Habits are the elimination of micro-decisions, and the key to progress

I stepped away from the keyboard for a bit and the result was a decline in so many aspects of my life, largely morale and a sense of “movement.” I’ve long been a believer in the “do something for 30 days to form a habit” mentality, it’s proven so true, unfortunately, to undo a habit doesn’t take nearly as long. I would argue that it can come as quickly as your decision to NOT do it for a day or a week. This is what happened to my writing.

For several months I had managed to incorporate a pattern of waking up, doing little else before I would write in some form; either in my handwritten journal, my Evernote notebook or here on my blog. I would typically also match this with morning meditation or yoga or weightlifting. About 6 months ago I got a puppy and all of a sudden I had to choose to deal with his morning routine to the detriment of my own, with that change in patterns I slowly quickly fell out of my habit.

As I spend my days pondering how much better I felt when I was doing that, I finally link “habit” and “micro-decision” as they really should be. In creating a habit, I remove one more micro-decision from my daily routine. I can choose to wake up and do this thing (writing) or I can wake up and browse Reddit. I can take the time to formulate my thoughts for the day or I can just consume and be distracted. (That seems like another post, consumption vs creation, maybe I’ll return to it later.)

For years I abhorred the idea of routine or daily habits, that seemed like it was all about losing spontaneity or flexibility in my life and while that has some ring of truth to me still, it isn’t as extreme as I’ve always thought.  The trick is to keep those habits and let them coexist with spontaneity. In the case of my writing/morning routine vs my puppy, the answer was likely to start my morning a little earlier or just allow my day to start a little later as I get through my routines. I am realizing more as I become more mindful or self-aware, that habits are really just me removing choices to make and just doing things that should be done. They’re less about “being better” and more about “being me.” When I’m not letting myself have positive habits then I’m just sitting in stasis, or possibly slipping back to a less self-reliant or empowered version of myself.

“Micro-decisions” is a relatively new term (at least to me) and one that’s tossed around by the likes of Tim Ferris and other productivity gurus but I’ve never heard someone say it directly next to “habit”. I’m not saying it hasn’t been said, I just didn’t hear it. I first started seeing it in conjunction with intermittent fasting or probably more specifically “bulletproof coffee.” The usage was that by always consuming the same breakfast, or by only having one meal a day, you have a little bit less to think about and it gives you back some mental stamina or removes some of the stress that builds up from a day of decision making. While I’m not spending my day making high impact decisions for the world around me, I do like that I can get up, do this coffee routine and be on my way. My mornings are on auto-pilot when it comes to nutrition. I would never have called either “BP Coffee” or intermittent fasting a habit but I would acknowledge that they removed one or several small decisions from what I do before work.

I say all that, to say that eliminating a micro-decision is effectively the same as creating a habit. Rather than get up and think “should I work out today” I just say “I’m up, time to work out.” The same goes for my other tasks, “I’ve made my coffee, fed the dogs and let the chickens out, time to write” and that’s just how the day goes from there. No time to wonder what I’ll write about, or if I’ll write, I just start doing it. If it feels like something to share with the world then I’ll go to the blog, if it’s feeling more transactional or daily log then I’ll probably write it by hand and if it’s something between the two (eg. future blog post ideas) then I’ll jump into Evernote. Once I’m done with writing on to the next “this is just what I do” step in the day. It sounds easy because, once you make the choice to do it, it is easy.

Should YOU do it? Possibly? I often say to myself “When it matters, I’ll prioritize making it happen.” The question is when will it matter… that all depends on the person, how happy they are with their current daily habits (Reddit surfing is a habit) and how much they want to default into a new behavior. You just have to make that real decision for a little while (30 days? probably not necessary) and accept that it’s the new normal. I’ll be tinkering with my ideas of “new normal”here in the coming days weeks and months to see where it goes. Let me know if you’re doing it as well.

