Who Am I?

“Who am I?” I asked myself again and again during the weekend meditation retreat I attended in August.

It was the first time I had been away from my five-year-old son overnight. For two nights I slept in a twin bed in a single dorm room, alone for the first time in nearly a decade.

“Who am I without my children; without my husband?”

For a whole weekend, I had no responsibilities except showing up for my one-hour daily “yogi job” shift, washing dinner dishes or chopping vegetables. With everyone else, I listened to the bells telling us where to go and when, and followed the sound. We were encouraged to seek refuge in the buddha, the dharma, the sangha. I’d been seeking refuge but not in any of those things. For a whole weekend, I was not defined by what I spent my time doing.

“Who am I without my roles: wife, mother, daughter, friend, homeschooler?”

We maintained noble silence, refraining from talking, reading, writing, nonverbal communication, and eye contact until Sunday afternoon. I sat silent in a room with 96 other silent people. I walked the grounds with 96 other silent walkers, silently greeting the same holly leaf every time I returned to the hedge. Pacing slowly across the lawn and back, we looked like disoriented zombies.

“Who am I without my voice?”

I sat in hour after hour of meditation, feeling my presence in the breath tickling the back of my throat, in the movement of my digestive tract. In spite of the pain burning along my spine, I fell asleep sitting up. I had moments-long dreams, strange visions that seemed strangely real, and caught myself before falling over. The breeze from the window raised goosebumps along the left side of my body. Here I am, I thought. But—

“Who am I?”

In my room, a familiar face looked back at me from the mirror above my sink.

“Who are you?” she asked.

I had no answer.

And that was okay.

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The post that helped me actually go to my retreat after I’d signed up for it:

The Habit Experiment: July Wrap-up and August Kick-Off

One month of my nine-month Habit Experiment is done as of today. Yippee!

July’s Habit: Mindful Internet Use

To refresh your memory, my goals for this month were…

(cue Wayne’s World dissolve)

1. Restricting my internet usage to morning hours and evening hours for the completion of specific tasks.

2. Keeping a log of the times during the day when I feel a pull towards the computer for a non-planned usage of the internet noting what’s going on at the time and what I’m feeling at the moment.

Goal #1 was moderately successful (I only had one week in which I fell off the wagon entirely), and Goal #2 was successful only in the sense that I still want to keep a log and have a plan for how to implement it more effectively.

I’ve lost about one pound and my crossword puzzle times have remained about the same, but I don’t think either of these has anything to do with my internet use.

Inspired by Charles Duhigg’s How to Break Bad Habits (also in the appendix of his book, The Power of Habit), I have settled on a couple of tweeks for changing my internet habit during August (listed below).

August’s Habit: Exercise Daily

In addition to continuing to reduce my mindless internet use, I will devote August to developing an exercise habit.

I’m not 100% new to this. I’ve been taking a 30-minute walk every morning since April 2013, but I want to add a bit more while remaining realistic (I’m not getting any younger, after all). My motivation is to feel healthier, happier, and more energetic, as well as give me some wiggle room to eat high-calorie foods without gaining weight. In developing my goals for my exercise habit, I realized I could combine them with my mindful internet use habit and perhaps hit the proverbial two birds with one stone.

My goals for August:

1. Walk a minimum of 10,000 steps per day, as measured by the FitBit David Sedaris inspired me to buy. I’ll get this with my morning walk combined with regular daily activity, and perhaps a walk around the neighborhood with the kids. I wanted to go for 15,000 steps per day, but I prefer to under-promise and (hopefully) over-deliver.

2. Do 30 minutes of resistance training each day. Because I have trouble finding a chunk of time to exercise, I’m going to try out exercising in lieu of mindless internet use. Every time I feel a desire to check my e-mail, I’ll do one set of some form of resistance training (push ups, squats, lunges, triceps dips, etc). I’ll keep a list of exercises handy so I don’t have to spend time choosing one, and I’ll alternate upper body and lower body each day. At the end of the day, I’ll finish up whatever exercises I’ve not gotten to. Or so goes the plan

3. Keep a log of my exercise and internet use, à la Charles Duhigg (see the “How to Break Bad Habits” link above for more information about this).

So, I’ve got my measurements on board and my paper day planner at the ready for me to log stuff.

Let’s go, August!

How is wifi like an epidural? (Habit Experiment Check-In, Week 3)

When I was pregnant with my daughter I would think about my desire to birth without pain medication and couldn’t figure out why so many women had trouble refusing it. The way I envisioned it, the hospital staff would say, “Do you want an epidural?” and I would say, “No, thank you.”

In retrospect, I was a bit naive. I figured this out myself during eight hours confined to a hospital bed with an ever-increasing pitocin drip.

It was way easier to avoid pain meds when I birthed my second child at home where there wasn’t an anaesthesiologist on call. (Replacing the pitocin with a big birth tub also helped.)

