August: Thoughts About “Mindfulness Month”

I am so glad that I started this project with mindfulness. Making a practice of bringing awareness to the moments that make up my day is a great foundation for the rest of the project.

I started the month with three resolutions:

  • Daily Emotions Log
  • Be Aware of Judgmental Thoughts
  • Breathe

Within the first two weeks, I abandoned the daily emotions log. Instead, I brought awareness to my emotional state and recognized the needs that were being met or not, but I didn’t write them down. It could have been useful data as I fine tune my resolutions for the upcoming months, but it just wasn’t happening. I decided that the awareness part was more important than the data collection part.

The overall effect of practicing these resolutions has been that my mind feels calmer. The little hamster that’s usually racing away in my head is much more chill. And he uses much less foul language. I have more patience with my children, with my husband, and with inconvenient situations in general. I definitely want to keep up these practices in the coming months in addition to my new resolutions.

I’ve had several challenges that have given me extra practice using my new skills of breathing and awareness. The dishwasher broke down, and I got to practice mindfulness while my hands were in a sink of soapy water several times a day. Then it took three visits from the installer guy and the removal of several floor tiles to finally install the new dishwasher. My daughter and then my son developed separation anxiety and for a period of time wouldn’t let me leave them with the babysitter. Breathing and awareness helped me make it through these challenges with much more grace and gratitude than I normally exhibit under duress.

I’ve also done some great reading this month and gotten some great support and suggestions from people reading my blog. I’ve read portions of The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living and The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. I’ve read part of Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices by Thich Nhat Hanh and re-read portions of Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. I’ve also discovered several blogs, both by friends and by people I’ve never met, that I enjoy and that give me food for thought. And most recently, I’ve read portions of the Bible and added several more books to my to-read list as a result of suggestions from friends. As I’ve mentioned before, I love reading, and I love incorporating other perspectives into mine.

In the future, I hope not only to be aware of judgmental thinking, but to transform it into empathy and compassion. I feel disappointed that I’m not more compassionate. I take small comfort in the knowledge that I’m even more judgmental with myself than I am with others. I realize that this lack of compassion with myself is probably the largest barrier to my having compassion for others. I’m working on it and trying to be gentle with myself when I fall short of where I’d like to be.

I remain surprised at how intense my mindfulness practice has been this month. I feel such profound changes as I struggle to be aware of my thoughts and emotions. I’m looking forward to seeing where my project will take me, even as I’m feeling a little anxious about the challenges that I’m certain await me.

Week 4 Review

This is going to be a quick review; I’ve got a fevered baby who’s sleeping right now, but I know I could be called to duty at any moment.

Two things stand out as I look back on this week. First, I really think I’ve made breathing and recognizing judgmental thoughts a habit. I still have to remind myself from time to time, but it’s much more automatic than it was at first. Second, I’ve been wanting to incorporate into my Happiness Project teachings from other religious traditions in addition to Buddhism, but I wasn’t at all sure where to start. The task felt extremely daunting until Paul and Cindy left their comments on my “Not so Fast” post the other day. Isaiah 58 has given me a great deal to ponder, especially the part of verse 9 to verse 10 that reads:

“If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.”

This statement seems to cover much of what I hope to address with my Happiness Project. As Cindy commented, “we can fast from anything that distracts us from our goals or draws us into unhealthful patterns.” This seems like a good definition of “the yoke.” I realize, too, that I’ve already incorporated “fasting” into many of my resolutions. This month, although the resolution was just about bringing awareness to judgmental thoughts, the effect is that I avoid judgmental thoughts, something of an unintentional judgment fast. I have several intentional fasts in the coming months, too.

I now have a better idea of fasting and how it fits into my Happiness Project, and an idea of how to start exploring ideas from other religious traditions of mindfulness and releasing one’s light.

I love how I start to lose a bit of steam and then something piques my interest and gives me a nice little push again. I love the energy this gives to the last couple of days of August and the transition into my new focus in September!

Not so Fast

Photograph of a young girl listening to the ra...

This is me listening to This American Life. This is when I was stretching after I was done on the treadmill. (Image via Wikipedia)

Tonight on the treadmill, I listened to the This American Life episode entitled “Promised Land,” in which David Rakoff goes on a three-week fast and chronicles his experience on the radio show. Knowing that people throughout history have used fasting as a way to experience a spiritual awakening, Rakoff is curious to see what he’ll feel after three weeks without solid food.

As I was running, I considered the potential value of fasting to my project. I’ve planned some dietary changes, but fasting hadn’t entered my awareness, possibly because I’m nursing, and fasting isn’t a great plan while lactating. But the fact that it’s not really an option for me at this point didn’t stop me from considering the possibility of fasting as part of a path to increased happiness.