Awareness – The catalyst for change & mindfulness

I spent some time yesterday thinking about awareness and what it brings. There are different places that awareness appears in our lives and how it affects us. I wrote before, but have considered even deeper how we are the most critical of the things in others that we are critical of in ourselves. It takes awareness that you’re being critical to be able to shine the spotlight on why it exists and let you become mindful of it. I love the idea of mindfulness but it can’t exist without awareness. Similarly, awareness is a powerful piece of information that has tremendous potential but if you never become mindful of the things you’re aware of then it may be little more than a daydream. The key to change in yourself and the world is to become aware, then become mindful of that awareness. There is a third component here, I’m only just becoming aware of the connection between these two so I’ll have to ponder more what that component of change or action is… allowing that maybe it’s just Will.

Yesterday, when pondering awareness, it was under the guise that “change can be invisible” and that we sometimes shift without really noticing. The anecdote that sparked it was as recent as the past few days, and here it is:

Over the weekend, my family participated in preparing and staffing a float for our local beekeeper’s association to present at the parade opening the county fair. My son, creative and hilarious, wanted me to be a flower so he could be dressed as a bee and smack me with a honey wand to pollinate me. He was excited about this, but we didn’t find a way to make that costume happen. However, one of the beekeepers had a box full of various costume parts and on Saturday pulled out a bee costume with a cap. This didn’t and doesn’t seem that odd to me and when he handed it to me as an option, I put it on and really didn’t think any more of it. I was with my family, we were having fun, the spirit of the event supported the idea of me in a bee costume. Well since then, as the pictures my wife shared with the world surfaced, family and friends (even one of the beekeepers) commented, asking “how she made me do it” or “they’re happy to see a man confident in his masculinity” and for some reason I was completely unaware there was anything remarkable about my costume wearing. I still find it unremarkable, but see this as a mindfulness and self-awareness shift in behavior.

In the last year, as I’ve become much more mindful of myself, others and myself-and-others. This is to say, I’m increasingly aware that the way I feel and react is all within myself, regardless of other’s opinions about me. When it came time to wear a costume, I was thinking first of my son who wanted me to wear a costume. Alternatively, as my mindfulness about myself has shifted, I realize that the way others see me is less important than the way I see myself. This all feels like common sense, or maybe it’s age talking, but it was a fresh perspective for me. I have changed, to some degree, in the last year (and every year really) because that’s just what happens, we get new information, we get different priorities and we change.

So, bringing this back to awareness, my thoughts yesterday were about change but I woke up this morning thinking about awareness and how that drives change and how that empowers us to make decisions or choices. Every thing you become aware of has the potential to be a thing you can make a choice about. If you’re aware of your critical behavior, you can change it. If you’re aware of how eating junk food makes you feel, you can change it. Awareness by itself is already a great thing, it lets you speak out on injustice, it lets you react to others feelings and needs. Mindfulness by itself, also amazing… and non-existent if you’re not aware in the first place. These two together are what leave you poised for change so the next step is translating it to action


Small Changes

A few months ago I had established myself into a routine of daily, if not every other day sitting down and writing for around half an hour. One day I got a puppy… and everything shifted. This small (arguably large I supposed) shift forced me to spend my morning routine within reach of the puppy in case it misbehaved. I could no longer seclude myself in the basement for daily yoga, I had a hard time being undisturbed for a full half hour and the routines I had been crafting so carefully were out the window… literally overnight.

Well now some time has passed, puppy has started to behave more like a family dog, and I’m still not back in that routine. As I look back at how I got started, it seems so hard to do now, so I’m looking at it strategically. The truth is that I didn’t just start writing and doing yoga every day. The truth is that I had been doing short yoga periodically, sometimes meditating and being thoughtful. Then I was making myself write at least once a week for as long as I could. It took baby steps with the biggest change being my desire. I would feel bad when I didn’t do things… I would think about when I could. It all started with the DESIRE to change and then one day I just pushed a little harder. That’s the case right now. I have a timer next to me that says I WILL type for at least 20 minutes. Even if this goes nowhere then I’ll have done this writing and will have started the process.

I look at this across everything I want to be different in my life, no and in the past. Small changes are still changes, the only place shame and pride exist are in my own mind, so why not just do it. YOU might be judging me, but I don’t know that and once I do know, it again is up to me to care about your opinion. The only thing holding me back is my own story, which is a topic for a future post I’m sure!

