SUP, Everyone?

Stand Up Paddleboard Silhouette (Version 2) by Chris Goldberg

Version 2: Stand Up Paddleboard Silhouette – Monmouth, Maine by Chris Goldberg; Flickr Creative Commons

I didn’t join my first standup paddleboard yoga class to get closer to nature; I joined because I wasn’t paying close enough attention. One of my friends posted a link to the class on Facebook—the place where you are conditioned to Like and Share other people’s posts without too much thought—and asked, “Standup paddleboard yoga, anyone?”

Without reading the details, I simply said, “Yeah! Sounds fun!” (I now have reservations to float down the Amazon River in Peru with two people I’ve never met because of a similar abundance of enthusiasm paired with a similar lack of attention to detail. You’d think I’d learn my lesson.)

So there I was, standing with a group of 26 other women, the instructor, and her assistant on the shore of Jordan Lake at 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday night. I was still stressed from a long day of work, hungry, and not looking forward to getting into that lake which was a choppy grey under an equally grey sky. Despite the warm, July air, the waves made the water look cold and the clouds threatened rain. Still, I dutifully took off my shoes, hobbled over the rocky beach with my sand bag anchor and a long, plastic paddle in my left hand and an aqua blue, rented standup paddleboard hiked under my right arm, and waddled into the water up to my knees. The lake bottom was composed of that squishy, clay-like substance that sucks onto your feet and makes it difficult to walk, so getting my anchor attached to the zip-tie at the back of my board and getting out of that water was a priority. I situated myself on all fours on the board, then managed to sit up on just my knees and use my paddle to move, in a small zig-zag pattern as I paddled first on one side and then the other, out toward the buoys that led into deeper water.

As we headed out into the lake, a bald eagle—the first I’d seen in my twelve years in North Carolina—took off from the treetops on our left and flew over our heads toward the center of the large lake. A chorus of “oooh!”s rose from us as we appreciated this welcoming omen at the start of our adventure.

If I had been happy to stay on my knees a little longer, the rest of my adventure might have been more successful. But, instead, I decided I needed to move into a standing position almost immediately, whether to prove to myself I could or to prove it to everyone else, I’m not quite sure. As a result, I was one of the first women to stand on her board, and the first one to fall off. Unfortunately, I was still in very shallow water and landed on my knees and hands on the bottom, jarring my spine in a truly unpleasant way.

I got back onto the board, remaining on my now scraped-up knees, and paddled hard, trying to make up for the time I’d lost, only to find I was getting nowhere. The other women paddled farther and farther away, toward the cove where we would begin the yoga practice, while I stayed virtually stationary. Maria, the instructor, came up from behind and realized I was dragging my sand bag anchor and fished it out of the water for me with her paddle, then escorted me the rest of the way out to the cove where the others waited.

After we all dropped our anchors, the practice started gently with each of us lying on our back on our board, looking up at the clouds. I needed this time to catch my breath and try to let go of the initial frustrations of this endeavor. I let my hands dangle, palms facing the sky, in the lapping water, closed my eyes, and tried, as Maria instructed, to let everything else fall away and be fully present on this board, on this lake, in this moment.

After a few moments of stillness, we sat up, found our way to all fours again, and began a sequence of Cat-Cow, alternately arching our backs while looking back through our legs and flattening our backs and lifting our heads to look straight ahead, moving with our breath. After that, the practice became something of a blur. There was Plank, Downward Facing Dog, Upward Facing Dog, Warrior I, Tree, Bridge and Wheel. All I know is that I didn’t stand again on the board, but instead spent a great deal of time on my knees or in Plank or in one form of hip-opener or another, all of my muscles taut, focusing intensely on not tipping over, while Maria’s voice called across the water, in my mind speaking specifically to me, “All variations on this pose are welcome.”

Despite my focus on remaining on the board, I eventually stretched beyond my limits and pitched head-first into the water. I surfaced quickly, found my board, clinging to it as though I had never swam before in my life, and realized no one had taught me how to get back on. Maria’s assistant, Jennifer, quickly paddled over and held my board steady while I hauled my body out of the water and landed, at an odd angle, across it. She waited while I dragged my legs out of the water, too, and was able to resume my trusty all-fours position. At some point during the class, I did manage to find my way into Side Plank, balancing on one hand and one knee with the other hand raised toward the sky, and was elated the next day to learn that there was photographic evidence of this feat! Before we could finish the practice and enjoy another rest in Shivasana on our backs, it began to rain and Maria called for us to head back to shore.

Whatever contortions I had invented or positions I had managed in the last hour had caused a build-up of heat in my body, so the rain was refreshing. In fact, paddling back toward shore in a large pack of women while rain drops zinged against my skin might have been my favorite part of the evening. I still refused to stand on the board and my knees were screaming in pain, but there was an excitement in the air as we raced the quick onset of darkness and the threat of lightning. There was something else, too. Something that made me feel that this experience, of being on the water with others, on boards with paddles, was somehow a primitive, ancient experience. That other people, in far away places and other times, had experienced something similar, and I was getting just a glimpse of what their lives might have been like.

By the time we hauled the boards out of the water, took a group photo, and I drove an hour to my house, I arrived home still damp, sandy, and smelling of lake water—and exhausted and sore from head to toe. The next morning, I found I could not turn my head, but as I looked at the photos from our class that had been posted on Facebook, there was something still calling me back to the water.

Yoga Paddle Sur Le Lac by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

Yoga Paddle Sur Le Lac by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

Apparently it was calling my friends back, too, and so it was that we found ourselves again, one month later, standing on the same shore on another Thursday evening preparing for our second SUP Yoga experience. This time, we were a smaller contingent of only nine participants, again all women, along with Maria and her assistant, Jennifer. The late August sun was still high in the sky with no threatening clouds to be found, the water was flat, and we were in great spirits as we set out from the shore.

This time, I paddled all the way out to the buoys before attempting to stand up. A tip from Jennifer to widen my stance on the board took me from a very shaky start to a much more confident standup paddle all the way to the cove. This evening, as we all found our way to our feet and headed out into the deeper water, a blue heron greeted us, taking off from the shore and flying nearly the same path the eagle had taken the month before.

The combination of the smaller class and the fact that this was our second time on the boards made for a completely different experience. We began our yoga practice in the cove the same way we had before, resting on our backs on our boards to center ourselves, and then moving through the same sequence of poses, but this time, at least for me, with more playfulness and more confidence. I was amazed to find that I could keep up with the poses this time, thinking about where to place my hands and feet for best success in balancing the board, and going so far as to get my hands off the board and to my front knee during Warrior I—a forward lunge pose—and even attempting to lift one foot off the board in Tree. It was during my Tree attempt that I found myself again taking a dive into the lake. The water was a golden brown as I kicked toward the surface, found my board, and pulled my body out of the water onto it without assistance.

Something in me had released since my first session. I was less tense, less concerned about outcomes, less scared of ending up in the lake, and so, more present, more capable, and, most importantly, more joyful.

Before I knew it, we had progressed through the series of poses and were on our backs enjoying Shivasana. Or, at least attempting to enjoy Shivasana, as it was difficult to decide whether to swat the black fly that was biting first my ankle, then my elbow, or preserve the stillness and let the black fly continue its feast. And then it was time to paddle back to the bank from which we’d come. We paddled slowly, enjoying the evening and the sunset, wishing we didn’t have to leave the water. The sun had officially sunk behind the trees by the time I neared the shore and the water, still flat, was a pale pink as I sank to my knees inside the bouys and paddled the remaining few feet to the beach.

This was the feeling I had come in search of. This peace. This sense of accomplishment, this sense of community, this sense of strength. This experience of being absolutely present. I was hooked. Yoga on the floor was simply not going to do it for me any more. This practice on the water brought me into my body, brought me into balance, brought me back to myself. It brought me back into connection with nature—water, birds, insects, the pines that rimmed the lake, clouds, sky, color. It taught me, again, how to pay attention…though, I will not promise that my sense of adventure will not outstrip my better judgment at various points in my future.

Rando BBQ au NCY SUP by Benoit Mouren

Rando BBQ au NCY SUP by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

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Keeping Your Eyes on the Still Point

 

Giant Wheel, WindSeeker and Troika at Cedar Point

Cedar Point: Giant Wheel, WindSeeker, and Troika by Andrew Borgen, Flickr Creative Commons

It was an August day to rival the best of memories from my midwestern childhood: high clouds floating through an azure sky, bright sun, and a light breeze off Lake Erie that made standing outdoors in long lines of people at an amusement park a pleasant, rather than miserable, experience. That morning, Tad, a friend so important to me that I think of him not as a friend but as my chosen family, and I had driven four hours from his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. We had just boarded the WindSeeker, a giant swing mere steps from a sandy beach, and our first ride of the day. We were seated in a bright red, two-person chair suspended from a floor-less carousel ringed with identical seats. The ride started out slowly, lifting us off the ground and smoothly moving us straight up, our legs dangling in the air. Then as we reached our final height, a mere 301 feet above the ground, the carousel began to spin. We were arcing through the air in a wide, counter-clockwise circle that alternately swung us in the direction of the rest of the park and the shimmering water of one of the world’s largest lakes. I began to get dizzy. A memory of a particularly scary event years earlier involving the Mad Tea Party ride at Disney World with my four-year-old nephew who continuously commanded that I spin our tea cup faster flashed through my mind. I grabbed Tad’s hand where it rested on the restraining bar and demanded, “Where do I put my eyes?”

I survived that ride two years ago with no major vertigo, and Tad and I rode happily until the park closed at midnight.

A few weeks ago, I found myself experiencing a different kind of panic, a different kind of vertigo. As I was driving in my car thinking of who might be able to help me get my bearings, I heard myself implore the version of Tad that lives in my head for an answer to that exact same question: Where do I put my eyes?

