The Practice of Doing Nothing: How I Stopped Fueling my Stress

5703593871_5fdd16c7d2_oI caught myself getting overwhelmed tonight. I’d been distracting myself from my stress all day long—running from meeting to meeting, answering emails, sending emails, moving from one uncompleted task on my desk to the next. When I finally got home and needed to focus on my children, though, I no longer had the energy to distract myself. So the stress I had successfully avoided all day slowly began to unravel itself and take over.

The power of emotion is extraordinary. I felt the stress coming, could clearly see the effect it was having on me, and yet still felt powerless to stop it. As it built I tried not to let it effect my time with my children—but it did. I was impatient, angry, short and instantly regretful. But what could I do in the face of an emotion that was tightening my chest and making my heart beat so wildly? How could I possibly stop this avalanche? I was losing the battle. I was coming undone.

Then, I remembered the advice of Andy Puddicombe, the meditation guru from Headspace, saying something about the problem of resisting emotion. I remembered him talking about how, if we were to stop resisting the emotion that is causing us stress, then we will stop fueling that emotion. I was having a hard time understanding this lesson of Andy’s until tonight. When my stress reached the verge of overwhelming, I decided to give Andy’s advice a try. I sat down on my meditation mat, mala beads in hand, and stopped resisting—I stopped fighting the emotion within me. I allowed it to simply be while I breathed in and out. Almost instantly, I felt my stress lose a lot of its energy. And I realized I had been fueling it all day with my active resistance. Also, when I sat with my stress (it honestly felt like I was honoring it, like I was giving this emotion its due) it parsed itself out…it revealed itself as more than just the generic term of “stress”…but more specifically as sadness, self-doubt, and the fear of failure.

Ten minutes later, I am writing a blog post and reaping the benefits of this extraordinary practice. I still feel stress, but I am not overwhelmed. I am not undone. And I am much more aware of the source of my stress—which will make it easier the next time it, inevitably, comes around.

 

[Feature Image: Izaias Buson]

Holding each Moment

10176739514_0aaa3f47d5_oI am growing accustomed to an annual end-of-the-summer episode of the blues. I am wallowing in this place now, grieving the passage of time. Mourning the loss of the summer’s long days when I read and write and giggle with my children. All this and the summer isn’t even over yet.

No stranger to anxiety and depression I create strategies to lift my spirit. I will manage my sleep patterns and avoid alcohol. I will schedule time each day for that which feeds me: meditation, writing. I will stop checking my email first thing in the morning. I will read more in the evenings and watch less stupid T.V. Just making this plan makes me feel better.

These steps to avoid a downward spiral feel healthy. It’s never good to get psychologically stuck. But part of me is wondering if my desire to avoid the darkness is a desire to avoid life itself.

Into my wondering a new book arrives; a book of poetry by a rabbi I recently met. In Waiting to Unfold, Rachel Barenblat has written a poem each week of her son’s first year of life. I got wrapped up in this book immediately. Barenblat’s writing is clear and honest, returning me poem by poem to the first year of my son’s life. I appreciate how she captures the beauty of her first moments as a mother. I appreciate more how she captures the pain, the exhaustion, the post-partum depression. Each week’s poem is new; a multidimensional, complicated mix of awe, joy, exhaustion, grief, amazement, mystery and change. Barenblat’s ability to convey the undulating highs and lows, emotional chaos, and heightened nature of new life makes for one great year of poetry.

Out of Barenblat’s dark moments poetry was birthed—poetry that spoke to, resonated with, and held deep meaning for this reader. So even though there are experiences of life that I am impatient to see pass—like this time, here, at the end of the summer—and experiences of life that I want to linger—like sneaking into my children’s bedrooms at night to risk waking them with too many kisses—all of life, all experience holds potential and promise. So perhaps I need to simply hold each moment, like a newborn baby holds bottle or breast, and drink deeply of all life offers.

 

 

[Feature Image: David Precious]

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Practice of Doing Nothing: Sitting with my Suffering (Part 2)

Fear 1On a bright summer morning, I dropped my 5-year-old daughter off at day camp placing her in the care of counselors who all appeared to be in high school. Looking at Ella’s counselors I remembered myself at their age, and the parents who entrusted their children to me. I didn’t take the same precautions with those children as I do now, with my own. I suspected the same was true of these teenagers. But I was too busy with Ella’s transfer–lunchbox (check), bathing suit and towel (check), water bottle (check), sunblock and bugspray (check)—to give my worry much attention. The camp counselors were busy too, loading my daughter up in a 15-passenger van. They were taking the kids on a trip to the lake.

