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.

Suspicious of Happiness

This morning I went about my normal routine (such as it is with two kids), and somewhere in the middle of cleaning up breakfast, I noticed that I was feeling happy. First I thought, “Wow! This is nice!” But after a few moments of being aware of my happiness, I noticed that under the happiness was the suspicion that by being happy I am inviting Bad Things to happen. There is an undercurrent of fear and suspicion and also the sense that, by feeling fearful, I’m protecting myself from Bad Things happening. Kind of like touching wood only perhaps more neurotic. Logically, I know this doesn’t make sense, but since when are emotions logical?

Where does this come from? Is it genetic or is it a learned response? Am I destined to keep feeling this fear underneath my happiness, or is there a way I can un-learn this reaction? Or maybe this fear is there to keep me from becoming complacent in my happiness, and maybe I don’t want to do away with it? What would happen if I had happiness without fear?

Maybe It’s Working?

I went to a step aerobics class last night.

Last night was the second class I’ve taken in 7+ years, when I used to take step classes twice a week at the gym at work. Back in the day, I loved step classes; they were the only time in my life that I’d ever felt coordinated (well, except for high school marching band). But the first class back after that long hiatus was pretty humbling. I couldn’t understand the instructor’s cues. (Did he say “sit down pongo”? What the heck is that? Mambo step pivot straddle, 180 over, exit to the back? Is that even possible?)  I especially had trouble on turns. For some reason, I always ended up facing everyone else in the class. I spent much of the time comparing myself to the other steppers. The woman in front of me never missed a step. The woman behind me looked lost a couple of times, but not nearly as much as I did. I started to feel frustrated and angry. When the class was over, I considered never going again.

But the time I had available to work out last night coincided with the time of the step class, so I decided to give it another go now that I’d had a week and a half of mindfulness. I still got lost. I still found myself face-to-face with everyone else in the class after at least half of the turns. But about halfway through I realized: I was happy! I wasn’t just tolerating the class. I was actively enjoying myself. I was even smiling. Embarrassment still found me several times, but the fact that I was happy at all was pretty remarkable.

I know it’s way too soon to conclude anything about the roll mindfulness may or may not have played in my uncharacteristic enjoyment of an activity in which I did not, to say the least, excel, but I found it encouraging that I had such a positive emotional response.

I wonder what need was being met in that moment. I was doing better than in the first class, so perhaps that met my need for competence or growth. One of the things I was really loving was moving to the rhythm of the music, so maybe there was some rhythmic need that was met. It certainly met my need for physical exercise. And I met two of my commandments in that class, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly,” and “Risk looking silly.”

Not only that, but I took the kids to the park today and didn’t hate it! I might be on a roll.

A New Focus for Week 2

After one week of my Happiness Project, I was feeling dejected and discouraged. I had given myself what I thought were pretty simple resolutions. Breathe. Be Aware of Judgmental Thoughts. Keep a Log of my Emotions. And here I was not keeping up with them every day. What was wrong with me? I, as you know, tried to reason through and figure out how I could get myself to keep to my resolutions. Everything I came up with was very practical, and that left me feeling even more discouraged when I still didn’t keep all of my resolutions even after all of that good reasoning through everything.

So, I despaired, worked out, and took a break to watch a movie. The exercise helped me to release some of my pent-up frustration and stress and put me in a frame of mind better suited to rational thinking. When I got home, I found my husband and daughter washing dishes at the sink while my nearly-one-year-old son sat paging through board books in the dining room, calling every animal either a “doggie” or a “kitty” using his signs. This peaceful scene didn’t last long, but seeing it on my arrival home helped facilitate a shift in my thinking.

Then after the kids were in bed, my husband and I watched the film version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, with Claire Bloom and Anthony Hopkins. I think taking a break to watch any movie probably would have helped give me some distance to get a more realistic perspective on my situation, but this film was particularly provocative. Its themes include the relationship between a husband and wife, the roll of a wife and mother, and what happens when our expectations of our spouse don’t match up with their reality. The facts of the story differed quite markedly from those of my life, but I found I could relate to Nora’s character. Seeing her struggles played out got me thinking about my own my roll as wife and mother and finding my identity within this roll.

I thought that since my mindfulness resolutions were simple, they would be easy to apply and allow me to reap instant benefits. But upon further reflection, I realize my mistake. The resolutions I set for myself this month are deceptive because while they seem simple, they involve changing my thought processes and peeling back the layers of awareness to expose parts of myself I don’t always confront. That’s a challenge, especially when it requires admitting unflattering things about myself.

For example, the baby woke up three times during the movie. While I nursed him back to sleep, I took that opportunity to check in with myself about my emotions. I realized I was feeling impatient because I wanted to get back to my movie. I was worried that my husband would get bored or tired and decide to go to bed before I could get back out to finish the movie, and I would feel disappointed because I wanted to watch it with him. I sat with this for a while and then realized that I felt selfish and guilty because I was wishing away this moment of quiet and closeness in my son’s fleeting babyhood. It was then that I realized a big part of why I have trouble recognizing my emotions: when I peel back the layers, I often need to admit to having feelings that don’t match my expectation of myself as a mother. This expectation may not be realistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s less disappointing to not live up to it.

Being aware of my judgmental thoughts is similarly uncomfortable. I was shocked and embarrassed to learn just how much judging—especially negative judging—I do in a day. Until I had the awareness of it, it was just background chatter. But when I put my attention on it, I have to address it and recognize it and put it somewhere.

The task I’ve set for myself is a larger one than I realized at first. I put mindfulness as the area of focus for the first month because I consider it foundational to the rest of the project. I still think it’s in the right place, but I think addressing it first and having resolutions without much concrete output gave me the false sense that this would be an easy month. Now that I realize how big an undertaking it is to raise my awareness of my inner workings, I want to try to be more gentle with myself when I don’t embrace facing up to my insides.

My friend, David, in North Carolina, gave me a chant shortly before we moved away that I am going to try to say to myself as a daily reminder:

I will be gentle with myself.

I will be gentle with myself.

I am a child of the universe

Being born in every moment.

 

Emotions Log: Getting to the Root of the Problem

I’ve been having some trouble getting myself to complete my emotions log. This doesn’t really surprise me. I’m not a fan of recognizing my emotions, much less recording them for a rather abstract purpose. I also have trouble remembering to write my emotions down when I actually take notice of them. I’ve been putting them in my day planner, but that thing doesn’t ever seem to stay in one place.

Through this thought process, I identified three main issues that are keeping me from logging my emotions:

  1. I don’t like noticing my emotions because I don’t feel very adept at it.
  2. I lack motivation to record my emotions because the purpose behind doing so isn’t clear to me (even though I made up the resolution).
  3. I can’t keep track of my day planner, in which I’ve planned to record my emotions.

I decided to tackle the middle issue first in the hopes that a clearer purpose would help bring me closer to tackling the other issues. As luck would have it, the person to whom I apparently loaned Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg brought it back just the other day. This was lucky not only because this book has proven incredibly useful in this current endeavor, but because I couldn’t remember who I’d loaned it to or, indeed, if I’d actually loaned it (I thought perhaps I’d never owned it in the first place and just thought I had).

A brief glance through the book reminded me of the wealth of information included in this short text. Further reading helped me realize that my three resolutions for August actually fit together remarkably well.

Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication (NVC) is intended to connect individuals on a human-to-human level by helping us to recognize our feelings and the needs behind them and to communicate with others based upon this empathic connection. In order to empathize with others, we must recognize their feelings and needs. In order to recognize others’ feelings and needs, we must first give ourselves empathy by recognizing our own feelings and needs. Turns out, the emotions log hits the very first step on the path to empathic communication.

In addition, Rosenberg identifies three main types of communication that block compassion, one of which is “moralistic judgments.” There’s my second mindfulness resolution, be aware of my judgmental thoughts. So now, with two resolutions, I’ve got one that takes me the first step towards compassionate communication, and another that helps remove a barrier to compassionate communication. The third resolution, breathe, is imperative to having the clarity necessary to do either of these things. I love it when I accidentally put things together in a logical fashion.

With the purpose portion squared away, I chose to tackle the feeling of ineptitude I have around identifying emotions. Rosenberg recognizes that many of us have become cut off from what we’re actually feeling. We tend to avoid taking personal responsibility for our emotions at all, using phrases like, “X makes me feel…” We also mistake thoughts for feelings. Rosenberg explains that a feeling is expressed with the formula, “I feel X.” Any time we say, “I feel like X,” it’s an indication that we’re expressing a thought rather than an emotion. With this means of communicating and understanding our emotions so ingrained in our culture, it’s no wonder most of us are pretty rusty at recognizing what we actually feel. The solution is to practice. The book includes a list of basic emotions we all have so when we’re stumped as to what we’re feeling, we can look down the list trying on different emotions until we find one that fits.

In addition, Rosenberg contends that every emotion is the result of a met or unmet need. Once we identify an emotion, we then identify the need that is behind that emotion, which will then help us to identify the changes we might make to meet our needs in the future. Again, this can be a challenge, and practice is the ticket to improving our skills at recognizing our needs. Rosenberg includes a helpful list of basic universal needs for our reference, too.

With this reminder, I decided that I could make my emotions log more relevant by not only identifying the situation and the feelings, but also the need that is met or unmet in that moment. This would give me potentially valuable insight into what situations lead to what feelings, as well as give me practice in recognizing my feelings and giving myself empathy several times a day. I could be wrong, but this seems like it could be a great way to feel happier.

So, that just leaves the problem of my wandering day planner. For the purposes of recording my feelings and needs, I would like something small, easy to use, and that I carry or would carry with me everywhere. Looking about, I discovered a voice memo function on my phone. I set up a quick link to that function and tested it out to make sure I knew how to use it. I only have 72 seconds of memory, but I think that should be enough if I make a practice of transcribing the voice memos to my day planner at the end of each day. I think I may also keep a small memo pad in my diaper bag, which I take nearly everywhere, so that if I’m in a situation where I want to record something but don’t want to speak out loud, I have that option, too.

And there you have it: the thought process that led me to use my phone as a voice recorder. Next time: addressing the problem of forgetting to charge my phone.