Mind Over Fear

I am training for the 2017 TCS NYC Marathon on November 5th. I trained for the same race last year but was sidelined about 6 weeks beforehand for an IT band injury.

This year, I’ve done everything right. I’ve been diligently doing strength work with a trainer for six months. I’ve had a very slow and steady build-up in mileage. Tart cherry juice. Rolling. Stretching. Turmeric. Massage. Beet green smoothies. Positive affirmations. More rolling.

It’s essentially become a part-time job.

So, you will understand why I had a meltdown a couple of weeks ago when that pesky IT Band started to flare up (this time on the left leg). It just so happened that this flare-up occurred after I ran 15 miles, which was the longest run that I achieved last year. Coincidence?

This year, though, I knew the ropes. I backed off training, ramped up all the stretching/rolling/massage, etc. Turns out that not running is harder than running.

But, after a couple of weeks, I was feeling better. Mild stiffness, but nothing that was changing my form.

I started to feel optimistic that I could resume training and started to look ahead to this past weekend’s 16-mile run.

16 miles.

The farthest I’ve ever run.

2.9 miles more than a half-marathon.

10 miles less than a full marathon.

I did the math over and over. I ran the route in my mind. My fear became a meditation.

The thing about distance running is that it helps to strip away every distraction, every bit of ego and expectation, so that you are left with no choice but to meet yourself on the road. That’s what makes it beautiful; more than exercise.

After nearly three hours of running (I’m slow), I found that all my fears and worries were just that. I made it through.

As I started the last mile, I was overcome by a strange euphoria. I started to cry tears that were a mix of joy, pain, and exhilaration.

I felt completely and utterly alive.

I must have looked insane.

When I think about why I want to run this race, it comes back again and again to overcoming my own fear of failure. I can suffer through the temporary pain. I can prepare my body. But, do I really have the mental toughness?

This Saturday, I succeeded in running this race, no matter what happens in November. I am not afraid anymore.

Imposter Syndrome

I haven’t written anything in a while.

I had a conversation a couple of months ago about the blog that spooked me. I started to question why I should write anything down. What particular wisdom do I have to share? Why would anyone care what I have to say?

Imposter syndrome.

I’ve come up against this in practically every meaningful pursuit of my life so far. Every job. Parenting. Marriage. Running.

I’m generally a positive person with a strong sense of myself. I tend to start off feeling confident, enthusiastic, and energetic. But then some bit of doubt creeps in. Someone challenges me. Or something doesn’t go as planned. I start to think, you know what, I’m not cut out for this. I don’t even know how I got here. I don’t have the skills/experience/talent/passion/commitment/patience.

Ultimately, I know that this line of thinking is a pretty lame attempts at preserving my fragile ego. If I don’t try, I can’t fail. If I don’t risk myself, I won’t get hurt.

It’s easy to be a cynic. To sit on the sidelines and cast aspersions. To be a pundit.

It’s much harder and scarier to try and do something.

And, something doesn’t have to be everything. Extremes are easy to pursue but much harder to sustain. I sometimes pursue the most extreme version of things in order to give myself a rationale exit strategy. Well, of course that wasn’t sustainable. I had to quit!

It’s not enough to recognize imposter syndrome for what it is. I’ve known the concept for years. I’ve been able to name it when I feel it. What I haven’t been able to do is to name the fear and the doubt for what it is – an excuse for me to avoid failure and shame.

Instead of interpreting those fearful moments as a sign that I’m too far out on a limb, I am going to try understanding them as the chance to build my reservoir of faith and resolve.

There is a song from the Indigo Girls that I love called Hammer And A Nail. My favorite line is this:

“The sweetest part is acting after making a decision.”

Here’s to living in that sweetness.

Personal Responsibility and the Common Good

I recently heard Bill McKibben, the inspiring environmentalist, say that our country is currently engaged in a struggle of two fundamentally oppositional world views. It is either every man for himself or we are all in it together. You choose.

I understood what he meant. I share his righteous indignation about the bad actors who are only in it for themselves. But, still, there was something about his statement that made me so sad.

Is there really an epic struggle? Must it be one or the other?

Is personal responsibility lost in America?

Instant gratification. Immediate results. Quarterly earnings. We are so geared toward short-term gains and happiness that we have lost our way to long-term peace and contentment.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight, contributing to diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes. Access to healthful and affordable food is a real problem, but we also eat too much and don’t exercise enough, trading short-term gratification for long-term health and happiness.