Driving away from the drop-off, the image of my tiny, tow-headed daughter, climbing into the camp van stayed with me. Arriving at my office, unlocking the door, arranging my desk to tackle my long list of to-do’s, my mind kept returning to my daughter in the van.

Then, a premonition overcame me; a feeling, a knowing. My mind pictured the tragedy—a van overturned with my daughter’s body inside it.

The urge to go and get her—to chase down that van, find my daughter, pull her into my arms and keep her with me for the rest of the day—swelled. Fear flooded my nervous system and I broke into a sweat.

Am I crazy? Or is this a sign? Will I regret this forever if I don’t go and get her? How could this possibly be true? I was suffering terribly and almost succumbed. My car keys were in my hand when I remembered my practice.

So I took my suffering to the mat and sat with it. This was a tough one because the fear was like violence within me. It was beating me up inside, clubbing my heart, contracting my lungs, scorching me with its heat from the inside out. It was almost unbearable. But I sat with it and breathed. I leaned into my suffering instead of running away from it, or running immediately to resolve it. And, like my anger previously, I eventually felt the urgency of my fear dissipate. The oxygen calmed my nerves and restored my reason. I was still afraid, but not overwhelmed. And in this new state I realized that I had to let Ella go…and keep letting her go…because her life and mine could not be ruled by fear.

Our suffering has much to teach us, and yet we do everything possible to avoid it or get rid of it. I am becoming much more aware of my suffering now and my power to sit with it. This, in turn, has led me to become more aware of the suffering of others. The faces of humanity rise in my mind as I sit on my mat. I hold each in my heart, just as I hold my own fragile self. Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, believes that the world would be a more peaceful and compassionate place if we all practiced meditation. As I stop to imagine this—a world that could learn from its own suffering and not be ruled by fear—I give thanks for the profound gifts of a simple practice.

Twelve Minutes

10-minutesLast Thursday I settled myself cross-legged on my zafu and set my timer for twelve minutes of meditation. I had just finished scratching out my to-do list for the day—a mistake—it made me realize I only had an hour free this morning to finish writing my sermon for Sunday and meet a few other deadlines. The pressure of my schedule tightened my chest and shoulders as I wondered to myself why I was sitting there doing nothing when I could be writing, folding laundry, washing the dishes, or straightening up the living room that my children had just left in total disarray—blankets, pillows, game and puzzle pieces strewn all over the floor, a sippy cup turned over leaking milk on the couch. Even with my eyes closed, I could feel the mess pressing in on me. My body itched to start doing, but I forced myself to sit and breathe. The dog whined softly in the corner, the ice machine rattled in the kitchen. (It broke this morning. When will I get that fixed?) My twelve minutes were up.

Inspired by Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and a book I’m reading by Pema Chӧdrӧn, I made a commitment to meditate every day of Holy Week. I keep reading about how good meditation is for you, like in this article here.  A poet once told me his writing really started to take off after he got serious about his sitting practice. I teach meditation to my college students who are hungry for ways to calm down and de-stress. My interest in this ancient practice webs and wanes, though.  I often prioritize it out of my schedule because I have my doubts and my time is precious.

Holy Week has come and gone but I decided to meditate again today. It’s Easter Monday and I have the day free to get a lot of stuff done. Why not begin with twelve minutes of breathing? “If you have time to breath, you have time to meditate,” says Ajahn Chah (via Pinterest.)

Before I reached my meditation cushion, though, I noticed myself feeling stressed. Why am I feeling this way? I wondered to myself. I have the whole day free?  Puzzled, I decided to take Ani Pema’s advice and enter into my emotion through meditation. So I sat with my stress—leaning into its pressure—to see what I could learn about my mind, how it works, and why I respond to life the way I do.

It was a miserable way to begin the morning, but I stuck with it, focusing on my breathing and the emotion within me. The air cooled my nostrils on every intake, warmed them on the outtake. Slowly I began to recognize my emotion as pressure I was placing on myself—my own desires were the root of this stress.

After my twelve minutes were up I opened my journal to see if I could identify what those desires were. Here’s a partial list: I desire more time to write—a clean home and office—recognition for my work—the ability to write beautifully—lose ten pounds—eat delicious food—ice cream—good wine—be an attentive mother to my children—more money—more time to exercise—lie in bed to read a good book—lie in bed—speak words that are meaningful at my grandmother’s funeral—create—publish—take the dog to the vet—enjoy more sex—get a massage—shop for pretty, stylish things—laugh with friends—love my husband well—have more spiritual experiences—feel more peace.

My desires quickly filled a whole page of my journal before I stopped myself, realizing I could go on for pages. Where does all this desire come from? Why do I crave more than I already have?  When will I have enough? When will I be enough?