Living in this world has been even more difficult than usual lately. I hardly need to enumerate the reasons: a renewed war in the Middle East; humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, and Sudan; Ebola outbreaks in Africa; tensions between Ukraine and Russia; beheadings of journalists; and here in the U.S., a Congress that has done less than any other Congress in history; a record number of children risking their lives to arrive at our borders in hopes of seeking refuge from the violence in their own countries that is fueled, at least in part, by American demand for illegal drugs; and, clashes between the police and public after the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In my own state of North Carolina, the legislature lifted the moratorium on fracking, and, after promising that we would have the most stringent air and water safety standards in the country, our Mining and Energy Commission now offers us some of the weakest. This, when scientists are finding disparate evidence that climate change is happening at a pace much faster than anticipated – suggesting we need to implement alternatives to fossil fuels quickly and leave fossil fuels in the ground – and the U.S. is dealing with record droughts and an unending season of fires on the West Coast.

On top of all of that, Robin Williams, a man who lived to make the rest of us laugh hysterically and feel deeply, took his own life.

It was as if someone had written a new ending to The Dead Poets’ Society, one in which the world-wise teacher – Oh Captain, My Captain! – comes to see, too, the futility of striving to live a creative, self-directed, happy life in this world and follows his student’s example in committing suicide. What am I supposed to do with that?

Suicides scare most people, I’m sure. But, as someone who has lived with depression on-and-off at least since my teen years, I think it scares those of us who may have contemplated suicide in the past in a special way. Even if you’re currently feeling fine, some little voice way back in the depths says, “see, even brilliant, talented, well-loved people eventually come to see suicide as  the best – the only – solution….” You can almost hear the devilish laugh as some dark shape clicks a person-counter and celebrates another win for its “side.” And some tiny, or maybe not so tiny?, part of you begins to wonder about your own future and maybe even about whether you made the right decision in the past.

I last sought therapy for depression two years ago, having had my first session just days before the trip to Cedar Point. In fact, I was so desperate, in the beginning I saw two therapists in the hopes that at least one of them would be able to help me. Not only did I want to break free from the current tangle of overwhelm and sadness that ensnared me, but I wanted to learn the skills I needed to reduce the likelihood of the symptoms returning in the future. I was incredibly fortunate to have health insurance that gave me access to wonderful mental health professionals and that reduced the cost of treatment, as well as friends and family who understand the importance of taking depression seriously. While I got some relief almost immediately and was no longer depressed within a matter of weeks, I continued my sessions until June of this year, when my therapist left private practice, in an effort to bolster my “depression immunity” by building a healthy thought and habit foundation.

During that time, I also discovered the through-line that enables me to communicate how all of my myriad interests – especially writing, creativity, and nature – fit together. It is encapsulated in this tagline: Reconnecting People to the Planet Through Wonder. So, given that, how does a person who wants to be part of the solution, who wants to help find creative ways forward through some of the most challenging situations our species has ever encountered, and who wants to live in and inspire wonder stay positive in the face of all that is happening in the world? Surely, Mr. Williams asked himself a similar question, probably on many occasions: how does a person whose purpose in life is to make others laugh continue to find humor in the face of all of this turmoil? It would appear he couldn’t find an answer to that question the last time he asked. Contemplating all of this that day in my car, I could feel the darkness creep in around the edges. Vertigo. The beginnings of panic.

If I still had a therapist, I would have scheduled an emergency meeting. Instead, I began to run through the list of friends I could call. Immediately, I landed on Tad. Poor Tad, who has already been on the receiving end of too many sad, teary, or panicky conversations. And as soon as I heard myself ask, “where do I put my eyes?” I realized he had already given me an answer, albeit a somewhat oblique one.

He wrote it in this song, “Still Point,” which he debuted as part of his cantata Lightfall.

And he wrote it to me in an email:

“Remember your still point, dearest.  There is an essential good in you that does not depend on the state of your work, your body, or your relationships.  Enumerate those states if you must to establish a sense of balance in your temporal world, but that is not where your true existence or your true worth is based, and it is not from whence your true happiness derives.”

Right. Deep breath.

My instinct has always been to first look outside myself for reassurance that I’m okay, all the while ignoring the internal messages that my higher self might be sending me. And here was my “virtual Tad,” nudging me back to myself–and not myself. For while I am one with all who are suffering in the world and one with all who are causing the suffering, I am also something separate. I do carry a still place somewhere inside me that is not rocked by all the stories I tell myself or all of the stories being lived around me. I am of this time and of this place, and yet I am also something that is eternal and at home everywhere in the Universe. When I stop to breathe, to come back to my body, to fill myself up with love and light, I can almost see that being. Almost.

The craziness and injustice and cruelty and division in the world show no signs that they are going to disappear any time soon. I am choosing to be resilient. I am choosing to stay. I am choosing to bear witness. And I am choosing to continue to do all I can to immunize myself against the depression that whispers in dark corners.

