In the last few months I’ve felt better overall than I have in a long time. My current combination of self-care practices seem to be working well for the most part, and it feels good when I’m able to maintain a feeling of balance for extended periods of time. My main struggle continues to be meeting the sense of losing balance with stress and frustration. After a wonderful Sunday of biking around the city, lounging in the rose garden in Golden Gate Park, and hanging out with friends, I woke up feeling anxious and stressed on Monday (primarily related to pending housing uncertainties). My inner dialogue starts up the anxious thoughts of, “Ugh, but I was doing so well yesterday!” and, “I must immediately figure out a plan! That’s the only way to get out of this stress!” When I allow myself to fuel these thoughts with similar ones like them, the fire spreads, and I have a much harder time remembering the tactics that help me maintain balance.
Part of the issue here is the false narrative that because I was “doing so well yesterday” (read: feeling happy) the reappearance of stress or anxiety signals that I’m no longer “doing well”. Feeling balanced, like anything in life, is not a linear trajectory, which is extremely hard to remember in moments that feel anything like a setback or a failure. I try to remind myself that the movement above and below the state of balance is a cycle. Unfortunately I still forget this, and worry when the lower feelings surface or catch me by surprise.
Fortunately, the more awareness I have (depending on the levels of self-care being maintained), the better able I am to disconnect with stress becoming all consuming and eventually somewhat apocalyptic. I strengthen my awareness through meditation, and setting intentions. The following four (and a half) intentions have become the base of my practice, and seem to work well at helping me achieve the balance I need to feel calm and collected throughout my days. I try to pick one to focus on each day, though ideally they’d all be in practice at once!
1. Focus on now, not yesterday, and not tomorrow. This intention is my foundation. As a planner, I tend to channel my anxiety into try to create stability by planning everything out. (Spoiler: it ends up making me more anxious). By reminding myself that I don’t need to worry about what is going to happen in the future, or even in more than a few hours from now, I take the weight of trying to predict the future off my shoulders. Not getting caught up in thinking about / worrying / analyzing past is equally as distracting and unhelpful. It’s over, there’s nothing else I can do about it, just let it go, (as much as this is easier said than done).
1.5 Do one thing at a time. This is closely linked to the foundation intention, but I figured it deserved its own half bullet. Like planning, multitasking is something I do when I’m stressed. The idea becomes something along the lines of, “If I can get everything done, then I can relax,” but ultimately gets more stressful as I’m not fully present with anything. When I am fully present with each task I have the headspace to say, “huh- I may not have time to complete my whole to-do list right now- that’s totally okay.” This is extremely freeing, and without being present intentionally it is so much harder to be aware of the world and people (and their thoughts and feelings) around me.
2. Remember self-love/care/support. There’s a part in my meditation packs that asks you to remind yourself why you’re doing the meditation and then think about the people it will benefit. I always start with, “because I love myself, and I’m here to support myself,” which always brings the biggest smile to my face. When I’m focusing on self-love I take time to do nice things for myself like getting a massage, buying myself a kombucha, noticing how happy I feel when I’m cozy on the couch with a book and my slippers on, calling my grandparents, watching the sunrise, etc. Exercise is an important daily self-care ritual for me, but I’ve learned that it must be kept in the context of, “I am doing this because it will make my body and mind feel good,” and if it starts to feel like something I must do instead of something I want to do, that’s a sign my body needs to rest.
3. Engage with the world. When I’m aware of my surroundings I’m able to disengage with my inner dialogue and interact with the outside world in a positive manner. Smiling at fellow humans when crossing paths, saying “bless you” to someone who sneezes on the bus, offering assistance to someone clearly confused or needing it, asking how the bus driver is doing- all of these kinds of interactions prove to increase my optimism in humanity, and as a bonus, make me feel better in turn. Remembering that everyone is fighting their own battle and dealing with their own plethora of thoughts and feelings is another way to lessen feelings of isolation. We really are all in this together.