At the end of three weeks, Rakoff was disappointed to find that he felt much the same as he had before fasting. I’ve read enough about Buddhism to be fairly convinced that fasting isn’t going to bring a person enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself, fasted like crazy but didn’t find enlightenment until he’d adopted the Middle Way. And if one is seeking enlightenment through fasting, they’re certainly not going to find it, because enlightenment is tricky that way; it eludes you if you’re looking for it. Like my car keys. While I wouldn’t expect to achieve enlightenment through fasting, that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of spiritual growth short of enlightenment.

I realize that I’m operating under the assumption that spiritual growth would bring one happiness. Is that necessarily true? What exactly is spiritual growth? I guess I define it as an increased awareness in something that can’t be defined in physical terms. In my experience, increased awareness does seem to lead, eventually, to happiness, but I suppose that might not always be the case. I think it’s possible that, sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

I admit that, for me, the most compelling argument for fasting came when Rakoff mentioned that he had lost 14 pounds in three weeks (he didn’t mention how long it took to gain it back). I don’t really need to lose that much weight, but it must be ingrained in me that a quick way to lose weight is something to be sought after. The reasonable part of my mind recognizes that fasting likely isn’t a recipe for lasting, healthy weight-loss. The fact that some of his friends who didn’t know he was fasting thought Rakoff had cancer or something sort of argues in favor of that perception.

Would fasting be part of a Happiness Project for me post-nursing? Maybe. I could see myself trying it out just to see what would come of it. But if it worked, would the effects be lasting, or would they only last as long as I was fasting? I try to make my resolutions practices that I can do daily, life changes rather than actions that I do for a short time and then stop when I reach a goal, and fasting isn’t something I could continue indefinitely. Exercise seems to be bringing me a great deal of happiness (or is it pleasure?); would I be able to keep exercising while fasting?

When I’m avoiding judgment, I can argue myself into and out of something indefinitely. I was similarly stymied after listening to the This American Life show “Superpowers,” in which John Hodgman asks which you would choose if you could have only one superpower, flight or invisibility. I’ve been mulling that one over for weeks and still haven’t reached a conclusion.

Happiness is…

…gigantic homegrown tomatoes.

Big honkin' tomat from our garden

Dr Wyche's Yellow Heirloom Tomato

Embracing the Challenge

Today, I am grateful to my son for providing me with a challenge to my mindfulness practice. This gratefulness comes upon reflection, as I did not have the presence of mind (nor the superpower) to be grateful in the moment. The moment kind of sucked. And lasted all day.

The superstitious part of me wonders if I brought this upon myself by having the audacity to plan my day. From 9-12, the babysitter would watch the kids while I worked out and bought the cat his special food to keep him from peeing on everything. At 12, we’d eat lunch, then I’d put the baby down for a nap, my daughter and I would practice flute and reading, then I’d start dinner so it was done in time for us to eat before soccer practice. During soccer practice, I would blog.

Instead, my son wouldn’t let me out of his sight while the babysitter was here. I don’t know if he’s teething or getting a cold or just having some delayed-onset separation anxiety, but I chose to stay at home rather than leave him crying frantically. So from 9-12, the babysitter and I tag-teamed the kids. I kept the baby from falling down the stairs while the babysitter and my daughter played hide-the-basketball-in-the-yard. Then the babysitter kept the baby from grabbing the flutes while I helped my daughter practice. And in the middle of this, I noticed that something smelled like smoke and discovered that I had not put enough water in the pan when I set the beets steaming. I also did a load of laundry. I am grateful the smoke wasn’t coming from the laundry. Those who know me may remember that I had a fire in the washing machine once.

Lunch went off without a hitch.

The baby refused to fall asleep after lunch, so the kids and I went together to the vet’s office and then stopped for gelato because, frankly, it’s been that kind of day. I drove all around trying to get the baby to fall asleep on the way home, but he wouldn’t relinquish his kung-fu grip on consciousness. So, we stopped at a new park and spent 30 minutes wearing out the one-year-old and gathering sand to strew about the house.

On the way home from the park, the baby fell asleep.

During the 40 minutes he slept, my daughter and I opened a package that came in the mail that contained gifts for her, her brother, and for me. She and I opened ours, and then she spent the remaining 35 minutes trying to convince me that she should open the baby’s presents, too. After the baby woke up and watched his sister open his presents, I spent the next hour making dinner and explaining that the gifts were brother’s and that, while she could play with them, she could not push him down when he tried to play with them.