As human beings who can easily be pulled into the swirl of chaos, we need to remember that, when we are searching for goodness and hope in the world and wondering where to look for encouragement, we need to find that still point–however we each define that and wherever we carry it–and remember that we are alive and that each of us, as with all life, is a miracle.

 

Surrender

Two weeks ago today, Beth’s heart stopped beating. I didn’t learn of it until the following morning, and when I did, my world changed instantly.

Beth was the younger sister of my best friend from high school. I didn’t know her well until we became Facebook friends and then, despite her being in Michigan and me being in North Carolina, I could finally see just how beautiful the light she carried was and how expansive was her love. She was a visual artist, a poet, a jeweler, a caregiver, a logophile who loved to play Scrabble and create puns, and no doubt countless other things of which I have no knowledge. In the last few months, we had been discussing her options for publishing her poems in a book, the guy she loved who didn’t love her the same way, and our mutual attempts to live a healthier lifestyle.

On some level, I was aware that Beth had begun to have medical issues and was on continuous oxygen. But because our relationship was a virtual one and the pictures she posted of herself were always from a Lake Michigan beach and showed her smiling, oxygen tube-free, into the camera, I was able to delude myself that her condition was not as serious as it was. So her death was a sudden shock.

The pathway to this particular shining light was abruptly lost; a door slammed shut at the end of a hallway that will never again open. It seemed incomprehensible that I would never see the little green dot next to her name in the right-hand column of Facebook, letting me know she was online. That I couldn’t just message her and expect a quick and cheerful response. After all, her Facebook page, with the photos of her on those Lake Michigan beaches and her artwork and all of her posts about how amazing it is to be alive, was still there, so how could she be gone? Friends who had heard the news before me had already begun to post their good-bye messages to her. I was alone at work and all I could do was scroll through her page and cry.

MichiganSunsetClouds

I have lost family members before, but never a friend and cohort. Losing someone so young screws with your head in a whole new way. Not only must you attempt to reconcile yourself to the fact that you will never see this person you loved alive again, but you are confronted with your own mortality in a much more immediate way. Death is now something that can happen to anyone at any time, not just something that will happen to you eventually in some far-off, foggy future. Of course, I knew this on a cognitive level, but until I was faced with the blow of Beth’s death, I didn’t know it on such a visceral level.

I am not a religious person and my body remained seated on the crazy, balance ball chair my boss bought me to help improve my posture, but in my mind, I was suddenly on my knees, arms raised over my head, all the energy drained from my body. I was in surrender.

I had lost all my strength to fight. There was nothing left with which to argue about politics, to have expectations, to hold onto disappointments, to strive to be anything other than I was in that moment. I was filled with a full-body ache that longed for nothing but gentleness. There was no space for anything except sadness and love. No anger; no worry; not even guilt – even though those emotions are usually strong enough to muscle their way into even the smallest cracks. My only wish, my only prayer, was that everyone in the world would treat all beings they encountered with kindness.

Of course, this is always my prayer, and it was probably Beth’s prayer, too. But usually that prayer is swimming in a sea of other wishes and desires and obligations and fears and hopes. It is quite an experience to have everything else stripped away and to be left with only that one hope, that one wish, that one desire, that one need.

I have spent the intervening days in uncharted territory, feeling too raw and vulnerable to be able to face much of the news of the world. Unfortunately, despite my wish to make love and kindness my primary mode of being in the world, my brittleness has caused me to slip over into the dark side on occasion and explode in anger at my husband – the only person at whom I can safely explode. My therapist says that she believes that you experience all the stages of loss at the same time, not sequentially as was once suggested, and that these angry outbursts are to be expected. Poor Hans.

And recently, in the last few days, I have forgotten how to breathe.

I have asthma, so perhaps this should not surprise me. But it does. It shows up most often when I’m driving on the freeway. Not a full blown panic attack – I’ve had those, so I know – but an inability to get a full breath. It’s as though I truly have forgotten how to breathe the correct way, deep into my belly and then into my lungs. Suddenly, I’m breathing only shallowly, unable to fill my lungs completely, unable to get air into my belly. Breathing – something that is so automatic – suddenly requires concentration. As a result, I have found myself returning to the breathing exercises I have learned from Andrew Weil, playing with relaxing breaths and balancing breaths until I find whatever works best in whatever situation I find myself. It feels a little ridiculous and I can’t quite explain why it’s happening. Apparently, it’s going to be with me awhile though, and I just have to keep smiling and concentrating and relearning how to breathe until the episodes pass.

Maybe this is just my inner wisdom or some higher power reminding me that I am alive and doing what is necessary to make sure I am fully immersed in the now of any given moment. I’m still struggling with my ability to be okay with who I am today while still having goals for who I want to become, still trying to accept that I am enough just as I am, still trying to figure out what are reasonable expectations for the use of my time and my energy in any given day. And I’m still on my knees in surrender, letting go of all that I can let go of and opening myself to whatever subtle, or not so subtle, messages the Universe has for me.