4. Appreciate and give thanks. A few Thanksgivings ago my Mother hung a banner that said “give thanks” spelled out in a bunting style with metal letters over our table. She let me keep the banner and it now hangs in my room next to my bed, a reminder to give thanks every day. When I focus on being grateful I am often filled with amazement at the beauty of my life. I am surrounded and supported by so many wonderful friends, family members, and coworkers. I live in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet that gives me access to clean drinking water and clean air. The days I focus on gratitude I go to extra lengths to call, write, and connect with the people I love.
4.5 Nurture my family as people. I’m not sure why it took me so long to really connect with the idea that my family members are people too, but I’m glad it’s something I figured out sooner than later. I make a lot of effort to nurture my friendships, and know my friends very well, but this year I’ve been working on applying that to my family members as well. Getting to know my parents as people gives me a better understanding of them and myself. Finding out common interests I share with my grandparents has allowed my relationship with them, one I always took for granted, to become a source of deep enjoyment on both parts. Becoming fully aware that my extended family members are all individually complex, interesting people, who love me to boot, has been a wonderful realization (albeit a kind of, “well duh” one), and allowed me to focus time and effort on getting to know them in a way I wasn’t able to as a child and teenager. This is something I feel incredible gratitude for, and brings me joy in the moments when I feel the most alone. Through therapy I was about to let go of the ideas I held about what a “perfect” family was, and realize what incredible love and support my family gives me. I released the fantasy, let go over the disappointments, and discovered so much more. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. You won’t be disappointed.
I hadn’t planned to come to Mexico City, but when my program at Esalen fell through due to the storms we had this winter I did a quick whirl through my mental rolodex of places I’d like to go and people I’d like to see. So here I am, staying with an old friend from my summer in Santa Cruz. I’ve experienced every emotion this week- the empowerment and terror of solo traveling, the peace and stress of moving through a new city, the joys and sorrows of being alive. I came here with lots of notes I’d made on things I wanted to write about over the last month, but sitting in Maria’s peaceful apartment this morning, this is what came out of my fingers as I sat down to write (and to wait for Sufjan Stevens tickets to go on sale, if I’m being totally honest :P).
Two things have been surfacing for me lately that I’m working on reconfiguring, both necessitating the release of attachment (which it turns out continues to be amply hard to do).
The first is my tendency- knowing or unknowing- to use stress to motivate myself through my perceived to-do list. On the days I don’t roll out of bed and bike to the gym, I have a few hours before I need to be out the door. And yet, I find it so difficult to relax in my routine. The notion that I should just trust myself to get everything I need to do done makes me anxious. Instead of focusing on making coffee, and then focusing on meditating, etc, I run through the list in my brain, trying to move as quickly as possible. I’m not sure why I’m so afraid of being late- I rarely am. This tension between my mind wanting to get everything done before I run out of time conflicts with the pace my body wants to move at, naturally creating stress. I get attached to the idea that if I don’t finish everything, I’ll be late, and then everything will crash and burn. (My subconscious really has its melodramatic side). I wrote myself a note on an index card that says, “It’s okay to not get everything 100% done. It won’t kill you.” We’ll see how the does for inspiration.
The second is something I’m realizing has been a long term shenpa for me, something that has caused me pain repeatedly. (Worth reading anything by Pema Chodron for more on this). I’m very aware that I try to create a sense of security in my life by planning, which gives me a false sense of control. Taking that idea further though, I’ve realized how much pain I’ve caused myself when I’m applying this to situations of uncertainly. I think it started with watching my parent’s relationship dissolve slowly over many years. As I progressed through my adolescence and teenage years I numbed out my feelings whenever I heard them fighting, turning to music, books, situations that took me outside of my house like summer camp and my first serious relationship. It always broke my heart to leave the seemingly stable “family” communities or dynamics I found among groups of friends at summer camp, and I’d cry the whole way home- from the time I was 12-15. I dealt with hard outcomes by not really dealing with them, and at age 17, when my parents finally announced they were getting divorced, I was utterly devastated.
So I took to assuming the most negative outcomes for uncertain situations, and then trying to prepare myself for them. Unknowingly, of course.
This, coupled with an inability to validate and communicate my needs and feelings (which two years of therapy has begun to finally resolve), has gotten me into a lot of bad situations. If you assume that people are going to disappoint you, that your relationships will fail, that people won’t return the effort you put in- then how can that not become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Attaching to these negative outcomes made me feel like I had the upper hand, that I could act first and not get hurt. Turns out that doesn’t work at all. (Shocking).