Americans have an average of less than $100,000 in their retirement accounts and less than 20% contribute to an IRA. Wage stagnation over the past decade is real, but there is also no arguing that we are mostly unwilling to proactively save for a rainy day, or even just a day when we won’t be able to work anymore.

American-led consumption of disposable plastic, cheap toys, and fast fashion is poisoning the earth. Globally, we dump about 8 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean each year. That salmon you’re having for dinner – it probably has pieces of plastic in its flesh. We have forfeited our children’s right to clean water and air for cheap energy, food, clothes, and endless amounts of junk.

These statistics really raise my hackles. As a child of the American West, I was raised with a strong sense of rugged individualism and personal responsibility. If people can’t take care of their own bodies, futures, and communities, why should anyone else care to help?

Is the common good lost in America?

The system is rigged. It was a strong theme in the last election, and for good reason.

The 400 wealthiest individuals on the Forbes 400 list own more than the bottom 150 million Americans.

Exxon Mobil knew about and actively obscured climate science for more than two decades in order to protect their bottom line.

The 2008 financial crisis, which ruined and disrupted countless lives, would not have come to pass but for an astonishingly small number of very greedy people.

I can understand why people feel defeated and uninspired to take responsibility for their individual role in our collective well-being. What is the point of trying to make the world a better place if huge, powerful interests are going to act like takers. Why shouldn’t we take too?

Bridging the Divide

If one thing is clear in these strange times, it is that we must find our way to reconciliation and a shared concern for the body politic.

My personal road back is through communion and community. When I look to what is common, I find allies everywhere. Common cause, common faith, common concern.

I am at a point in my life where my roots are growing deep. I find myself imbedded in many wonderful, intersecting communities. My lovely Unitarian Universalist church. My sweet daughter’s elementary school. My tribe of 5:30 am runners (I see you there, with the headlamp). My colleagues. My friends. My family.

It is as though I am weaving a net and each thread makes the fabric stronger and more resilient. Each thread gives me more safety if I fall.

The more I am in community, the safer I am.

The more I am in community, the harder I work for the common good.

The more I am in community, the more responsibility I take for my words and actions.

It is every woman for herself. And, we are all in this together.

Spring Cleaning for the Mind & Spirit

Early spring brings renewal and rejuvenation.

This weekend, brought on by my annual spring cleaning fever, I cleaned out the drawers in our upstairs bathroom. Upon finishing, I ushered my husband in to show him my handiwork with the pride of an artist showcasing a newly completed masterpiece.

But spring cleaning isn’t just for the house. It’s also the perfect time to reset our inner lives in preparation for the expansiveness and growth that the warmer months bring.

Letting Go 

Regrets about the past. Worries about the future. We are all carrying around a set of mental baggage that weighs us down.

I changed jobs this year and the whole process was fraught with all sorts of coudhavebeens and whatifs. Because it was a big change for me, I lingered in my past life, holding on, just in case.

One mistake that young people make is imagining that their life will be linear. They think that they will do one thing and it will lead to the next logical thing and so on. But, the happiest and most interesting people haven’t had linear lives. They’ve taken a left turn here and there and gone in unexpected directions. It is only once we have perspective that we begin to see how these branches have helped to grow a beautiful tree.

Months ago, someone in my life profoundly disappointed me in an irreparable way. I was angry and sad about it and I carved out a little home for that hurt in my mind and heart.

I’m going to try keeping what I’ve learned but letting go of the pain.

We have a gorgeous white oak tree in our front yard that is more than 100 years old. When we first moved in, I had a tree specialist come to see if it was healthy. He looked at it with great reverence and told us that it had been through Hurricane Sandy. It was a strong tree and it would be fine.

Many branches, many storms. A strong, beautiful tree.

Like the trees lose their leaves so that they can grow anew each spring, I can shed all the weight of my regrets and fears.

Nourishing the Spirit

Religious traditions understand the importance of this period of rebirth. Nature, it seems, is a great guru.

I recently had the chance to visit San Ignacio Lagoon in Mexico and spend time watching the gray whales. It is a stark, beautiful place where the desert meets the sea. The whales are ancient. Wise. I left feeling centered and calm.

Nature nourishes my spirit.

Theatre, art, books, friendship, family…they all nourish my spirit.