While my daughter was helping me mix up the corn muffins to go with our soup, I gave my son a wooden spoon and a bowl with a small amount of flour in it to keep him from trying to climb the stool behind his sister and help at the counter, too. I trust I don’t need to describe what my kitchen floor looks like that this point, but at least my son sustained no head injuries during the mixing of the corn muffin batter.

As I was putting the muffins in the oven, my husband got home. He took the kids into the other room and shut the door so I could do the dishes and clear the table for dinner.

This was the point at which the gratefulness began to set in.

And now they’re at soccer practice and I’m blogging.

Things I did well today:

  • I expressed my needs and obtained the assistance necessary to meet these needs.
  • When plans changed, I took a breath and let them change.
  • I let go of my desire for a clean(ish) kitchen in favor of the happiness (and safety) of my family.
  • I invited my children to join me in tasks when they wanted to help.
  • I Assumed Positive Intent and was, for the most part my Best Self.

Things I would like to work on:

  • I would like to get better at recognizing that “why me?” voice inside quicker and pausing to breathe and put things into perspective before the negative feelings snowball.
  • I snapped at my husband when he let the baby in the kitchen while I was doing dishes because he opened the door to ask me about something unrelated to my attempts to remain sane. I would rather calmly express my need to focus on one task (or I guess it was three tasks) at a time and thank him for keeping the children occupied while I got everything ready for dinner.

A month ago, a day like this would have involved a lot of yelling, a lot of crying, and a big old pity party for myself at the end of the day. While I wouldn’t describe the day as “fun,” there were moments of happiness in the midst of all of the chaos: watching my son dance and clap while my daughter played her flute, watching both children’s expressions as they tried different flavors of gelato and sorbetto, playing outside on a lovely not-too-hot day. The fact that I’m able to recognize anything but the difficulties is proof that I’ve changed, at least a little.

And now I’m looking forward to going to the gym to listen to This American Life while running on the treadmill. (Well, actually, I’m looking forward to listening to This American Life, and I’m looking forward to how I’ll feel after running on the treadmill. The actual running part I’m pretty neutral about.)

Remembering to Pace Myself: A Pep Talk

As the end of August approaches and my Facebook News Feed fills with pictures of smiling children in new clothes and status updates about the first day of school, my thoughts have begun to race ahead to all of the other resolutions I have planned for my Happiness Project. I find myself considering rearranging my schedule or reorganizing the project entirely. There appear to be many very good reasons for putting the things I’m excited to do first (and all in the same month) and putting the things I’m anxious about a little later in the year (or maybe just dropping them off the schedule entirely).

But when I pause and breathe, I remember that rushing through this project isn’t going to yield the kind of results I want (and that Personal Commandment #4 is Don’t Jump to Solutions). I remember that I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about tackling Mindfulness first, even though it made a great deal of sense to do so, because it didn’t seem like I would be doing anything. One of the lessons I’ve learned (or relearned) this month is that when I’m doing the work and practicing every day and feeling almost bored with the whole process, the most profound changes just kind of sneak up on me.

I’ve tried FlyLady Marla Cilley’s Baby Steps and Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and any number of other programs designed to improve me and change my life. They’ve all had great ideas behind them, and I’ve found elements of each very useful, but with each, I’ve jumped in full force and then petered out when the everyday practice became tedious. The difference with this Happiness Project is that I’ve designed it for myself. I know what challenges I have, what tasks I postpone indefinitely, and what thought patterns I’d like to change. I’m hopeful that having a self-designed program using Gretchen Rubin‘s template will yield more lasting results than my attempts to apply others’ programs to myself.

What’s been happening behind the scenes here is a lot of vacillating and journaling on paper about how I want to change my plans midstream and all of my reasons for doing so. I’ve decided that all of this is evidence that what I’m doing is working. I’m not sure big changes can be happening if I’m not at least a little nervous. I’ll take it slow, trust myself, and stick with the plan.

Happiness is…

…a break from the heat so I can have all of the windows open and enjoy the smell of the fresh air through the house. It brings back childhood memories of summers in San Diego and coming in at dusk sweaty and tired, washing the grass itchies off in the bath, then slipping my feet into the cool spot deep down in the sheets.

Week 3 Review: Minor Epiphany

I was meandering through this week feeling like nothing much was changing for me. I’ve been breathing and reflecting about emotions and being aware of judgements, and I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and books about happiness, but there were no lightning bolts or “aha” moments. Until Friday night.

For some undetermined reason (I have my suspicions, but no solid conclusions), I can’t seem to tolerate sugar or alcohol. At all. It’s not like a standard overindulgence scenario. It can happen even if I don’t drink any alcohol and just eat something sugary (i.e. meringues) before bed. I go to bed feeling fine and then I wake up about 3 hours later shaking and drenched in sweat. Panicked and irrational thoughts run through my mind along with things like, “What’s wrong with you? Why did you drink wine/eat meringues? You knew this was going to happen!” It can take me more than an hour before I feel well enough to go back to bed.

