The Trouble With Time Is That It’s Too Easy To Waste

It’s not that we have little time, but more that we waste a good deal of it.” ~Seneca

I have wasted a ton of time since the pandemic began. I can’t even begin to calculate how much time. If you checked my Nintendo DS, you could probably find a record of how much time I spent playing Animal Crossing during lockdown (okay, and beyond). It would be a gargantuan number of hours. Add to that the time I spent on TikTok or researching travel I could not undertake or playing Archery in my text threads with my sisters or reading tweets, well, it’s embarrassing. I know that my misuse of time stemmed, at least initially, from the overwhelm of being in lockdown and uncertain about what was going to happen with the pandemic. But, once things relaxed a bit, did I get back on track with living my life? No. I did not. The ups and downs of “do we mask” and “can we trust the vaccines” and “why am I wearing a mask when so many people aren’t” and “how far do I have to travel to get a vaccine” and “what do you mean cloth masks aren’t effective enough” and “will there even be room at a hospital if I have a stroke or something” made me want to check out. So, I did. I continued to bury my head in nonsense.

But then we went to Hawaii for Christmas, and I put my phone down more often and lived. I sat in the sun on warm, black lava rocks, and watched the waves roll in shades of turquoise. I walked among swiss-cheese rocks and looked for shells both teeming with life and devoid of it. I woke up to the sunrise ten out of eleven mornings there. I felt the sand between my toes, smelled plumeria blossoms, and tasted fresh, Kona-grown coffee. It felt good to be alive again.

I missed living.

So today I spent some quality time with our puppy because he makes me laugh every day. I savored my food and appreciated it. I went to my meditation meeting and listened intently to what the other participants said about their practices. I worked hard to be present all day.

Maybe it was my Hawaiian holiday. Maybe it was watching Don’t Look Up. I’m not sure what has brought me to this place, but I have definitely been more present so far in 2022. I’m tired of wasting time and then being frustrated that I didn’t do all the things I wanted to do. I know what I want for this year, so I am setting an intention to show up for my life and the people in it. I’m going to spend some time this week figuring out what that looks like and how I think I can best accomplish it. And then I am going to get busy living again. It’s not a New Year’s Resolution. It’s a Life Revolution.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Hawaii: The Big Island – December 31st, 2021

For this last day of 2021, I vowed to be more present. It’s something I have been working on this year, through mindfulness and meditation, because I want to be more checked in than checked out and because I want to learn to manage my monkey brain and respond more carefully to people and to life’s choices. So I spent less time today on my phone and more time simply paying attention to my surroundings rather than trying to photograph them.

Snorkelers galore at Kahalu’u Beach Park enjoy a morning swim

The first thing we did this morning was head out to do some snorkeling at a beach known for clear waters and loads of reef fish. Kahalu’u Beach Park did not disappoint. Although we did not bring an underwater camera, I saw oodles of fish, many of which I had not ever seen before. While I was unsure how I would like the Big Island and her scarcity of sand beaches, it turns out that the lack of sand means clearer water for viewing fish. This has made the paucity of sandy beaches a total non-issue because I would rather snorkel than sit in the sand and carry it home with me anyway. At this snorkel spot, I saw myriad yellow tang and bullethead parrotfish, several different varieties of trigger fish, Moorish idols, huge corals, and a porcupine fish. We were out for about an hour and it was worth every second.

The wind picked up substantially in the afternoon and the surf got a little crazy for a few hours, so I spent some time along the lava rocks behind the house searching for shells. I’ve found a couple full cowries, which made me happy.

In the late afternoon, I spent some time staring at the tumultuous seas. I would move here in a heartbeat. If I won the lottery, a place like this one, right on the ocean, would be my first purchase. Since we are down to our last two days here, though, I decided to soak this hammock thing up because I don’t know when or if I will have this opportunity again. And I have officially decided that Hawaii agrees with me, so it is only natural that I end up here somehow, someway, someday.

Sun sets on the last day of 2021

We opted to cook in tonight. Steve grilled tenderloin and we sautéed some shrimp in garlic butter and topped it with chopped parsley. It was perfection. The sun set behind a huge bank of clouds as fireworks began to pop off on the hill on the other side of the bay from our rental. Overall, it was a perfect end to a long, tiring 2021. Here’s hoping that 2022 finds our situation, on the whole, improved from the last two years. Happy New Year from this beautiful place!