There are people, experiences, and rituals from which I emerge feeling grounded and deeply connected to my essential humanity.

This spring, I am going to make it a project to feed my soul. The effects may not be as tangible as my newly cleaned drawers, but they will last longer.

How will you use the spring to renew your mind and spirit?

Top 4 Places to Stop Taking Your Phone

Are you addicted to your mobile phone?

There has been a lot of recent research about cell phone addiction and the various ways that mobile phones interfere with our sleep, relationships, and overall well being.

I am going on a work trip at the end of this week to a remote location and I have been advised that my phone won’t get service for FIVE DAYS. Off. The. Grid. I must admit, when I first learned of this, I panicked a little. Five days? What will I do?

Then, I started to think about the benefits. I check my phone way too often. Sometimes, if I’ve been staring at it too much, I’ll get a headache or become queasy, but even then I find it difficult to wrench myself away. So, upon reflection, here is my new list of the top 4 places to stop taking your phone.

The Bathroom

You’ve done, I’ve done it, the President of the United States has done it. But, it’s super gross. In addition to the bad optics of walking out of the bathroom stall at work holding your phone, you increase your risk of salmonella, E. coli and all sorts of other disgusting things. Not worth it.

While Eating

I’ve written before about the benefits of mindful eating. Well, it’s pretty hard to be present and mindful while you scroll Facebook. Eating slowly and intentionally means that you chew your food more thoroughly, aiding both digestion and enjoyment. Put the phone aside.

When You Should Be Connecting

Has your child ever asked you to stop looking at your phone? Ouch. But think about how many times they don’t say anything but you miss the moment. Or, your husband or wife. There’s a new word for this phenomenon of snubbing others in favor of the phone — it’s called phubbing. A pair of professors from Baylor University recently conducted a study demonstrating that phubbing has negative impacts on relationships. Don’t be a phubber.

To Bed

My new year’s resolution was to stop taking my phone into the bedroom at night. Would you like to guess how long I made it? Try January 2nd or so. But, there is really good evidence that it is a habit to break. The light from the phone disrupts your circadian rhythms and makes it harder to fall and stay asleep. For me, just having the phone in the room, even if it is on the dresser several feet away, is enough to disrupt my sleep.

Phones are a wonderful and ubiquitous part of modern life. But, they can also get in the way. So, despite my initial reservations, I am going to use this externally imposed hiatus to help reset some of my bad phone habits. How would you like to change your relationship with phone?

The Balance Between Being and Doing

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” – E.B. White

I have been thinking a lot about values lately.

I am deeply committed to the values of social-justice, environmentalism and feminism. I also very much value mindfulness, awareness, and ahimsa or non-violence.

One tension that I personally confront is that my practice of those two sets of values are sometimes in conflict.

I can run myself ragged in pursuit of virtuous ends. Sometimes, my righteous anger is expressed in a harmful way, even if the harm is only to my own psyche. Sometimes, in my striving, I am not at all mindful.

So, I’m looking for balance and I suspect I will keep looking for it for the rest of my life. When I find that balance, it feels very much like home.

Parenting, Values and Balance

My children are getting old enough to start asking more probing questions about the world around them. I very much want my value system to be both an implicit and explicit part of their childhood. This desire has, in part, led me and my husband to live in a very liberal community, to join a social-justice oriented Unitarian Universalist church, and to initiate all manner of conversations with our children about inequality and politics.

These liberal values are, in some ways, much easier to articulate than other values that I hold dear. For example, it’s fairly straightforward to talk to my child about racial injustice. It may not be easy and I may not have adequate answers, but I at least know how to start the conversation. It is harder for me is to impart the importance of being present and unattached.

I hope my children will go boldly into the world and make positive change fighting for justice, equality, and the environment. I also want them to be kind to themselves, to take time to rest, and to emphasize relationships over material things.

I worry sometimes that my attempts at mindfulness are invisible to them – conducted so privately and so quietly so as not to be noticed. Although, I was snuggling the other day with my daughter and my son came into to ask her to play. She responded, “not right now, I’m sooooo in the moment.” So, who knows, maybe it’s seeping in?

One thing that helps me is to remind myself that children are very intuitive. When I am striking the right balance between being and doing, they know.

Balance and Making an Impact

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – The Talmud

It’s not just about striking the right balance as a model for my kids, it’s also about striking the right balance in order to have a positive impact on the world.

Part of the reason that I started a blog about mindfulness is that it is something that I feel the need to consciously emphasize. It doesn’t come easily to me. I intuitively know how to express other values. Raise some money! Volunteer! March! Achieve!

And, when I feel overwhelmed, my instinct is to go all-in the other direction and retreat entirely into myself.

But most of life isn’t lived at the extremes. And it is not enough to take a retreat or go the mountain every once in a while. I must find that place every day.

When I was in my twenties, I really could muscle through it. I could work myself ragged without getting sick or breaking down. As I age, my body is a teacher telling me to slow down, check-in, and be kind to myself and, by extension, others.

I am learning that quality is so much more important than quantity. Give me one day at work where I’m well rested and fed and feeling positive over two or three days of frenetic stress-filled mania. The same principle applies to my family, political, and spiritual lives. I don’t need to do everything, I just need to do some things with great deal presence and intentionality.

So, in my quest to have an impact – as a mother, as a wife, as an activist, as a leader – I am going to focus on quality over quality and express my values through both action and mindfulness.

How do you find the balance between being and doing?

Five Resolutions for a Restorative Weekend

It’s been a crazy week. Business travel, events, house issues. TGIF! Here are my five resolutions for a restorative weekend:

  1. I will not check my phone out of habit even though I know full well that nothing has transpired since the last time I checked like 2 minutes ago.
  2. I will spend some quiet time alone.
  3. I will take time alone with each of my children to do something of their choosing.
  4. I will be kind to my husband and not wake him up early just because I want company.
  5. I will take at least one thing off my weekend task list.

How will you ensure a restful weekend?

Perfect Times for a Deep Breath

One wonderful benefit of cultivating mindfulness is you start to recognize times that are perfect for taking a moment to check in and relax. After you begin to notice these moments, you can take the next step of making it a habit to center yourself whenever you are in those same situations. Habits are very powerful for shaping how we interact with the world. New York Times bestselling author and happiness guru, Gretchen Rubin, has written extensively about this and has some great resources on her website exploring how to improve your habits. As a start, here are my favorite times to stop, roll back my shoulders, take a deep breath, and drop into the present moment:

Making Coffee

I fill up the coffee carafe using the purified water from my refrigerator tap. It comes out very slowly. I used to spend this time being irritated that it came out so slowly. What’s the point of this anyway? When was this filter even changed? Do these low-grade filters even work? No more. Now, I square off my shoulders, put my feet hip distance apart and take a few deep breaths. Soon enough, the carafe is filled and I feel better.

Blow Drying My Hair

There I am, staring myself in the mirror, with a noisy blow dryer in my ear. But you know what’s great about the blow dryer? Nobody can talk to me. Great time to stretch my neck from side to side a few times. And, since I’m staring at the mirror, I try to give myself some positive self-talk. Whenever I see my daughter staring at herself in the mirror, I tell her how beautiful she is. Don’t worry, I’m a good feminist and she gets lots of affirmation about how intelligent and brave and strong she is. But, I want her to look at herself in the mirror and see her the way that I see her, not through the ridiculous filter for female beauty that is so pervasive in our media. I suspect my mom would like the same of me, so I try to be kind to myself as I stare at the mirror each morning. And stretch my neck.

Waiting in Line
Lines are fascinating. I have personally embodied all the different line characters at one point or another. Crazy toe tapper. Check. Quietly muttering threats to her children. Check. Daydreamer. Check. MIT Professor Richard Larson is the world’s foremost expert in line management and he has estimated that Americans spend 37 billion hours in line each year. How will you spend that time? How about a little loving kindness meditation? You don’t have to close your eyes and nobody has to know you are doing it. It will probably make you start smiling, which will encourage others around you to be positive and kind. 

In the Elevator

Perfect for taking a few deep breaths. And the great thing about the elevator is that nobody will think it’s strange for you to close your eyes. They will just assume you are claustrophobic. Elevators are super awkward. There have been entire academic studies devoted to exploring awkward elevator interaction. I say lean into it. Close your eyes, breath deeply, and smile. It will definitely not be the weirdest thing someone has seen on an elevator.

At a Stoplight

I’m mostly a pedestrian. An impatient pedestrian. But the great thing about stoplights is that I am for sure going to encounter them every day and I am definitely going to stop and wait, because I’d rather not be hit by a car. So, it’s a perfect time to roll my shoulders back, look around, smile, and think about something for which I’m grateful. 