Years ago I was interested in new age things which led me to look into things that are pseudo-science and widely practiced. On the edge of that was handwriting analysis. It was suggested that someone skilled in this analysis could tell many things about me… and I don’t refute that at all. That being said, I also tried, years ago, to change my handwriting because I thought it was too sloppy. When I look at those two pieces of reality, I’ve always wondered… if I change my handwriting, does that change my personality? At some level, I believe so. At some level, I feel that by becoming more aware of myself, it pushes me to change another part of myself. Changing my handwriting meant I was becoming slower and more deliberate in how I communicated, this change in speed and intent made me more mindful but also more structured and more organized. I still see it when I journal by hand, some days I feel very “put together” and my handwriting is smaller and tighter. Other days I feel rushed and just want to get thoughts down or get the journaling over with and my handwriting becomes wild and erratic.

While I’m not saying that writing differently will change who I am fundamentally, taking the time to affect a certain change has a broader effect across my outlook however temporarily. I liken it to the chaos theory which most will have heard of in Jurassic Park. When a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, it could be a tsunami on the opposite side. Small changes, however chaotic, start a chain of events that have a larger impact. You might have also seen the less critically acclaimed “Butterfly Effect” which revolves entirely around how one small change in your life may affect many unexpected things.

I go into this theoretical physics tangent to just point out that change is always change, however small. If you want to see a difference in your life then it’s important to start, anywhere, in any way possible. Me writing this today will ripple, it might mean I write again tomorrow, it might just mean I pull out my journal and do some handwritten journaling again. By at least starting this, and more importantly by me putting this out into the world, I am back on a path of change… hopefully with the intent in which it is being written. We’ll see, but change is CHANGE.

Craft your own rituals

I keep seeing posts giving me a glimpse into the morning/evening/breakfast/dinner routines of the Internet cognoscenti with a promise that if I adopt the same, my life will expand dramatically. I have now also seen a few posts saying to ignore those other posts because we’re all different. I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of a “Do these 10 things” or “Buy this 7 items” type lists as the list length is arbitrary and the items are typically things I already do, or can’t do, or won’t do. I’m here to say that the things you do are your own to choose, but the real value is to create your own rituals or routines. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ll expand.

I grew up in a non-religious household with periodic trips to church to stay good with God, I don’t remember a whole lot of the experience and don’t feel it shaped me too much. When I was dating my now-wife I attended Catholic Mass with her a few times and realized how much different it truly was from my churchgoing experience. There was a flow to the process, something I would see at the time as potentially comforting to those in attendance. You might be paying attention to the actual sermon, you might not, but you knew when it was time to stand, to kneel, to sing, to pray. The entirety of the Mass was its own ritual which eased the minds of the congregation. I wasn’t for me, but I could see there was a benefit.

Flash forward to this past month in my life. I was finding a flow with a morning ritual that worked for me and which helped bring peace into my life, then one day, we got a puppy. While this new addition to the family has been surprisingly drama-free, it has brought with it a change in my morning. Previously I had a pattern of getting up, tending to our other critters (chickens & older dog), making coffee, doing yoga, journaling, and blogging. Now, I had a puppy which sort of fit in there, but I had to be vigilant that I didn’t allow him to pee in the house, or chew things up… and he always needed to be near me. For the past few weeks, I always get my coffee, but yoga is intermittent, journaling and blogging is non-existent. My ritual was broken and my mental state has been sliding all the while. I feel guilty for not doing these things which were a priority in my life. I can now see how a devout Catholic could feel distraught if they miss their weekly mass, that departure of habitual comfort is rough.