The Problem Is the Solution

Here’s a small sample of some of the observations I made in April:

The first tiny tip of one of my calla lilies broke through the surface of the mulch by the mailbox today. (Yay!) (So maybe the landscapers didn’t pile the mulch too deep on top of them, as I’d feared.)

Three of the 5 mums I planted last year seem to have survived the winter.

The tiny lilac bush I planted last summer and the clematis I planted several summers ago seem to be thriving.

The basil plant in my kitchen window, however, is not thriving. It wants desperately to live – it has put out two white blossoms and has one stalk that is racing toward the ceiling – but it is spindly and pale and needs better care than I have been giving it.

I have been doing so much “thinking” in my job in recent weeks that by Wednesday afternoon I am nearly brain dead.

The added stress that accompanies all this thinking and doing at work has pushed me back toward old, unhealthy coping strategies.

Writing a blog post (or two or three) per week eats up a substantial amount of the time I have available for writing and has, apparently, been one of the things that has kept me from achieving my word count goals for my novel in April.

Creativity begets creativity. The more I allow myself to write, the more ideas I have that I want to write about.

Having more ideas has made me both happy and stressed. The stress comes from the tension I feel in trying to find the time and energy to devote to each of my ideas and from trying to make some ideas wait (when they want to be attended to right this very moment!) while I move forward with others.

Lately I’ve been contemplating the maxim “the problem is the solution.” On the surface, this sounds as though it could be saying that a problem is a good thing to have. And in some cases, it might be because the fact that there is a perceived problem probably means that the problem is one of perception. Shift your perception of the situation and the problem goes away. Maybe, what was once considered a problem could actually be considered an asset.

What happens if I apply this to my last comment that having more ideas causes me stress? It doesn’t mean that more stress is good for me. Instead, I think it means that this stress is pointing to a different problem: that if I perceived of having an abundance of ideas in a different light, I might have less stress. Or, if I perceived differently of the amount of time and energy available with which to address these bountiful ideas, the stress might diminish.

I have a friend from high school who has now known me for 30 years, and he will attest to the fact that I have been looking for the ideal schedule since he met me. I have this incredibly persistent and attractive idea that if I just scheduled my time better, I could do everything I want to do in a day. (Do you by chance share this idea?) Perhaps this would be true if I didn’t have a distracted brain or if I had a more realistic sense of how long various tasks take and how much energy they require – and could therefore adjust my expectations accordingly. But, it appears, I do not have a realistic idea of either of these things.

I have some experience with the notion that if I remind myself that I have plenty of time in which to create the things I want to and that I do not have to do them all at once, stress recedes. This is a difficult state of mind for me to maintain, however, since it seems to run counter to my every day experience of an overly long to-do list of often equally important and equally appealing (or unappealing!) tasks and not enough energy or hours with which to complete them.

Time in Paris covered walkway

Time is tricky for me. I have an unfortunate tendency to live too often in the past or, worse, in the future. I have a sense that time is speeding by too quickly and that I have too few accomplishments to show for it. I have this, often vague, impression of what I want to put into the the world and an accompanying need to get it out there now before it’s too late. Some people might find this a motivating situation; I find it paralyzing. With too many ideas and projects pulling at me, I don’t give adequate attention to any of them and everything suffers, including my health.

If I’m lucky, though, in the middle of my paralysis, something will remind me to breathe and I will get a flash of a different perspective. I will remember that a large part of the personal permaculture project I’m engaging in this year is to learn to live within my boundaries – including my energetic ones. If I want to create anything, I have to create a space in which to focus on it. That means I must exclude everything else from my field of vision, at least for the duration of time I’m working on that one creation. The trick in doing this successfully is in remembering that this exclusion is a positive thing in the grand scheme of things. It means that at the very least this one thing will be done to the best of my ability and then there will be space, energy, and time in which to work on the next creation.

I don’t know how long it will take for this healthier perception of time and my ability to create to really take root in my everyday interactions with Life, so I have to find ways to remind myself as often as I remember.

Maybe I wrote this post to help you remember, too.

Shiny, Happy Person

jar of glassOn Monday, I posted about the first permaculture principle, Observe & Interact, and asked if you’d like to choose an area of your life to observe over the coming week. How’s that going? Are you having difficulty refraining from labeling what you observe as good or bad? Do you want to explain immediately why the thing you have observed happens? Do you have the urge to jump forward to a “solution” rather than just staying with the process of observation?

I consider myself to be a fairly self-aware person, but I know that if I am not clear with myself that I am only observing, I will be judging myself left and right and planning little changes (or, more likely, dramatic ones) at every opportunity.

Which is why it is helpful for me to have someone partnering with me in my observations, as well as in the behavioral experiments that will follow. At various times in my life, these partners have consisted of friends or my husband, but since August, my observation partner has been my therapist. And because depression was the main reason I had sought help, it only made sense that my first project be that of observing my depression – in the hopes of eventually diminishing it. It is true that once you start observing a phenomenon, the phenomenon shifts. The mere act of finding a therapist, taking an hour each week to focus on my well being, and being able to talk to someone about why I felt so sad and overwhelmed helped the depression begin to lift.