Sure, avoiding the internet isn’t really in the same ballpark as avoiding an epidural, but there are similarities. Just as it was easier to avoid pain meds when they weren’t available, it was much easier to avoid the internet when we were spending each day in Boston and didn’t have access to it. (Replacing grammar lessons with carousel rides also helped.)

At home, I lose all resolve. The laptop sits there, beckoning me. “Come on over, Charity,” it says. “You can just look for a few minutes while the kids are occupied. See what your West Coast friends are up to. Click on a link or two. You can totally read that incendiary post and ignore the comments.”

Really, it’s not the laptop’s fault. People tell me that all I need is a little self-control, and I admit, they are totally right (and also kind of jerks). I actually have a fair amount of self-control, it’s just not limitless. I can’t have a bag of potato chips in the house without consuming the whole damned thing, and maybe I can’t have an internet connection without losing myself in it.

I either need to unplug the wifi, or I need to find the secret to ignoring my yen for looking at pictures of the babies of people I’ve never met and finding out what my “old person” name should be (it’s Gladys, in case you were wondering).

Maybe the secret is replacing the habit with something else. Maybe a lap around the house or a glass of water or ten jumping jacks. Maybe I should get myself a birth tub and take a dip every time I feel like refreshing my e-mail unnecessarily.

I’ll figure something out. Maybe next week.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

Evading the Still, Small Voice Within

This first week of mindful internet use has been moderately enlightening.

Some of my insights so far:

- When I was away from my computer, I didn’t feel a pull to check my e-mail and social media. I assumed that I would still feel the desire even though I have no internet-enabled mobile devices, but that wasn’t the case (at least not for this week).

- According to the log I kept, I felt compelled to hit refresh mainly in two situations: when I felt bored and when I felt frustrated (or otherwise emotionally charged).

- I felt a huge pull to hit refresh in the hours after I published a blog post or put something on Facebook; I just really wanted to see if people “liked” what I had to say. This one was not a surprise.

The biggest surprise this week was how strong the pull was. The strength of the compulsion was reminiscent of my long-ago days of quitting smoking; I had no idea the pull to hit refresh was anywhere near as strong as the jones for a cigarette.

Most times the compulsion faded by the time I got done logging it in my notebook. Sometimes when it still lingered I would find something else to occupy myself—I’d pick up a book or start some laundry or write out some Latin vocabulary flash cards. I also found myself digging into the peanut butter jar with a spoon rather more frequently than usual.

When distracting myself didn’t work, I tried to just be still and quiet, and that’s when I noticed the fear underlying the compulsion.

Each time I felt compelled to open my laptop, I was looking to escape. I was looking to escape my kids or my emotional discomfort. I was looking to escape my own thoughts and feelings.

It was when I was quiet that I felt this most distinctly. I didn’t want to journal. I didn’t want to be quiet. I just wanted to get away from whatever it was that was trying to bubble up in my mind.

In her book Writing to Wake the Soul, Karen Hering writes:

“Each time we turn to our email inbox or our smartphones for the next newsfeed or text message, we are tuning out and turning away from our inner voice and the conversations we might have with it.”

Feeling bored when I’m with my kids is one of my most persistent mothering fears. It’s been present since before my daughter was born. For some reason, I’ve always associated feeling bored with my kids as a sign that I’m not suited to the life of intensive parenting that I’ve chosen.

This thought is not logical, but knowing that doesn’t make it go away. I can’t think my way out of it, so when I feel it, I try to escape it. Same with the frustration and other strong emotions. There’s this sense that there is something else under the surface, and I feel nervous that if I let that thing up, it’s going to reveal something that is going to necessitate some change that I don’t really want to make.

What’s strange is that I don’t really think there’s a huge, earth-shattering revelation there. I have a feeling that the biggest revelation would be that I could feel bored, frustrated, or otherwise upset and I could be okay just feeling that way. I’m not sure why that’s so scary, but it is. And so I turn to the internet as a very convenient way to avoid feeling that fear.

It’s been funny this week to watch myself do things to avoid feeling the compulsion to hit refresh. Usually I’m fighting tooth and nail for “alone time” on the weekends, which means enjoying a quiet house while my spouse and kids galavant. This weekend, however, I was tagging along with the rest of my family on all of their outings. I watched three movies, including my first theater movie since before we left Utah more than three years ago. I started going to bed earlier (not super-early, but by 10:30 most nights).

And for this week, I have the kids’ and my schedule packed with adventures away from the house. I am so excited to be with them without my laptop looming in the corner! I know it’s only postponing the inevitable—I have to come home sometime, and I expect my compulsion will be waiting for me when I get here.

But maybe after a break I’ll feel a little more ready to hear what that small voice has to say.