Our genius son was the only one who stayed up until midnight to catch Kona celebrating NYE 2020 in grand fashion

Mele Kalikimaka Meditation

My morning meditation spot

I christened my day with a meditation. Sitting on a lava boulder, facing the indomitable Pacific, with the actual ocean as my ambient noise and guide. When I meditate, I prefer to do so through mantras. That seems to be the only way my writer’s mind can focus, through words. I start my mediation with an intention, something on which I wish to focus, and I pick a phrase. From there, I let that phrase morph until I land on an organic one that sticks. Then I let that one settle in and carry my intention with it.

Today’s intention was to focus on being curious rather than judgmental, ala Ted Lasso’s advice. I settled upon a Hawaiian image. I imagined myself as a lava rock, washed by the sea, but not changed by it, an immovable object not reacting to the forces before me but simply noticing them. It seemed the ideal way to practice observing other people’s comments and reactions with curiosity without allowing them to affect my calmness and stability.

After a few breaths, my mantra settled in. As I inhaled, my mind asserted “I am a rock,” and as I exhaled, it reminded me “Nothing can disturb my peace.” I focused on that for ten minutes, mentally acknowledging only the sea breeze, the sounds of breaking surf and birds, the hardness of the rock beneath me. (Perhaps next time I will bring a blanket for my rock meditation?)

Any skill comes through practice, which is why meditation is a practice. It’s not something you perfect. Not unlike the ocean tides, it has ebbs and flows. One day, your focus is legendary. The next it is complete horse shit. And the good news is that is exactly as it should be. Sometimes your mind is calm, quiet, and peaceful. Other times, it is rough, cloudy, and choppy. It is what it is to be human. For a long time, I, like many others, thought meditation was a place you arrive at, a destination which only few are allowed to inhabit. Not so. Meditation is a commitment to quieting your mind. That is all. It’s the practice through which you can begin to control your thoughts rather than be controlled by them. It’s available to everyone who endeavors to take the journey. It costs nothing, but yields great things.

So, my Christmas wish for all of you is the strength and perseverance to find inner calm in the chaos of this holiday. I hope you take a moment to be a rock, to pause to observe what is happening around you without allowing it to move you, to be present in the presence of presents. Let the insanity of your crazy uncle’s comments wash over you rather than shake you from the peace that this day represents. You are a rock. Nothing need disturb your inner peace.

With that thought in mind and with any luck, perhaps you won’t have to swill spiked eggnog to enjoy your day with your natural or chosen family. Be strong. Be curious. Inhabit stillness in the midst of noise and wrapping paper and requests and obligations.

Mele Kalikimaka from Hawaii, my fellow travelers through this life!

Diffusing The Power Of Shenpa

Indeed

Yesterday I wrote about learning to deflect when something or someone triggers me to act in ways that run counter to what is healthy for me. And then, in a wonderful act of serendipity as I was doing homework for the Midlife Mindfulness class I attend, I discovered that our topic completely ties in with the work I did yesterday in therapy and then in my blog post from last night. Talk about the Universe wanting me to succeed! Everything is lining right up.

This meeting’s focus was on the concept of shenpa, which Pema Chodron, world-renowned Buddhist nun, describes as “the hook.” The hook is what I would call a trigger; it’s the sound, the person, the scent, the comment, the situation, the whatever, that sets you off into a negative pattern of self-censure, jealousy, blame, anger, or frustration, which leads you to actions or words that may seem to comfort you in the moment but that ultimately lead you away from peace rather than towards it. I feel this is my life in a nutshell. I grew up in a highly reactive household, so I learned to be reactive to everything. Because of this, I have long admired people who seem to roll with things, who accept the reality of the situation without an emotional meltdown. I have not known many people like this, though, so I am certain that reacting to shenpa is common for most of us.

The experience of shenpa immediately removes us from the present moment and sends us into a spiral of destructive thoughts and behaviors. The way I most often experience shenpa in my life is through my verbal outbursts or my desire to escape a situation that troubles me. Both are an overreaction, usually as a result of a comment or action taken by another person. Instead of quietly sitting for a moment with the thing that has hooked me and deciding how or even if it requires reaction from me, I am off and running and the hook sets. So, this is my next big challenge: I need to recognize the hook before taking the bait. Pema Chodron says the best way to stop this cycle is through meditation because it is only by observing our thoughts that we are able to change them and our actions around them. Through meditation, we slowly gain control of the monkey mind that will make off with us if we don’t see its little game.