I knew from experience (observation!) that focusing on the behaviors I wanted to change was not the most effective way for me to make change. A strategy that seemed more useful to me would be to focus on filling my life up with the things that make me happy rather than trying to rid my life of the things that made me unhappy. The hope was that the happy things would slowly squeeze out the unhappy, depressing things and the balance would tip.

So then began the process of observing which things, people, activities, and ideas in my life already brought me some happiness. It turned out that despite my longstanding night-owl nature, getting a full night’s sleep actually made my life easier and happier. It also turned out that eating a vegan diet with recipes from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine 21-Day Vegan Challenge brought me both pleasure and satisfaction. The recipes were quick and easy and always, to my surprise, really flavorful. I already knew that yoga made me happy, so I began doing it three nights a week with my husband in our living room and found the practice even more rewarding. It was one more thing I could share with my husband and the gentle moves and deep breathing helped me release stress at the end of my work day. Similarly, I knew that exercise, writing, spending time with my family, being outdoors, and cuddling with my dog all made me happy.

So next came the process of implementing these things in my life in small doses to determine how much of each thing is enough to make me happy, how much lands me in overwhelm, and what is the right balance of all of these things so that I feel I’m hitting all the right notes and recharging my energy instead of draining it.

This is where I still am and probably will be for many months. Things are definitely moving in the right direction, but there is still much experimentation and skills-building to be done.

Of course, the easy, and maybe even advisable, strategy would have been to begin taking an antidepressant immediately. I went so far as to obtain a prescription from my doctor, but I couldn’t bring myself to begin this course of treatment. Research has shown that 30 minutes of exercise is as effective at reducing depression as medication, and since I needed the exercise anyway, it made the most sense to me to try to figure out a mechanism that would help me get to the gym on a regular basis. So, I hired a personal trainer and have worked with her for the past six weeks. She has helped me get stronger and stay focused on improving my physical health. There have definitely been days when I would have stayed in bed if I didn’t have her waiting to meet me at 6:30 a.m. One day I hope to have such a strong exercise habit that her assistance is no longer needed, but for now, I’m still building the systems I need to help me self-regulate and I am happy to pay her for her service.

Even though I have moved on to the “interact” portion of this permaculture principle, it only works if I also continue to observe my feelings and thoughts throughout the process. It’s fun to think of my life as a series of little experiments and it reduces my anxiety level because if something doesn’t cause the desired effect, it is not the end of the world; I can just try something else.

Shiny, Happy PersonOne last tip I would like to offer, if you are observing something in your own life and want to experiment with behavior change, is to make sure that even the ways in which you are tracking your observations and data make you happy. I found that creating a check list of every activity and behavior I wanted to participate in caused me anxiety and focused my thoughts on all the things that I didn’t accomplish on any given day. Counting calories and fat and carbs was too complicated to keep up with and made me feel deprived. So instead I found a tall, pretty juice bottle and a bunch of glass beads in various colors that I had bought for an art project that I never started, and began using them to track the behaviors that made me happy. For example, if I ate a vegan meal, I dropped a blue bead in the jar. If I went to the gym, I dropped in a green one. The small pink beads were for writing sessions and the large clear ones were for tackling an activity that scared me. This is fairly simple to keep up with (I played around with much more elaborate schemes, like trying to use the beads to make an image but knew, again from experience, that they would end in failure) and it’s shiny and colorful and makes me happy when I see it. Plus, dropping one of the glass beads into the jar makes a satisfying “plink” that is reminiscent of how good it felt to put a quarter in my piggy bank when I was a child.

I hope your observation experiment is going well, and I would love to hear about your process! Please leave me a note below, and I’ll be back on Monday – provided I survive tomorrow’s Camp NaNoWriMo novel-writing marathon! (Wish me luck!)

Ten Things to Remember to Live an Awesome Life

After I came home from California last month with my head full of the 12 permaculture principles and the 20 things I remembered while I was away, I read a list somewhere of 9 ways to live a great life. It was a compelling enough list that I wanted to remember the 9 things and try to incorporate them into my every day practice. I envisioned myself creating a journal and pasting the permaculture principles and my 20 things and this 9-point list into the front of it and reading all three lists each morning. But, I didn’t paste them into a journal. I don’t think I even read the list of 9 things more than once. And now, several weeks later, I cannot find the list nor can I remember where I read it! I’ve scoured my email inbox (I did not Star it in Gmail) and my Facebook Wall (I did not post it to share with my friends) and all the blogs I follow, and I absolutely cannot find the list. I cannot even remember if it was written by a woman or a man; there is no energy signature attached to the memory. It is very strange. All I remember is that I wanted to save it and read it every day and that I was impressed that it was a 9-point list, rather than a 10-point list, as this concision somehow added to its astuteness.

I let this memory-lapse really annoy me for about a day; then I decided that rather than worrying about it any further, I would write my own list of 9 things. So I did.