I’ve been reading and re-reading two books by Rebecca Solnit recently- A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and The Faraway Nearby (which I think everyone should read). I came across a section in the latter which reads, “Buddhism takes change as a given and suffering as the inevitable consequence of attachment and then asks what you are going to do about it.” She continues later, “The coolness of Buddhism isn’t indifference but the distance once gains on emotions, the quiet place from which to regard the turbulence. From far away you see the pattern, the connections, and the thing as a whole, see all the islands and routes between them. Up close it all dissolves into texture and incoherence and immersion, like a face going out of focus just before a kiss.”
I connected wholeheartedly with these passages as the main focus of the work I’ve been doing through therapy, meditation, acupuncture and efforts of self-care and self-love over the last three years. As I begin to zoom out from my actions and understand what motivated them, I feel aftershocks of pain at the ways I acted and the ways I treated both myself and others. My therapist reminds me that I was young, and my friends remind me I can’t carry guilt for things others don’t want to work through. I’m surprised by the grief I’ve found in these reflections and new perspectives, but I’m sitting with it.
If nothing else, I can be empowered by the lessons I’ve learned, the actions I won’t repeat, and my continued effort to free myself from attachment across the board- however difficult and arduous of a journey that may be.
Here in San Francisco most of the houses are built so close together they are either touching or are only separated by a few inches. This makes sense given that there is such limited space (49 sq miles with height restrictions). You’d think if this was the case there would be some uniformity in the height of the houses on a single block, to give it some coherence. Occasionally this is the case, more often on blocks in the outer neighborhoods where a small handful of architects designed a good deal of the properties. You’ll still find sets of painted ladies (groups of three or more identical victorian style houses) where uniformity was clearly considered key, but you’ll also find blocks where a few of the painted ladies have been ripped down so these formerly neat rows are punctuated by boxy, modern-ish, rectangular houses. More often than not, most blocks are built with the heights and shapes of the houses jutting out at all kinds of angles and heights, like a miniature city skyline contained on a single block.
I was observing this phenomenon on my own block, while waiting for MUNI the other morning, and it reminded me of the way my mind works sometimes. As a natural born planner I’ve realized that one of my methods of attempting to feel secure and stable about the future is try to plan it all out- or at the very least, fantasize about what all the potential scenarios could look like in order to feel prepared. In this method, all of the houses on the block are built with intention, they all aligned evenly with thought out, corresponding color schemes and heights. A leads to B. Cause and effect relate with a clear sense of intentionality.
Ah, if only that was how life really worked.
But, of course, it doesn’t. We have no way to anticipate what the next phase of life, or even what the next day will bring. We can only be fairly confident, given all previous events, that it will all manage to fit on the same block- in spite of the unexpected shadows that will be cast. The most ironic part about trying to feel secure about the future by figuring out what it will look like is, of course, that it makes me really fucking anxious. So much for feeling secure and stable 😛
Luckily, through my meditation practice, I’m beginning to gain awareness in the moment that I’m trying to plan through fears or anxiety- whether it’s just forming to-do lists for the rest of the day, or those more long term projections that play out like telenovelas in my brain. Once I realize what my mind is doing, I can zoom out and ask myself what is triggering this defense mechanism. Because of the way my heart and brain work in tandem, it seems to often be a feeling that I need to really sit with and experience (while giving myself active self-love and self-support) before it will release me. The more regularly I’ve meditated, and then put into practice what I’ve learned through meditation throughout the day, the more of these types of windows I encounter, and the more opportunities I have to return to a balanced emotional equilibrium. As feelings of security and stability have begun to emerge from knowing I can support myself through what each day brings, the habit of descending into the frenzied feeling of, “if I can just get x, y, and z done, then I’ll feel okay” has slowly begun to subside.
I’ve been experiencing a new sensation lately. It’s one of being able to relax into my unstructured time with enjoyment- something that I didn’t even realize I’d lost until it started to return.
I’ll probably always be a planner, but as I’m learning to let go of the need for control, I’m beginning to learn the joy of spontaneity. Who ever would have thought that could happen?