In religion and in the podcast/blog world, ritual gives us comfort without the necessity of thought. Now, this can quickly fly in the face of my mantra, Be Mindful in All Things, but it doesn’t have to. I can’t speak for religious ritual, but I can talk all day about my daily habits and those of the productivity masters across the web. Ritual, on its own, gives you one (or more) less decision to make on any given day. For me, I’ve started a routine of a “Bulletproof” Coffee in the morning and then an intermittent fast until early afternoon. I no longer spend time deciding on breakfast and my morning is a tiny bit simpler. When I was doing all of the things mentioned in my previous paragraph I felt like I was taking action in my life without trying to decide what to do. Journaling is just automatic word writing, blogging does take more thought… so it was the toughest decision in my morning routine. Morning (or any time) routines are just an antidote to Decision Fatigue.

So there, that’s my point in all of this. Oddly, in this streamlined world, we have MORE decisions to make on any given day than we used to. I have more choices, more opportunities than my parents did at my age and it adds up to be a bit more stress as I try to decide if I’m doing the right thing. Creating a ritual that you follow, or a routine that happens daily, you have a little less stress and hopefully a little easier day. But wait, “What about Mindfulness,” you say? Well, by now you know that Mindfulness is really about being present in the moment. If you have a routine or ritual you’re following, just be present in that process. I grind my coffee beans in the morning, so I’m considering that process while I do it. I take the time to smell the coffee as it brews, I am deliberate in my measurements for butter, coconut oil, protein powder, whatever. While it’s a thing I do every day, automatically, I’m still present every time I do it.

When you’re ready to simplify your morning, your lunch, your midday break, see if you can create an automatic behavior (what I keep calling ritual) that you can be mindful while doing, but that you don’t have to think about before you do it. I’m sure I’ll come up with a 10 things list at some point, but right now I encourage you to make your own 10 (or 7 or 4) item list of morning behaviors and commit to repeating them daily. With these things lumped into a routine, you’re slightly more free to explore other more pressing decisions!

Be Considerate

I happened to utter that phrase this morning. I was thinking about where to place things and said that I needed to “be considerate” of the things that were already there and where they would go, specifically these were tools that had a purpose for their positioning. As I said it, those two words struck me as a parental phrase offered when trying to teach our kids to be decent human beings. Of course, I was talking about considering the environment, a totally different use of the words, but it still struck me. To “be considerate” is a very mindful thing to do.

To consider something is to think about it, to weigh the outcome. “Consider the consequences” when you are about to make some rash decision. This is very focused on you and the outcome of your actions. “Consider” in this case is to think about and weigh the results of an action. In the case of this adage, mindfulness is necessary to stop and think before you act. If you can “consider the consequences” every time you make a decision then you’ll be living mindfully with regards to yourself and how the choices you make will affect your immediate or even long-term future.

Being considerate of others, that’s still considering an outcome, but in this case, it’s more about walking a mile in their shoes. If you can be considerate of someone else, you can awaken your own empathy and start hopefully save someone else from their negative emotions. By being considerate of someone’s feelings, you’re stopping before being mean. By being considerate of someone else’s actions, you’re allowing that there might be some decision or purpose behind what they’ve done. Again, these are mindful acts. Empathy is one of the most mindful traits you can really embrace and luckily one begets the other. The more you consider how someone else will react to your actions, you give yourself a reason to continue to do that for other people. Especially when you see that your consideration has a positive effect. When you’re considering why someone did something, you can head down the rabbit hole of how it affects YOU or you can see that maybe there’s another side to the story that is completely based on them. By letting THEM have their own reasons, and accepting them at face value, you can save yourself from stress and anger.

There are so many things to consider about consideration. To my original thought, considering where you place thing is an art form? a science? a practice when it comes to interior design. The Chinese concept of Feng Shui is all about considering where things are placed for optimal flow of chi in your house. In my example, where I place a drill press may get in the way of placing boards when I want to use my miter saw. There is a flow, be it something as ephemeral as Chi or as literal as a board, and consideration is again a mindfulness when planning and when doing.

The big consideration, one that I’ve spent much more time considering in my 40s than in any previous decade, Death. Considering that you, your loved ones, your enemies all face that inevitability can sometimes bring consideration for how you treat them now, and how you continue to treat them. Either by considering that someday you may lose them or one day you’ll be gone, either is a heavy weight to let sit. I know it’s a hard one to think about but I’ve found tremendous strength in remembering that ultimate end. Some folks will do anything to avoid thinking about it, leading to different mindless pursuits as a result. By knowing that it’s always out there can hopefully give you some peace instead.