Okay, I will be meditating again tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

Quiet

2005121700_ballerinaMy husband was the first to disturb Her. He loped around the house, snored in great huffs at night, captured me in conversation at the dinner table.  As my marriage unfolded, She sulked in the corner of my life, moody and listless, still catching snatches of time over a morning cup of coffee or after he had gone to bed.  She and I used to dance all the time, bodies pressed together in ecstasy, the feel of her made my mind explode with ideas, dreams, fantasy places.  I could go anywhere in her hush.

When my first child was pulled, wet and bloody, from the womb She looked on in horror.  After the mucus was sucked from his mouth and nose he screamed and She walked out. I’d look for her, late at night, as I woke every few hours to put the baby to my breast.  I’d listen for her in the wind of the trees as my husband and I pushed the stroller around the cul-de-sac. But the reality of my life kept her away.

My second child stayed in my womb as long as she could, refusing to come (as she still does) when the doctor called.  Perhaps she sensed the noise of my life and preferred to dance with her Quiet in the security of my womb.  So they put me to sleep, a mask over my nose and mouth, a needle in my spine, and I drifted away.  I dreamed I was with Quiet again, sitting on the porch as the sun went down, watching the sky turn orange, blush rose, blue, and then black.  We snacked on almond slivers, the crunch between my teeth the only sound breaking our reverie.  Slipping between the cool sheets of the bed, my legs kick out wide, glorifying in the freedom of all that space.

When I awoke, another mouth to feed lay swaddled in her crib beside my bed.  I leaned forward to catch a glimpse of baby girl, my stomach shrieking in protest.  Her eyes bobbed beneath her closed eyelids and the tiny holes in her nose widened with each breath.  She sucked on her lower lip as if chewing on a good dream.  I imagined she was dreaming of the Quiet she knew once too.  Filled with new love I whispered over her head, “Don’t worry, baby girl, you’ll find Her again one day.”

I lay back down to contemplate the noise of my now-crowded life.  I couldn’t ask for more, yet I wanted less.  I was fully alive, yet dead tired.

I would learn to dance with the riches of my new life.  I would come to treasure the cacophony of giggles that filled my house.  I would never live in regret.  But Quiet is my home, my peace, my muse.  I shall stalk Her like a madman.  I shall pursue Her like the one lost sheep.  I shall fret over Her like the mother whose baby has wandered away.  And I will find Her…as we all do…in the end.

about remembering

1349987486840I remember getting out of bed in the morning to muscles that didn’t ache and joints that did not crack and pop.  I remember being able to see without the thick-lensed glasses I fumble for on my bed stand.  I remember not needing a minute to loosen up, my feet screaming from their heel spurs, before I answer my children’s calls from their beds.  In fact, I remember the time before children.  An actual alarm clock woke me then.  If it was not set, I would sleep the morning away.

My body doesn’t rest like that anymore.  These past forty-one years have taken their toll.  Though I consider myself healthy, I cannot stop the effects of aging…or the trauma of childbearing….or the enduring back, leg, knee, and foot pain after years of running. I imagine carpal tunnel will soon set in with all this writing.

But I don’t live with regret. Life has been abundant. I am amazed by the life that surrounds me: a marriage that grounds me, two healthy children who inspire me, a career that consistently challenges and fulfills me.  I have certainly made mistakes in this life.  But even the mistakes have fed the abundance for what they have taught.  When I took that job where my boss turned crazy and whispered to others of my incompetency, why did I let her whittle away my self-confidence?  Why didn’t I quit sooner?  I would now.  When that boy’s hand found my inner thigh under the table and slowly moved to that place I knew he shouldn’t touch, why was I so surprised?  And why didn’t I say “Stop!”  I would now.  Why did I, in my young rebellion, rage at my mother, tell her I hate her, and push her, hard, away from me?  I wouldn’t now.  Wisdom has been born from my mistakes.  Failure has led to my growth.  Abundance gratefully rises above the pains of my past.

Aware of my daughter’s cry, but not yet fully awake, I kick my legs out of the pillows I have used all night for lumbar support.  I knock the bed stand and hear my glasses fall to the floor.  Bending is a nightmare.  My hamstrings are so tight.  I can’t see a thing.  Swishing my hands like metal detectors along the carpet I search for those damn glasses while my daughter cries and cries.  On my knees my body remembers everything, every ache, every jab, every taught tendon. Every one of those forty-one years travels with me as I search.  Finally, the tip of my finger catches the ear of my frames and I jump up in triumph.  “Mommy!  Mommy!” She cries.  “Coming! Coming!” I shout in return as I take off towards her bedroom in glad pursuit of the rest of my life.

**This post was written in response to the Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge.