Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Gifts of Perspective

The month of November is typically a time for expressing gratitude and thankfulness. It’s a time when pre-holiday challenges help distract folks from their own lives to think about the difficulties of others. There are charity drives, food bank donation and volunteer opportunities, and themed events like No-Shave November where those who are able to grow facial hair raise money for cancer by not shaving for the entire month. It is also, curiously, a time of creativity. The annual NaNoWriMo challenge happens in November where budding and hobbyist writers are given a word count challenge and can even upload their manuscripts for perusal by publishers. There is also the annual #PrayerADay (this link will open Facebook) where folks write a prayer every day in November, encouraged to also create accompanying visual memes and share widely on social media.

I have never participated in No-Shave November or NaNoWriMo (I know, right?), but I have volunteered at many charity events through both time and treasure over the years. I did #PrayerADay in 2018 and 2019. And the past two years have left me focused heavily inward in my home life. Like all of us, the pandemic has me in a place of isolation from many of the activities and people I normally engaged this time of year. And stuff keeps happening to encourage this separation.

I found out a friend of mine died of COVID recently. He was 33 with no underlying health conditions, and he was vaccinated. He is not the first person I have lost to the virus, and he will likely not be the last. During these times when we are supposed to be surrounded by friends and family, their empty seats at the table are loud, screaming at me to say their names and remember their lives. I have a new name to speak over the table this year as I express the gratitude in my heart for the opportunity to have loved him.

Perspective has a way of allowing us to learn from things like as time passes. When an event is new, we are close to it, like standing in front of a single tree with our noses pressed into the bark, trying to find meaning. As time passes, we can see the entire trunk, and we notice the variations in the cracks and crevices. As more time passes, we can see the roots running along the ground and the branches of leaves overheard. And then we can see the beauty of the crown, branches waving lazily in the breeze and catching the light of the sun on the leaves. Eventually, we can see the entirety of the forest, see all the different trees in our lives—tall ones, short ones, thin ones, wide ones, ones full of leaves of every color, and ones with very little leaf coverage on top. Every one of them has a name and a story of how they have touched our lives. Every one of them reminds us of times in the past, both good and not as great, that have built the foundations of who we are as we stand here today.

May the gift of perspective be with you this year as you speak the names of those who would have occupied the chairs around your table and find peace within yourself. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Purposeful Mindlessness

I lost an earring. It’s likely not an expensive earring. It’s silver intertwining loops with a fun diamond cut in the outer ring. It’s likely made of some sort of steel, since my ears don’t turn green. It’s highly likely not actual silver. And. These earrings belonged to my grandmother, of blessed memory, and I wear them when I want to feel close to her. And I lost one.

The truth is I am suffering from an increasing sense of mindlessness. Not mindlessness as nonsense or ignorance. Mindlessness as I use it here refers to an inactive state of mind where we are lost in a perspective or mindset and disengaged from what is around us. This state of mindlessness is a state of distractedness in which we are not paying attention to our surroundings. It is the opposite of mindfulness, the Be Here Now principle of being present and focused, and that is what happened with my earring. I likely lost it when I was taking my mask off in one of three places: my office, the restroom when I was wiping off my face, or the coffee counter when I was testing the salt content of my lunch before heading back to my office and lather, rinse, repeat.

The question arises: should we always strive to be in a state of mindfulness? Well, no. There is a merit to mindlessness. As we move through our days, we follow our rituals for the repetitive parts of our lives. We are not often focusing on our actions when we are brushing our teeth, and LOTS of people have had their best ideas then. Moving beyond the detailed processes of the here and now allows our minds to move past the mundane and explore possibilities. Epiphanies can come to us while folding laundry or washing dishes. The key is knowing when to pay attention and when to let go. Ironically, knowing when to Be Here Now and when to let our minds wander takes purposeful attention to our surroundings—which is just another way of being mindful!

I lost my earring because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing. Being at work, I was probably thinking about monthly QA metrics, CAP checklist changes, or the stainer in histo. These are important items deserving of every ounce of attention I can give them, AND the true heart of mindfulness, of learning to Be Here Now in every here and now, relies on my ability to focus on what’s in front of me with purpose.

Sometimes, we make simple errors like putting salt in our tea or making a wrong turn on “autopilot” while lost in thought. Sometimes, we lose our grandmother’s earring. As we move into our final month of 2021, move through your days with purpose, knowing when you need to focus more closely, and when it’s okay to let your mind wander. As the saying goes, not all those who wander are lost!

Friday, October 22, 2021

Personal Behavioral Goals

Changing habits is not easy. We set up our environments to support our behaviors in ways that make it difficult to “escape temptation” without careful planning. When we decide we want to change—whether to start something new or to stop something we’ve been doing for a while—the change won’t be successful without some mindful attention to what’s around us (including people!).

A quick google search for creating habits yields dozens of articles, mostly centered on diet and exercise, but not all of our less-than- stellar habits are about food. We might want to create better sleeping habits for insomniacs, better time management for the chronically late, better spending habits for the impulse buyers, and so on. Stopping a bad habit is often much easier than amending a behavior we have to keep in some form. We may find it far easier to stop drinking soda by not buying it, but it’s harder to stop biting our nails, because we can’t get rid of our fingers!

So, where do we start?

First, figure out what you do. Take stock of ALL your habits. Follow yourself through both a work day and a weekend day, and look at how you spend your time. How much time do you spend doing things that are unproductive? Why? What behaviors do you notice that you didn’t realize before? How are your work days different from your days off? All of this information will help you do an informal root cause analysis for the issue you want to address. Using cellphones as an example, our amount of screen time and frequency of use may be factors in time management. When we lose track of time, we are at greater risk for being late.

Once you have a handle on what you do and for how long you do it, think about how those behaviors were supported by your surroundings. When we identify what leads us to behave in a certain way, we can help ourselves by removing those barriers.

Then, set a goal for yourself and keep track of it. Spoiler alert: the goal is not the most important part! You know all those motivational posters that tell you the journey is more important than the goal? Well, they were right. If we can break our goal into smaller, actionable items, we are more likely to succeed. If your goal is to stop being late, you can’t simply stop being late. You can, however, not pick up your cellphone in the half-hour prior to your scheduled departure time, check traffic details to ensure your scheduled departure time is adequate, and resolve not to make unplanned stops along the way. Reward yourself for those successes, too. Rewards reinforce behaviors!

Finally, the most successful goals are the ones we share. Whether you want to work on a goal together or you just want someone to check in with you for accountability, there is power in who (not just what) surrounds us. It’s easier to make good choices when someone is watching! 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Doomscrolling

Let’s talk about doomscrolling.

If you’re old, like me, you might not be familiar with the term, or you’ve heard it but don’t quite know what it means. Doomscrolling, or doomsurfing, is the tendency to continually scroll or surf through bad news. Even though the information makes you feel sad or angry or afraid, you just keep reading article after article full of doom and gloom. Common topics that will land you in a doomspiral include current news about COVID, statistics about poverty or the job market, the housing crisis, and climate change. No matter how much the doom consumes you, you just keep scrolling.

In case you’re wondering, no, this isn’t great for you. Doomscrolling can lead to some pretty significant psychological impacts, including depression and anxiety. In the very least, it will darken our moods and leave us wondering why we even bother.

The issue is complex, because so many of the social media and news outlets we consume are designed to keep showing us articles and memes (single-box web cartoons, old man) that are similarly themed to what we are currently seeing, leaving us very little diversity in content.

AND, our brains are hardwired to go with the flow. Once upon a time, our lizard-brains were set up to always handle negative stimuli first, because, you know, it just might kill you. Now that we live in a lower-stakes world where we are pretty sure the internet

won’t eat us (are we, though?), our brain chemistry still wants to examine and understand the intellectual and theoretical “threats” around us, just in case. So, the negative articles suck us in, and we have to keep reading until we understand the nature of the threat and the likelihood of it affecting us directly. We can’t not look at it!

It doesn’t help that we are surrounded by others who are doomscrolling through the same topics, sharing links to similar information, and even discussing them with us at home, at work, in the grocery store, and anywhere else they find a willing conversationalist.

If you’re like me and you’re also tired of the weight of negativity resting on your chest, I can only offer you some tips that have helped me.

First, surrounding yourself with more good news will take the edge off. I joined a group on Facebook called, “Heck, This is Wholesome,” that only allows stories and videos of people and animals being awesome.

Second, surrounding yourself with people who help you feel better about the world will make a difference in the long-run. Who brings you hope?

Finally, turn off your dang phone, or at least put it down. Find a feel-good movie or a good book where the good guys win, or just take a walk outside. Your brain, and your heart, will thank you.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Your Spiritual Autobiography

I recently finished a book entitled, Praying with Jane Eyre, by Vanessa Zoltan. It is a reflection on reading as a sacred practice, and each chapter is a thematic discussion and personal reflection as a means to illustrate how the sacred may be found in any reading we decide to examine in this way. The author is a Jewish Atheist, and many of her stories include lessons in her own life related to her experience as a Jewish woman whose parents were both born of holocaust survivors. Many of the other books I've read on sacred reading are from a distinctly monotheist perspective and typically involve a holy book that is sacred simply because it exists. 

As a pagan, I long-ago developed a series of books that I hold as sacred. Tomes of mythology and lore that speak to the heart of the way I view the world. Reading Ms. Zoltan's perspective was familiar in the sense that my studies of Mircea Eliade's work has already instilled in me the idea that WE are the manifestors of the sacred, WE get to decide what is sacred and what is profane (mundane) in our own worlds. However, I have always, in my subconscious overculture conditioning, applied this practice to works that other people would agree are sacred....such as tomes of mythology and lore. Her work has allowed me to consider other works I hold dear, other titles that have shaped and changed my life, as sacred and worthy of more pointed examination. 

One of the items I gleaned from this work was not one I expected to encounter. Once upon a lifetime ago when I was a gigging Christian, we had a practice of developing and sharing our "conversion stories." These were finely-tuned short recountings of the events and feelings that led to our spiritual awakening and full transformation into the god-fearing Christians we had become.  It was, in short, the story of the Aha! moment that led us to believe. It was also a part of our personal ministry and a useful tool in our  witnessing to others. Since polytheism does not have a prescribed belief system--we are an orthopraxic (right action/behavior) rather than orthodoxic (right belief) religion--I had put the practice out of my mind and dismissed it as no longer relevant.  I am grateful to Ms. Zoltan for renewing this within me. Let me explain...

While Ms. Zoltan was in divinity school, her professor asked the class to write their spiritual autobiography. Without a lot of guidance, the students set about mucking their way through self-discovery and self-creation and authoring their own stories of becoming. The power of our own stories lies in our ability to articulate it, and this art of sharing will connect us to ourselves and to others in ways we never thought possible in this venue. 

I am working through writing mine, and I will share it with you when it is complete. I am finding just creating the outline to be useful and powerful for me in identifying points of major growth and developmental milestones in my own becoming who I am. This process is a gift, and I am grateful to the art of reading in a sacred way for allowing me to be changed at the ripe old age of 43 by a seemingly simple 250 pages.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Time

Yesterday was apparently Pumpkin Spice day at Starbucks. I know this because no less than four people have told me, including an announcement on the morning news. Despite our insistence on moving ever-closer to “all things fall,” the weather forecast for the remainder of the week is all 90’s, all the time (kinda like my Pandora account…). So, we wait.

That’s the thing about time, no matter how much we want it to pass or to stand still, it keeps on ticking. Time, as we know, doesn’t change. The length of a second, a minute, an day, a month, and a year are always the same. What changes is our relationship to time that alters our perspective. When we want time to move more slowly to preserve something wonderful, time perseveres and passes anyway. When we want to be squarely on the other side of something less wonderful, time perseveres at the allotted  pace despite our most desperate desires.

Time, it turns out, doesn't care about our feelings.

Because of our ever-changing relationship to time, scientists have labeled time-perception as an officially fluid thing. The way we feel about whatever it is we are experiencing will affect the way we perceive time in that moment. For many years, scientists described a theoretical model of time perception as sort of a

biological stopwatch that sped up and slowed down in line with our focus and attention. The more attention we pay to time itself, the slower it seems to pass. The more attention we pay to what we are doing, the more quickly time seems to pass. Happiness draws our attention to the source of the emotion. Happiness pulls our attention away from time, so we are less aware of its passage. Sadness and fear, on the other hand, are emotions from which we turn away, focusing our attention more on the passage of time as we painfully await the end of the experience that is the root of these more negative emotions. To make it even more complex, witnessing an event such as watching a video or a live performance of some spectacular (dangerous) feat will alter our perception of time. If we watch someone on YouTube careening down a hill on a mountain bike, our adrenaline will change our perception of time and we may be surprised by how little time has passed. When we are in nature, time often feels as though it has all but stopped, because our relationship to time is almost suspended and irrelevant. 

Suffice it to say that time is relative to how we are feeling and what we are doing. This past eighteen months of pandemic time have definitely had their impact on us, and the longer we need to wait for the end, the more slowly it feels as though time is passing. It’s taking FOREVER to be on the other side and realizing that new normal they promised. Two things that will help us weather this storm are our ability to bounce back from adversity and our ability to push through when things get difficult: our resilience and perseverance. So as we wait for fall, with joy or with dread, time will pass as it will, but we will keep moving forward, perhaps with a pumpkin spice in hand, knowing fall will come when it always does—no matter how we feel about it.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Writing--for Publication!

Greetings, Dear Readers. 

For those of you who've been following this space, I am sure it will not surprise you to learn that I am finishing up a book for publication. It is more of a guided journal, and it represents so much of my own development over the past five years that I am feeling a little apprehensive. 

The work contains 52 weekly reflective essays, each with a few bullet points to guide the reader toward incorporating the lesson into their own life (similar to my previous two posts, which are excerpts). Each week falls into a theme of leadership, personal development, or professional development, with plenty of overlap between them. It is designed for a working individual, whether at a for-profit, a nonprofit, or as a volunteer, and my hope is that this work will provide a framework for examining previous experiences and taking those well-earned lessons into the future as we all work to become better versions of ourselves. I also included a list of vetted recommended sources, a complete bibliography, and an index, so you can go through it "choose your own adventure" style. 

Writing this out feels good. I am proud of what I have created, and with many of the essays first posted here in earlier forms, I think you will be prepared as well as pleasantly surprised by what I'm offering. That being said, since this book represents so much of who I am and my process of becoming, the imposter syndrome is arising a bit. 

So, I write these words to announce my work. It's not published just yet, but placing these words here as a promise are the boost I need to move past my own misgivings and wavering confidence to finish up and share my work with you. 

You are all stars in the night sky of my life. I appreciate your light, no matter how far away you may be. 

Best,
M