I’m adding some footnotes, a new thing for me, as I thought of examples through my writing and wanted to give some bonus reading.

Write your own narrative

For the past couple of weeks, my morning routine has been completely upended by the addition of a young puppy in the house. Where I was starting to flow with getting up, making my coffee, doing my yoga then spending some time reading or writing, I am now up and generally holding or distracting the puppy with no real ability to leave him unattended. Over this time I’ve grown frustrated and depressed that my months of building up a habit are thrown out the window. I’ll admit, no matter how mindful I was, the feeling that I was helpless was settling in. But I’ve reached my limit, I’m spending less time doing and more time consuming and I can’t mentally handle it anymore.

We start each day with a chance to set our mood or define our actions, we might let the previous night’s sleep, the first thing we see, the seventh thing we hear or the events around us set our mood. In my case, I’m letting the previous day’s inactivity rule me. It’s one thing to be affected by these stimuli, it’s another entirely to create a narrative and base your day on it. You might wake up tired and just presume everything sucks, repeating that mantra that “I didn’t sleep very well.” Or you might have some guy cut you off in traffic and without realizing it, subconsciously end up with a “People are jerks” story echoing in your mind. Most of us have some circumstance that defines how we feel or act or react for a while after it happens and usually, we don’t even notice. Luckily, this is where Mindfulness can play a part.

By creating a habit of evaluating your current mood, seeing if you like that mood, and trying to understand why you’re “in” that mood, then you can sometimes change it.

In almost every case you can make a change in your actions, your environment or your mindset. I can place my puppy in a kennel to let him rest. I can put him on the chair behind me (where he is now) and let him sleep while I type. In all of the above cases, you MUST be prepared to write a new mantra and follow that narrative. “I’m not helpless.” “I am empowered to make choices in my day.”  “I’m able to choose a positive emotion in response to negative actions or undesirable outcomes.” Repeat them as needed, or just assert the phrase once and go on about your day.

You might not be blessed with the ability to just utter a phrase and change your mood, that is a gift available only to a blessed few, of which I’m NOT one. If that’s the case, you start with the phrase as something mindful, but then follow up with action. Woke up tired? Start DOING something, anything! That motion, that progress will awaken your mind and eventually pull you out of that funk. You might have to be very active, go for a walk, do some exercise, get your blood and oxygen flowing. I recommend yoga over meditation in this case. I recommend walking or standing activities over sitting. Be busy with things so you can’t ruminate on your sleepiness. And of course, caffeine.

On the flip side, if you’re angry or frustrated or dwelling on someone else’s bad behavior or previous days bad things then you should spend your time clearing out that negativity. Gratitude is a great thing to realize here, think on what you appreciate. Here is where meditation becomes useful. Count your breaths, be aware of your inhalation or exhalation or the space between those. Let your mind empty or fill it up with positivity. If you still need to be active for this, use that time to journal and let the frustration go. I find that by writing things out on paper I can process it better and usually I feel better for having written it. When I’m really good, I can do a summary or conclusive paragraph that lets me see my writing with more perspective.

I will also suggest that you do actually write it down, put it into reality somehow and then move along. The most valuable thing about writing your own narrative is that you can find a positive perspective, you just have to give yourself time to release any emotions that were making you feel stuck.

