, our noisy neighbors are dreaming of sheep, and it’s just me, my cup of tea, and my thoughts.

Goal 2: Meditate for at least 10 minutes each day. This is the part where I admit that this particular goal is being resurrected from last year. Exactly one year ago I set out to start a daily meditation habit…and failed miserably. Part of this had to do with setting too many goals. Part of it had to do with not following through on my commitment. I failed, and I recognize it, but now I really want to make it happen. The peace of mind, clarity, and focus (i.e. “The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time” ala Tony Schwartz) that come from meditation will be most welcome in my daily life.

The fact that I’ve narrowed my vision down to two goals doesn’t mean that these are the only areas that I’d like to improve. If I were to write a sample list of all of my unachieved goals and desires, it’d look something like this: do more yoga, eat less meat, spend less money, play the piano more frequently, get rid of extraneous belongings, practice random acts of kindness, grow more plants. Some of these things will happen this quarter and some of them will not. For me, I know that setting more than these two goals would lead to a scenario in which I haphazardly accomplish a little bit of this and a little bit of that without ever making solid progress on anything. I know because I’ve done it before. That’s the kicker about trying to be an over-achiever; if you don’t wisen up and learn to focus, you may never get anything meaningful done, and if you do, it may be at the cost of your own sanity.

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What are some of your goals for 2013? How do you go about turning them into reality? And how do you stop yourself from trying to over-achieve?

Currently Reading: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite authors. I’m only 10 percent done, but it’s promising already.