And I was pretty happy with it. But then it occurred to me that my list was in part based on an assumption that was not clearly stated anywhere and that was unacceptable, so, even though it might mean my list is slightly less awesome than the now-lost-to-me-forever 9-point list that someone else wrote, I added a 10th thing so I could include that assumption.

I do not claim that any of the things on this list are original to me. In fact, I am fairly certain this list is just a compilation of the best things I’ve heard or, more likely, read. I will refrain from expounding on each point. Other writers have already elucidated these points beautifully, so I will point you to them and let that suffice – with one exception. This entire blog is about learning how to do number 10 on the list, so more on that will definitely follow.

So here it is. I hope it speaks to you. Please let me know your thoughts, edits, or additions in the comments!

Holden Beach Sunrise 2009

Nine Ten Things to Remember to Live an Awesome Life:

1. You are not a body with a spirit. You are a spirit with a body.

2. You came to this planet – at this time, and this place, in this body, with this family – to learn how to love. (Yes, think Richard Bach here. Even better, think William McDonough’s Prime Directive: How do we love all the children, of all the species, for all time? Make answering that your life’s work and you will definitely live your most awesome life.)

3. All that is required of you in this lifetime is to be fully present with an open heart. You were born in this state, but it may take you all of your adult life to re-learn how to sustain it.

4. In order to maximize the opportunity you have been given to live, take care of your physical body daily. Eat real food, rest, sleep, MOVE!, laugh, and enjoy the company of other beings.

5. Happiness is essential to your own well-being and evolution, as well as to that of the planet’s. If you are not absolutely, 100% convinced that this is true, please visit Dreamsmith  and download and read Kelly Wagner’s free ebook, A Quantum Leap: the Dreamsmith guide to creating a life you love. (Kelly includes her own list of 7 Daily Practices for Creating  a Life You Love in this, too!)

6. Cultivate gratitude in your life in order to optimize your own happiness and effectiveness as well as the happiness and effectiveness of those with whom you interact.

7. Say “no” only if it leads to a more expansive “Yes!” This is slightly different wording than Samantha uses, but I think it clearly states my current thinking. Please take a moment now to visit Samantha Sweetwater’s blog and read her excellent post on this.

8. Do not waste energy comparing yourself to others. If shorthand helps, try, “Keep your eyes on your own paper” or “Stay on your own yoga mat.”

9. Live the life that only you can live.

10. Grow into the light.

The REAL Reason I Tri

I forgot to include in the last post the real reason I’m training for triathlons this summer.  It seems so intuitive that I often forget it–which is why it deserves its own blog post.

The real reason I tri is because I have finally (I really would like to believe this is the last time I will have to learn this, but my life seems to be a series of me learning and forgetting and relearning, so I can’t make any promises) realized that my health, and especially my fitness level, is the foundation of everything else.  It determines my energy level and, therefore, how well I perform my job, how much I have to give to the people I care about, and how much I have left to engage in projects that are important to me personally.  When I get out of bed tired in the morning and come home exhausted from work, you can be pretty damn sure I won’t be getting off the couch to write in my office or to play with the dog or to get outside for a walk.  And then the vicious cycle is underway – I’m tired, so I don’t work on anything of value to me, which makes me angry, sad, and depressed, which makes me feel even more tired and less energetic.  I have to break the cycle somewhere and it seems to make the most sense that I do that by engaging in physical activities that I enjoy and that challenge me.  The joy I feel at the end of a swim can carry me through to lunch when maybe I’ll carve out a few minutes to write a few pages of something new.  And the excitement of having written something new can carry me through to the evening and inspire me to get outside for that run.

I can carry this one step further.  Fitness is the foundation for me being able to maintain the lifestyle I have currently in an enjoyable, sustainable manner.  But if I want to change my lifestyle, which I do, then fitness becomes absolutely critical.  I considered taking a working vacation in Alaska this year, but when I realized that my duties would include more than leading visitors on nature hikes–things like unloading drinking water from boats and shoveling out composting toilets–on a remote island with no nearby medical facilities, I stopped pursuing the idea for fear that I wasn’t up to the physical challenges.  Not long after, my friend Zoi posted pictures on her Facebook page of her recent trip to Costa Rica and as I looked at the ziplines and the waterfalls, I realized I was probably too out of shape to have enjoyed a trip like the one she’d been on.  And if I wanted to undertake something even more strenuous, like replanting the rainforest, I had a long way to go to be fit enough to make that a fun, manageable prospect.

Hence, the commitment to train for a triathlon…which is really just a commitment to train for the best possible life I can design.

Creative Release

I have been doing too much and not doing enough.

I have been expending energy but not necessarily in the right ways.

I know about the four quadrants Stephen Covey outlines regarding time management in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I understand the energy management principles described by Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute in The Power of Full Engagement.  I have read about managing my attention deficit challenges through diet, exercise, interpersonal interactions, and physical challenges that utilize various segments of my brain in books by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey.

I used to teach time management skills to college students, and I can be very good at managing my own time – up to a point.  As long as I know the length of time my diligence will be required – say, for a semester or until a particularly large project is completed – I am able to remain focused and excel.  As soon as that deadline disappears, however, and I am faced with simply having to live an organized, efficient lifestyle every day with no end in sight,  all of those skills go out the window.

Of course, anyone who read the preceding paragraphs closely will point out that I said I understand the principles outlined by those various writers–not that I had practiced them with any regularity.  As part of my time management counseling, I would tell clients they had to practice time management and study skills for thirty to sixty days before they would begin to feel like habits, so, clearly, I understand the need for practice.  In my defense I might argue, as many of my clients did, that I don’t have the time to practice or that I can’t figure out which skills to practice first or that I can’t possibly implement all of these great ideas in my life and I get overwhelmed trying to figure out where to start.

But the truth is, if I am doing what I love, I am focused, effective, and fulfilled.

When I begin to see my focus fade and my energy dwindle, when I start dreading the next day before I go to bed at night, and when I have a hard time dragging myself out of bed in the morning, those are the signs telling me I’ve somehow lost my way.

I discovered several years ago that I am what Barbara Sher calls a Scanner.  I am always scanning the horizon for the next interesting thing.  I can get intensely interested in something for a period of time and then put that aside, often without warning, and dive with great joy into something completely different.  This doesn’t make sense to the people around me and gives me one of the craziest resumes you can imagine – I have to organize it around the skills I’ve used in each job, because people freak out when they see it chronologically.  And as crazy as this kind of life looks on the outside, it can be quite confusing and draining from the inside, too.

It takes a LOT of energy to try to remain engaged with work that has lost its ability to excite you.  It takes a lot of energy to try to find some small corner in that work that can excite you.  It takes a lot of energy to try to convince yourself, as a grown-up with grown-up obligations, that if you only expended a little more energy you would be able to grow your work in a new, exciting direction and your overall passion would return, bringing your focus with it.

Luckily, I have discovered I don’t have to be excited by every aspect of my life, provided I am sufficiently excited by some aspects of my life.  Recently, to reenergize my life and recapture my focus, I’ve signed up to race a sprint triathlon.  This has reminded me that I am capable of following a training schedule, that I really do love working out (especially swimming and biking, although the running hasn’t completely sucked), and that I am capable of following through on commitments I make to myself.  Swimming before work puts me in a great mood and helps me get into an early groove that carries me through the day.  It also makes me feel strong and gives me more confidence that shows in how I carry myself.

I have also decided to publish electronic versions of Your Mileage May Vary, the memoir I wrote about the cross-country bike trip I did with the American Lung Association, and have found an editor and had several friends read the manuscript to give me feedback.  As soon as I made this decision to do something for myself, to move some small part of my independent, creative life forward, my energy at work went through the roof and I was able to find plenty to keep me interested.

Recently, I’ve had to struggle a bit to maintain that level of engagement, however.  When I admitted that I’d lost some steam yesterday to an artist I’m coming to know, she said, “You’ve stopped working on your book, haven’t you?”  I was suprised that she nailed it so quickly, but she was absolutely right – I have stopped working on the book, allowing myself to be side-tracked by other things and getting caught up in doubts about whether or not I really should publish the book or whether it will just embarrass me in the long run.  I’ve been keeping up the workouts – even increasing the number, intensity, and duration – but I haven’t written anything new or even looked at anything old in several weeks.  And this lack of creative exploration, this lack of taking care of myself on what for me is a fundamental level, has taken its toll on the rest of my life.  Stress has built up in my body, causing me to feel tight in my shoulders, chest, and back.  I’ve actually been angry and antsy, even telling my husband on Thursday night that if I didn’t spend an hour writing sometime this week I was going to go crazy.  (He suggested that I spend several hours writing to undo some of the crazy I’ve already gone.)

On the way home from work yesterday in rush hour Friday night traffic (unfortunately, I spend about three hours a day commuting these days), I got the urge to release some of the energy in my upper body vocally.  I didn’t scream exactly, I just opened my mouth and “sang” a single, sustained note at very high volume.  I was shocked, actually, by what came out of my body.  For one thing, I didn’t know I had the lung capacity to make such a loud or long noise.  But I was also surprised by what the sound sounded like.  It was totally foreign, a part of me I don’t think I’ve ever touched before.  For fun, I opened my mouth a second time and sang a different, sustained note to see what that felt like.  Amazingly, the tension in my shoulders, chest, and throat melted right away!

When I got home, I walked and fed Kaija, our American Hairless Terrier, and immediately began writing something new.  I slept well last night, had no bad dreams, and felt rested this morning when I set off for my thirteen mile bike ride at 8:00 a.m.

What about you?  What areas of your life have you been neglecting?  What effect does this neglect have on the rest of your life?  Can you do one small thing, today, right now, that will bring you back into touch with one fundamental aspect of yourself that you have been ignoring?