On Friday night I had two glasses of wine and an obscene number of bite-sized cocoa meringues.

Fortunately, before bed Friday night I also read Chapters 2 and 3 of The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler. The Dalai Lama describes the way we train our minds towards happiness by identifying those things that cause us suffering and avoiding those things, and identifying those things that bring us happiness and seeking out those things. Sounds simple, but he admits that it’s much more challenging to do than it is to say. He suggests that we begin each day with a “sincere, positive motivation.” At the end of each day, we reflect on what worked and what didn’t, identify the factors that contributed to negative or positive emotions, and decide how we will change our actions the next day. There’s no beating ourselves up for doing something “bad” or not doing something “good.” There’s just awareness and trying to change in the future. Once we’ve identified the things that lead to negative and positive emotions, it’s our choice whether we apply that awareness and choose the option that leads to happiness.

The Dalai Lama explains that it’s easy to confuse pleasure with happiness. Pleasure feels good in the short-term, but doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term happiness. Happiness is a condition of the mind and heart that transcends the moment. Actions that lead to happiness are not necessarily pleasurable in the moment. For me, running is like this. I don’t enjoy running while I’m doing it. But I feel emotionally positive and physically healthy afterwards. We can choose whether to go for pleasure or happiness. Once we’ve made our choice, it doesn’t really help to beat ourselves up for it. It is what it is.

When I woke up feeling miserable early Saturday morning, I counted my breaths and tried to clear my mind of all other thoughts. When the critical and blaming thoughts came up, I reminded myself that I had opted for the momentary pleasure of sipping wine in the backyard and devouring meringues while watching The Big Lebowski. Reacting to the situation in this frame of mind really seemed to help decrease my suffering. I not only wasn’t feeling guilty and stupid for doing something I knew would make me feel bad, I wasn’t feeling as bad physically. The shaking and sweating diminished with each breath, and within a few minutes, I was able to go back to bed. I still slept fitfully the rest of the night, but when I awoke, I just breathed and reminded myself of my choice, and then I would fall back to sleep.

Amazingly, when I woke up for the day I felt happy and hopeful. Instead of feeling bad about myself for being a victim of my impulses, I recognized my wine-drinking and meringue-eating as choices I had made. This gives me the power to make different choices in the future (or to make the same choices again with the knowledge that I’m also choosing to feel miserable).

I really get the sense that I’m flexing my mental muscles and doing the daily, repetitious practice necessary to change the wiring of my brain. I had no idea when I started out that my Happiness Project would be so intense, but I’m really pleased that it is. The challenge helps me feel more like I’m accomplishing something important.

The Purpose of Life

From The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, by HH the Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler, MD:

I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think the very motion of our life is towards happiness.

-His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The Simple Path to Happiness

According to the NY Times article “But Will it Make You Happy?” research suggests that simplifying our lives and spending our money on experiences rather than objects will help increase our happiness. From the article:

New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.

The article tells about Tammy Strobel, who, along with her husband, downsized into a 400-square-foot studio with only 100 personal items each. They live on Tammy’s $24,000-a-year income in Portland, Oregon, have no debt, and apparently they’ve never been happier. Tammy writes about her experiences on her blog, rowdykittens.com.

This is an interesting idea to me. For the past month or so I’ve been craving a smaller space. I’m feeling burdened by our 1400-square-foot home. I like the shade we get from the giant ash tree in our backyard, and I like being able to grow food in our garden, but it’s a lot to keep up with. Valuing our time with our kids over time with the lawnmower, we’ve hired someone to take care of the lawn. For the house, we have someone coming in to clean once a month, which gives me a deadline to pick up the clutter and gets the bathtub clean more often than I’d otherwise get to it. But I’d rather just have less to clean and less to mow (and water).

I know two families who are significantly downsizing for the sake of living a long-desired lifestyle. One family sold most of their possessions and moved with their two kids onto a sailboat. The other family are selling most of their stuff and moving with their two kids to Kotzebue, Alaska, near the Bering Strait. You can only get there by plane or by boat. I have yet another friend who is traveling around the world for a year with only what fits into her backpack. None of these specific paths appeals to me, but the downsizing really does. I’ve donated three VW Jetta-loads of stuff from our house already. It felt wonderful, but the stuff we have still feels like too much. Two years ago, we lived in an 850-square-foot apartment and were pretty happy. It didn’t take us long at all to up-size, but the downsizing seems to be more of a challenge.

What are your thoughts? Does downsizing lead to greater happiness, or does “stuff” keep you happy?