Smashing Assumptions

Flute PracticeMy children’s flute teacher retired from teaching last month, and the process of finding a new flute teacher has been fraught. Their relationship with their teacher was so close, the thought of replacing her feels wrong, like we’re reducing our relationship to the mere pragmatics of finding someone to teach the mechanics of playing the flute when it was so much more.

“It’s like trying to find a new brother, or another parent,” my daughter says.

My son is reluctantly willing to play for prospective teachers, but insists he doesn’t want anyone but the teacher he’s known since he was eighteen months old to teach him.

The depth of my children’s connection doesn’t particularly surprise me, but the lessons I’m learning from this process are not the ones I expected. My daughter is quite advanced in her flute playing, so we’ve been focusing primarily on the obvious hard-hitters of the eastern Massachusetts flute scene, which are numerous but often a significant distance from where we live.

During this process, I learned that a fellow homeschooling mom is a piano and flute teacher, and she teaches right here in town. After I spoke with her, I decided we’d consider her for flute for my son or piano for both kids, but I thought she wasn’t high enough caliber to be my daughter’s flute teacher. This might be true, but when I went over my reasons for this assumption, I was really surprised with myself.

Here was a teacher with similar credentials, experience, and mentors as the other teachers we’re interviewing, but I put her at the bottom of the stack because she’s a homeschooling mom.

Like me.

That was a shock. It’s quite possible that this teacher will not be a match for my daughter, but I shouldn’t dismiss her because she’s a mother and a homeschooler. Here I am spending conscious effort every day to change the negative perceptions people have of stay-at-home parents, and I’m applying the same stereotypes I’m trying to fight.

I’m trying to see how positive it is that I even recognized this latent assumption and how it colors how I perceive other women, but at the moment, I’m just ashamed and very, very sad.

What does this say about how I think of myself? Why am I engaging in such self-defeating thinking? I’ve internalized the messages of our culture, that by choosing to focus on motherhood and put career well down on my list of priorities, I’ve relinquished my claim on any expertise I might have. What would the nineteen-year-old me sitting and steaming in Women’s Studies classes think?

How many times have I dismissed fellow mothers and not even realized it? How many other assumptions and biases influence my perceptions every day?

I’m trying—trying—to feel hopeful that this awareness will help me get better at seeing people for who they are in the future, instead of blindly following my biases. I’m starting by scheduling trial flute lessons for my daughter with the homeschooling mom flute teacher. If she’s not a match, she’s not a match, but I won’t be writing her off simply because she’s chosen a path similar to mine.

Introducing: The Habit Experiment

I love routines. I thrive on routines. I could never leave the house without routines.

I also have a lot of trouble developing routines.

Every day, I think, “If only I could make X a habit*, things would be so much easier. I’d have less stress, more energy, and just in general feel happier and more relaxed.”

This is what I tell myself, but is it really true? I don’t know because the first hurdle on the road to habit acquisition is so high, I rarely actually follow through, and if I do, I don’t follow through well enough to form a habit.

So, I’ve decided to change that.

Continue reading

Classic Imperfect Happiness: Mining Meaning

Lately I’ve been thinking even more than usual about what it is I’m passionate about. I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post about this, but it turns out I already did, way back in December 2010.

I’ve changed a bit since then; for example, with the help of one particularly understanding friend, I’ve made great progress sloughing off judgmental thoughts about other people’s birth choices. She helped me discover that, although we made essentially opposite choices about birth, we made our choices from a very similar emotional place. I thank her for opening up that empathy in me.

I also think I’ve gotten a little better at crafting a non-wandering blog post, and I no longer obsess about blog stats. But aside from these changes, I think I could have written this post today and had it turn out pretty much the same. (Note: I couldn’t resist editing the original post slightly, just for style, though, not content.)

Just last night, I sat on the sofa wondering what it is I’m passionate about. I don’t have cable, so while this isn’t an uncommon pastime for me, I usually distract myself with a novel before I get too involved in an ultimately frustrating thought process. Then this morning I read Tucker’s post, “Who Am I?” which, aside from the references to sailing, I think I could have written. Continue reading

Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living by Thich Nhat Hanh

Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living
Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living by Thích Nhất Hạnh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last month I attended a women’s retreat. At the retreat center, they had these little cards up all over the building with these great little meditations on daily living. All day, the meditations prompted me to pause and reflect as I washed my hands or looked in the mirror or took a step outside the front door. I loved the feeling of calm they facilitated.

My friend and I asked the women in charge of the retreat center where the cards were from, and they said they were Thich Nhat Hanh meditations, but the cards were out of print. Through the magic of the internet, I found out the meditations were from Present Moment Wonderful Moment and managed to find two sets of the cards and a copy of the book. I gifted one set of the cards to my friend and kept the other set intending to put them up around my house. But when my eight-year-old daughter saw the book, she independently suggested that we make pretty, hand-written cards to put up around the house. So we did.