I am setting my alarm for 6:20 tomorrow morning so I can get in ten minutes of meditation before I begin my day. Ten minutes doesn’t sound like much until you have to make sitting still with yourself and chasing away distractions a priority. It’s more difficult than you might imagine. I was thinking I can still use the Wonder Woman golden wrist cuffs, which I wrote about yesterday, to deflect what triggers me. I can still cross my arms in defiance of the shenpa that appear. And then I can use my meditation skills to stay present, experience my discomfort, and then either let it go or react calmly from a place of peace in the present moment. I am already better at putting distance between myself and many of the people and stimuli that trigger me. I am also better at seeing where things are going, even if I can’t always find the brakes. I’m heading in the right direction.

I’m grateful for the small things in life that line up for me when I am on the right path. I suspect, though, that it is less about messages lining up than about my openness to seeing them as they fall in my lap.

Treat Your Thoughts Like Clouds

Art credit to @phoebenewyork, photo by Elizabeth Schoettle

A friend posted this artwork to her Instagram this morning. This art piece sums up what I am working to achieve for myself through therapy and meditation. I strive to get to a place where I am able to put space between my thoughts about reality and reality itself. The thing about being a thought-filled introvert is that I spend a lot of time in my brain. My brain, unfortunately, was wired from a young age to view pretty much anything having to do with my appearance, my personality, my choices, and my desires negatively. I am working hard to acknowledge that my thoughts can be like a funhouse mirror, distorting reality and leaving me feeling horrible about myself without sufficient evidence to back up that view. So, the idea of treating my thoughts as clouds, recognizing that they come and go and take shape and lose shape because they are fluid and not at all concrete, is genius.

Like many people, for most of my life I have let my thoughts run away with me without understanding I can control them. When a negative or fearful or self-defeating thought pops into my head, what happens to it depends on my reaction to it. Say I look into a mirror and think, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you look like hell,” I have a choice how I react to that thought. I can let that thought define me and spend the rest of my day self-conscious and sad, with that thought gaining more weight and getting heavier the more I pay attention to it, so that by the end of the day that cloud says, “Your best days are over. You should just go crawl in a hole where no one has to look at you.” I do have another option, though, which is to do some cloud busting. I can reply to that funhouse thought with a hearty “No one believes that, and neither should you,” and move on with my day unencumbered by that knee-jerk, knuckle-headed self talk.

My attitude towards my thoughts creates the difference between a quiet, sunny day with light cirrus clouds and a tumultuous, dark day punctuated by growing cumulonimbus storm clouds. So my task is to put some air space between myself and my thought clouds and to accept that my thoughts don’t always know what they are saying. Many times my thoughts are way off base. The faster I am able to acknowledge that my negative thoughts are just thoughts and not necessarily reflective of reality, the better job I can do clearing them from my head and making room for better thoughts, creative thoughts, thoughts filled with self-love.

Eventually, I hope to become a more effective cloud buster. I would love to be able to set my thought griefcase down and work on sunnier self-reflections.

Grab Your Monkey Mind By The Tail

Look, Ma! I’m on top of the world!

“Worrying is using your imagination to create something you don’t want.” ~Abraham Hicks

A few months ago, I joined a women’s midlife mindfulness and meditation group in my neighborhood. I had been meaning to get into meditation to rein in my monkey mind for at least the past 8 years and had even started practicing a few times, but I never stuck with it. When I saw the post on our local Facebook page, it was a sign. Now there would be some accountability. Even if I didn’t become a master at meditation, I reasoned, I might acquire more control over my thoughts and keep them from running away from me unnecessarily.

Last night our group met in the shade outside our local community center and discussed the “Don’t-Know Mind.” The don’t-know mind, I learned, is a central concern of Korean Zen, and it’s a representation of our enlightened mind before preconceived ideas, thoughts, judgments, and opinions create needless anxiety and suffering in our lives. Many of us spend our entire lives borrowing trouble that doesn’t yet exist. You have your negative life experiences and memories of bad news and you apply them to events that haven’t occurred yet. It happens all the time, and it’s a waste of precious life energy because we can’t possibly know how things are going to work out before they occur. We humans are not as all-knowing as we like to think we are. How many times have you imagined the worst only to later live a completely or mostly seamless experience? How much time have you wasted catastrophizing for nothing?