Mindfullish Days – A Driving Challenge

Being mindful every day can be a hard habit to start, and trying to integrate it into everything can seem impossible. The best way to find the peace of mindfulness is to just do it a little bit at a time. Each day, find something which you normally do but you usually do mindlessly, with distractions even. Mindfullish Days will be a simple post giving you something to pursue mindfully.
I’ve recently been trying to find longer things to do in my mindfulness but the longer the task, the harder it is to STAY mindful. My favorite is to just turn off the radio while I’m at driving. I’ll quickly add that while I’m sitting here writing this I’m doing so with headphones on and music drowning out the background. I like music, it’s great for getting me focused or for helping me shift my mood. Obviously, my 30-minute drive to work in the morning is a great time to get my jam on, and going to a 9 to 5 (adjust with your hours of choice) is a perfect time to try and get your mood adjusted. If I can turn off the music and just be present in the drive then I find I notice my surroundings a bit better and more importantly, I’m less affected by other drivers around me.
I find that having music playing while driving drops me into a path, a stream, a groove. I obviously have a destination when driving, but music gives me some soundtrack with a pace and an attitude while moving through time. Even listening to “happy” music, I will often be moving with enough purpose that anyone getting in front of me is a jerk and anyone creeping up behind me is a madman. Everyone outside is working their level best to affect MY groove and I can escalate into frustration. While that level of frustration is a great topic for finding a mindfullish reaction, today we’re talking about making the drive itself into a mindful experience.
My challenge to you for the day is to turn off the radio, eject the CD, pause the audiobook and just drive. Pay attention to the cars in front you, be at peace with whatever pace the traffic is moving at, and just let yourself move through the city to your destination. You’ll find your mind wandering and that’s ok, as long as you’re still focusing on the drive. You might still get angry, but I’ve found I’m less likely to be emotionally connected to the drive if I’m doing so in relative silence.
You may find yourself getting bored, but that’s a good feeling too, just notice it and acknowledge it and then keep your eyes on the road. Try counting red cars or noticing when those “crazy drivers” pass you, only to be waiting at the next light. You’ll likely find yourself spotting behaviors that normally irritate you, try to recognize them and see if you’re still irritated or whatever emotion you normally feel. If you find yourself getting emotional, for better or worse, try taking a big breath and then audibly exhaling a few times. You don’t have to put on your happy music or peaceful music every time, you can often break free with a breath break.
If you’re really ambitious, try this for both your to and from trips. I find I’m usually in a much different mood on the way home than I was on the way in, I’m usually less stressed or more excited to see my loved ones. When your mind wanders on the way home it often summons your happy, smiley thoughts so notice those as well. Again, notice your pace, notice how you’re feeling about other drivers and just flow again. You don’t have to do this again tomorrow (unless you want to), so just accept this moment right now and do your best to take a little break away from distraction.

Accepting things at Face Value

If someone says you look nice/pretty/handsome, don’t deny them or downplay their statement. Accept what people tell you as their truth, acknowledge it positively, and move about your day. By downplaying other’s intent we’re just re-investing in our own negative self-talk and devaluing ourselves and them for saying something.

Recently my son entered a crafting contest and as we dropped off his entry, the lady taking entries commented on how nice it was and even commented on parts she liked. Grudgingly he acknowledged her compliment, but he wasn’t super happy or positive in his response. As we were leaving, I commented that she seemed to like it and he said: “She’s just saying that.” Now, this kid isn’t generally much of a pessimist and he wasn’t disappointed with his project before we got there, this was enough out of character to make me pause. Often I get the most insightful WHILE I’m explaining something, so I just responded with what I was thinking, luckily with enough mindful filter to not just lecture or negate his feelings.

As I asked him why he thought that, I tried to allow him to have his feelings while also help him and myself realize, assuming someone’s intent when they say something is just negating THEM while also feeding our own judgments. I suggested to him, as I now do myself and others, that the best you can do is accept someone’s compliment honestly and presume them to be telling you their feelings. Now, you may say that to the complimenter by way of being modest, but your best bet is to accept their kind words with a smile. Whenever possible, shut up the chatter of your “monkey mind” which relishes negativity and incorrect assumptions.

Accepting things at face value can go a long way in different directions with different topics. In this case, my son had negative self-talk regarding his creative efforts. It can also happen in how you’re viewing yourself, that pain in your side may be “side cancer” or it might just be a sore muscle. If you stub your toe on your way out the door it might be because it’s Friday the 13th and there’s a day of bad luck coming your way, or you might have just been rushing and didn’t pay attention to your footing. That person may have cut you off in traffic because they’re mean or they hate you, or they might have failed to see you and then cursed themselves for their idiocy for the rest of their day. We don’t always know the other person’s story, we don’t always know the full circumstances of each event in your life.

Rather than presume the worst, try instead to assume the best or at a minimum just go with the neutral result. Maybe the compliment about your hair is genuine and the person making it really likes it, maybe its more than that, maybe that person is having a bad day and your effort to beautify yourself has uplifted them. Maybe that person has been admiring you from afar for months and just worked up the courage. Maybe when you stubbed your toe it will remind you for the day to slow down and pay attention, maybe that little misstep causing pain in your morning will make you mindful when merging on the highway and not try to dart in front of a fast-moving truck. Maybe if youl’re going to go past face value, you can just spin it to be better than your initial assumption.

Of course, presuming something better is at fault, is just putting a positive spin on the same thing… the assumptions we tend to make. You’re switching negative self-talk into positive assumptions or even wishful thinking. While that can be good for self-esteem, it can be dangerous on it’s own as well. Your most healthful, mindful approach will continue to be to just acknowledge that the thing happened, then release it from your mind. A compliment? “Thank you.” and move on. A pain? “Ouch”, and move on. A random disruption in your flow? “Dang. Darn. Whoopsie.” and move on. Mindfulness is being present in this moment, it isn’t ruminating on past events leading up to it or dwelling on events for the rest of your day. Pretend you’re just a stick floating down a stream, just float and be present.

When you’re “In it”

Sometimes you’re so deeply entrenched in some distracting, non-mindful state that it can be hard to extract yourself. You might be stressed, anxious, angry or just distracted. Even if you’re aware of it, pulling yourself back out can be very hard. This past Monday started with an emotional morning for my son, he didn’t want to school and I was forced to be the bad guy and make him go. As we battled, I managed to stay disconnected enough to not be angry and he was so mired in not wanting to go that he was sad and fearful. On that day, I was blessed with mindfulness and he was a victim of his emotions. (Emotions are fine, good and valid… I made sure to tell him so.) Without making him stop having emotions, we got him to just breathe through things. It wasn’t pretty, but with an audible intake of breath and then an audible release, he was able to move one step at a time to the car so we could leave. One breath. Just this. It wasn’t easy for him and I’m proud that he did manage to push through it. Within 5 minutes on the road, he was back into himself, accepting of his fate and unfortunately trapped with me and my lecturing.

I don’t always get to be blessed with a detached, stoic self. This past weekend, I watched a documentary, “Do you trust this computer“, which got me thinking about the state of politics and general social dis-ease as it’s affected by technology. Sadly they ended their movie on the negative things that have happened, rather than opening with that… so, of course, it’s what I dwelt on. My day had a nagging anxiety hanging behind all of my actions. I soldiered on, but it wasn’t until I really stopped and looked that I realized that I was letting it push my buttons and exacerbate my stress. I couldn’t just shrug it off, or detach myself once it was there. While I can’t say that it fixed me completely at the time, I did stop everything, move to the basement and let a guided meditation app walk me through 10 minutes of clearing my brain. It did calm the anxiousness, it did help de-stress, but I had to take actions. Much like my son’s audible breathing, I had to take additional steps to calm my mind.

My third incident recently, sadly doesn’t have as awesome an ending. I was at work and had big plans to finish several tasks, but I also had so many great internet distractions to observe. Knowing that I had a looming deadline coupled with the need to finish some of my day-to-day responsibilities, I still found myself opening a new tab in a browser and either looking at funny cat gifs, flipping through project ideas on Pinterest or distractedly watching movie trailers for this summers big blockbusters. I know step one of repairing this would be to just close those browser tabs, or maybe disconnect from the internet. Unfortunately when the boredom monster comes to play and when I’m being a master procrastinator I have the hardest time finding some mindful practice that pulls me back. This is my biggest demon to overcome, and it happens both professionally and personally. I’ll say the best answer is probably to step away from a computer or device that causes the distraction, do something “analog” that gets me thinking or focused, then come back. Sometimes this can be a walk, more often it works best if I can just take 10-15 minutes and journal in my physical composition book. If you have a suggestion, I’m open to that as well.

Mindfulness, for me, isn’t a constant state. I’m often just “Mindfullish” and it hangs around the periphery of my awareness. I’m OK with that, I live in a world full of emotional things and I appreciate those exciting moments that are buried within a passionate reaction. I tend to expect that being fully mindful, monk style, means that its always level and there aren’t the spikes of highs and lows so I balk at pursuing it. I go back to my mindful practice as a toolbox, or whenever possible, as just a practice. The two examples above are pulling tools out of the toolbox. When I’m breathing while taking a walk outside, or when I’m soft gazing down the road while driving, I’m practicing my ability to disconnect from those emotions and just be. If I can get good at being present in the non-emotional moments then I can reference back to that when things do get emotionally charged.

The balance of practice in calm times and the actions I can take when charged up is what mindfulness is all about for me. If I can’t detach and “just be” when there is nothing to distract me then how can I expect to step back from excitement.

Money doesn’t Buy you Happiness

I was browsing Imgur in my early morning distractions today and came across a “dump” containing images of various displays of monetary excess. That’s to say, diamond encrusted cars, yachts that can store other yachts or luxury cars, even a gem-encrusted “hamburger” (non-edible.) The point of this post was to suggest that “Money CAN Buy Happiness” and the topmost comments were all in support of that. Now, many of these consumer sites are just an echo chamber for our own ideas and never a place for debate so I just moved on.  But it did get me thinking. Many of these images were purely objects, no person in sight, no indication of who owned it or if it was just something made to be made. Without a person to see being happy, it’s hard to say that any of those things made anyone happier.

Happiness is a noble pursuit, I heartily encourage everyone to seek it. Things, however, are just things. You can find a penniless monk who has more than his share of happiness, suggesting that owning things isn’t the answer. You can also find millionaires who are unhappy, having more things isn’t a guaranty that problems go away. Much like pursuing happiness is great,  things can be fun to pursue as well. I will not say that being penniless is the answer, rather I think it’s worth remembering that you can be happy before you buy something and then buy it anyway.

I see this mentality all too common, I definitely see it more with younger folks. When I was growing up, we called it “Keeping up with the Joneses”, the assumption that you needed to own the things that others had. More recently, with the Internet, it’s even more widespread. You could argue that Apple computer’s greatest success is creating this cult following for their products. If you aren’t using an iPhone then you must be poor, and poor is increasingly the worst condition possible. Instagram is the great re-enforcer of this as well. There are countless Instagram influencers who spend their time posting pictures of them holding, or sitting in, objects of monetary excess. The entire purpose of these posts is to create some sort of envy which will encourage others to go out and spend as well. Increasingly, the Internet and social media are making materialism the most primary of human needs.

The state we’re in now is a by-product of what has been growing regularly in America these last 100 years. The most important thing is to get as expensive an education possible to get the highest paying job possible. The goal, in America… the American Dream even, is to get rich. To that end, we place this crown on the head of any “successful business person.” It is presumed that if you’re rich, you’re done something right and you deserve total respect. You’re the one that parents tell their children to be like. The most important goal is to make as much money as possible. Sadly, this becomes more and more about the money and less about making a difference or contributing to the world. Wealth is the goal, the definition of success, rather than looking at what you’ve contributed.

The point I’m trying to make is that being mindful of yourself, your actions and your effect on those around you should be the highest pursuit. The world would be a happier place if, when we’re hitting midlife, the crisis isn’t that we haven’t earned enough money, bought enough things, travelled to enough places. The world would be happier if we hit midlife and then look back on all those people that we’ve helped, all those smiles we created or the things we have crafted. The great news is that many, maybe most humans as they move into their golden years start to realize this. The retirees that spend their time helping others, or just taking more time to cultivate relationships instead of amass wealth, are happier than they were in their early career. Somewhere, 50 years into our lives, we start to take enough of a look at ourselves to see what matters and start to make that change.

Your mindfulness challenge here is to be aware when you’re comparing yourself to others and consider instead what you have. Actually take a moment to be thankful for the blessings you already have, or the wealth of experience you have available to you.