One afternoon, we used a paper cutter and some pretty card stock my daughter got as a gift a couple of years ago and made eight cards, four for her and four for me, to put up around the house. We each have the Waking Up meditation by our beds, and I have the Ending Your Day one by my bed, as well. She has the Opening the Window on her bedroom window, the blinds of which she opens every morning first thing so she can look outside and read her meditation. We also have the Washing Your Hands, Looking in the Mirror, and Brushing Your Teeth meditations on our bathroom mirrors. We are enjoying them so much, we plan to make more.

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It’s apparent that we need to investigate other gluing options for the silver paper, but even with their imperfections, I like our little cards.

This is a gem of a book, and I love how it’s brought these moments of mindfulness to our days. I don’t know if it’s directly attributable to the book, but since we put up the meditations, my daughter has been joining me for a short sitting meditation every morning. It’s such a lovely way to start our day! (And our cat Owen must think so, too. Every morning he climbs into my daughter’s lap and offers her a purring meditation.)

The only thing missing from this book is a meditation for when my kids are squabbling over something that seems incredibly tiny to me.

View all my reviews

Guest Post: This I Believe

My friend Linda always has something to say that simply and deeply speaks to my heart, so I was thrilled when she agreed to guest post on Imperfect Happiness this week. I hope you find her words as powerful as I do. If you do, please let her know in the comments.

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My husband and I married when we were both in our forties, and as we say in Texas, it wasn’t our first rodeo. We invited our families to participate, and when the minister asked: “Who gives this man?” we laughed out loud when Rad’s family loudly—and in unison—proclaimed: “We do. As is. No returns.”100_3035

I’m a Virgo, born under a new moon when Mercury was in retrograde. (I have no idea what any of that means.) I’m left-handed and an introvert. I have a strong family history of heart disease. I’m 5 feet 8 inches tall and have green eyes and used to be a brunette. I tend to be anxious and sometimes suffer from agoraphobia and panic disorder. I was labeled “too sensitive” as a child because I cared and felt deeply. I used to think I had to be perfect to be loved. I’m often in physical pain. I’m a decent, kind and caring person. I have a good sense of humor, and have always had a strong sense of justice. And I have an endless list of likes and dislikes.

I did not make myself up. I am a product of genetics, culture, society, my family, and every single experience I’ve ever had, including my interactions with all of you. I am an extraordinarily ordinary human, always changing, evolving.

Here I am: as is.

This isn’t a theological reflection but it is a deeply spiritual one for me. After participating in a mindfulness program a few years ago, I began the practice of moment-to-moment awareness – well, at least some of the time.

As I practiced this present moment awareness, I noticed there was a constant litany going on in my head. “Why did you say that?” “You should be ashamed for thinking THAT.” “I can’t believe you’re so clumsy.” “You forgot again?” “Yikes, look at that jiggly belly!”

A few months ago I was invited to add the practice of accepting myself as is to my daily meditation. “May I accept myself as I am,” I say silently to myself. In the beginning I would often sit with tears running down my face; I sometimes still do.

As is.

I can stop trying so hard. I can stop worrying about what other people think. I can relax. I can try new things and not be perfect. I can say: “no, that’s not for me.” I can be happy now, not when.

The wonderful thing about this practice is that it’s about possibility and intention. I might not always accept myself as is, but I want to; it’s difficult when I’m feeling shame or fear or anger or pain. I love the story from the mindfulness teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, who tells of a woman, who when asked how she’s doing always answers: I couldn’t be better. Isn’t it true, Sylvia says, if we could be better, wouldn’t we?

When I accept myself as is, I’m better able to discern those things that I might be able to change. For example, I might still feel angry with the driver who just scared me to death when he turned left in front of me, but I don’t have to simultaneously honk, shout obscenities, and make obscene gestures. And I can also notice those things that I want to change, and try as I might, I will never change. I will likely always be prone to anxiety and startle easily. I flush beet red with shame when I make a mistake and hate admitting that I’m wrong. I will likely always have back pain.

A fortuitous by-product of this practice of self-compassion is that I find myself being even more compassionate and accepting of others just as they are, right here and right now.

So this is what I believe: I am an extraordinarily ordinary human, always changing, always evolving, and by practicing self-compassion, I am better able to love and accept myself and others.

Here I am: as is.

May we all accept ourselves as is, no returns.

Still More Grocery Store Lessons: Who Deserves Compassion?

I’ve written about my realization that feeling a sense of scarcity and like the world owes me something is a choice and that I can choose to feel differently. I’ve written about how much better showing compassion feels than feeling annoyed does. Now I come to the third thought that’s been percolating since my grocery store trip the other day:

Who deserves compassion? Continue reading