I can recount dozens of times I have borrowed trouble when I had no reason to believe an event would end badly. It happened last night. My sons decided yesterday to climb Mt. Bierstadt, one of the 53 peaks in Colorado over 14k feet. This is a well-traveled hike with a well-marked ascent. It is one of the easiest of these climbs. Hordes of people climb this mountain every day in the summer, and you rarely hear anything about it other than the trail was too busy. Still, my 18 and 20 year old sons would be leaving before dawn with a friend, traveling up the interstate into the mountains on little sleep to ascend to 14k feet alone for the first time. Their momma bear was anxious. Although I fell asleep quickly, I woke up with my mind racing and imagining the worst. I pulled out the don’t-know mindset.

You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. You don’t know that there is any reason for concern. What if nothing bad happens? What if there is no traffic at all and they arrive safely? What if they packed the perfect amount of snacks, water, warm clothing, and safety gear? What if all that happens is that they make it to the top to view a cloudless Colorado morning with 360-degree breathtaking views? What if they make a memory together they will cherish forever? What if this gives them the confidence to climb other mountains, both physical and mental? What if they arrive home, beaming with accomplishment, and share photos from their adventure? You don’t know.

I took a few deep breaths, relaxed into the mattress, and fell back asleep, confident that the likelihood things would work out was far greater than the likelihood they would not. I slept so well I didn’t hear them getting ready and I didn’t wake up in time to say goodbye to them. When I finally awoke at 7:10, they were long gone. And when I checked my phone I noticed Joe had already sent a photo of them safely at the trailhead ready to begin their upward journey.

I think the trick is to grab your monkey mind’s tail as soon as you notice it. Once you have it in your grasp, tell that monkey to back off because it doesn’t know what it thinks it knows. The more often you catch that damn monkey, the more practice you have stopping its useless chatter. Eventually, you realize there is no benefit in determining an outcome you don’t want to have and likely won’t experience. You begin find stillness, peace, and positivity can fill the space in your head and give the monkey no room for running and jumping and bouncing around. I’m not there yet, but my monkey catching skills are improving.

The friends you meet along the way

Zen and the Art of Bunniness

In the Galapagos, Luke and a Nazca booby enter into each other's inherent bunniness.
In the Galapagos, Luke and a Nazca booby take a moment to appreciate each others’ unique and meaningful existence.

Like many people these days, I practice yoga. My journey began a little over four years ago and, even in the times that I don’t practice regularly, I find it is always with me. Yoga is a hard thing to explain to those who haven’t yet experienced it. Before I practiced, people who knew me well would tell me that I needed it. I resented that statement, but mostly I resembled it. I moved from one thing to the next without stopping to be present in my own life. I didn’t know how to sit in stillness or look around in awareness. A hamster on a perpetual wheel, I rarely paused to notice or enjoy anything. I was too busy looking ahead to see the little moments slipping by in my peripheral vision.

In vinyasa yoga, you flow through the different postures syncing one breath to one movement in a moving meditation. You breathe in to settle into one pose and breathe out to transition into another, consciously aware of each inhalation and exhalation. So when I found this quote in my Bunny Buddhism book, I knew exactly what it was for. It is a mantra for meditation.

Breathing in, I know I am a bunny. Breathing out, I know a bunny is all I have to be.

In my late thirties, I was somewhat depressed. Not in that can’t-get-out-of-bed-and-need-Zoloft way, but in the way that I was unhappy without being awake enough to realize it. I had young children who had boundless energy and myriad personal struggles and I didn’t have a clue how to help them settle and grow. I was continually exhausted, surviving on caffeine and mindless, reality television. I was stalled out. When my early forties hit, midlife began urging me to shake off my slump and make something out of my life. This was both a good thing (because I began to wake up and seek out life-affirming events, which made me buck up a little) and a bad thing (because in seeking out new experiences I managed to remain too busy to truly enjoy anything).

That was when yoga found me. I began to understand that I didn’t have to become anything to prove anything. Through yoga, I began accepting that there are things that I am good at and things that I will never be good at. It doesn’t matter. It’s part of the uniqueness that is me, and it is enough. That thought continues to blow my mind. I am enough. Period. If I finish the book I’ve been writing in my head for years, great. If not, that’s fine too. I’m exactly where I need to be, being the person I am becoming. At the end of my life, a full and well-rounded curriculum vitae will say everything about what I accomplished but nothing about who I was because we are not the sum total of what we do. Good thing too because on most days what I do is laundry.

Breathing in. I know I am a bunny. Breathing out. I know a bunny is all I have to be.

Can you let go of what you think you need to do to be important and accept that you already are?