During a Tantrum

I have learned two things about my children’s temper tantrums. First, I cannot reason with them when they are in that state of mind. Second, getting angry with them only escalates the problem. So, I try (I try, I try) to stop, breath deeply, and keep calm. I do not always succeed, but when I do, they calm down more quickly. In addition to keeping myself centered, I am modeling a positive way to maintain composure in adversity, which is a skill I want them to learn.

Before I Eat

I blame the New Mexico public schools for my tendency to rush through every meal as though I’m working against a clock. We are teaching our kids today this bad habit, I’m afraid. Many kids have lunch periods that are less than 20 minutes, with adverse effects on their health and well-being. I still have a bad habit of rushing through my meals, which is terrible for digestion, weight gain, etc. Mostly, though, it means that I miss out on the pleasure of eating. I really enjoy food. Food, for me, is not a utilitarian exercise, but rather a robust sensory experience that brings me a lot of pleasure and happiness. Why rush through that? So I’m trying a new trick of taking a couple of deep breaths and slowing down before I dive in. I still finish my dinner before the rest of my family. What can I say…I’m a work in progress.

What unexpected moments do you find to stay mindful?

Top 4 Weird Yoga Terms Explained

So, I’m not a yoga instructor and I don’t play one on TV. My poses aren’t even all that impressive (I know that’s not the point). But, I have been practicing yoga for many years now and I’ve been to lots of different studio classes, one yoga retreat, and one ashram. I think this puts me on solid ground, as a lay person, to explain some weird yoga terms that get bandied around in classes as though everyone is supposed to know them. I’m not talking about the names of the poses themselves, although I urge you to check out this article from Yoga Journal for more, if you are interested. This post is about a few yoga terms that are just a tad more obscure.

**These are in no way explanations according to the Yoga Sutra.**

Pranayama

Translation = fancy breathing exercises. The breath is considered our vital life force in yoga and controlling, directing, or channeling it is an essential part of the practice. I particularly like Alternate Nostril Breathing and Lion’s Breath. Sometimes a yoga instructor will begin or end a practice with pranayama as a way of either preparing for or sealing the practice. Ujjayi breath (sometimes called Victorious Breath or Hissing Breath) is a sort of pranayama where you close off part of your throat and make an audible breathing noise. I’ve gotten so accustomed to breathing this way now that I drop into it naturally whenever I’m asked to take a deep breath, which can be a problem when I’m doing my Calm meditation on NJ Transit.

Normal people tip: There is one type of pranayama called Skull Shining Breath where you quickly exhale short, sharp breaths from your nose. Use a kleenex first.  

Yoga Nidra

Translation = fancy sleeping. They lull you to sleep with a guided meditation. It’s meant to be a deeper form of relaxation than normal sleep and IT IS. If you can find a restorative class that ends with Yoga Nidra you will emerge in a state of blissful relaxation that is beyond belief.

Normal people tip: If you snore, as I do, try not to jump in alarm when you are awakened by the sound of your own snoring in a room full of strangers. You aren’t the first and you won’t be the last.

Drishti

Translation = fancy staring. You pick something on the floor or in front of you to stare at while you hold yourself in a contorted position.

Normal people tip: Yogis will say that your drishti will help you to hold complicated tree poses with the sort of calm stillness that you see in magazines. In fact, you will still fall down because you are getting old and your balance isn’t great, but the dristhti helps.

Mudra

Translation = fancy hand gestures.

You know this one:


This is a mudra. There are many, many mudras, but that is the main one you need to know.

Normal people tip: Teaching your kids these mudras and some breathing exercises is a great way to develop serious street cred with crunchy types. I was at a birthday party recently and saw this kid get up to the top of a slide, strike a Shuni Mudra, take a deep breath and go down the slide. Whoa.

What yoga terms seemed intimidating to you when you first started practicing?

The Power of Lowering Expectations

One tension that this blog explores is between the desire to be present and mindful and the impulse to be striving and planning. In some ways, my instinct for planning has served me very well. Without forethought and effort, I would not have gotten my MBA in the evenings and on weekends. My husband and I would not have been able to buy a nice home. My career would not have advanced. In more everyday terms, I pride myself on being someone who just gets a lot done. My Saturday task management is on point. My husband (who is a striver of a different variety) is mostly exasperated by all my running around. He has the remarkable ability to focus himself entirely on the task at hand. The thing is, it’s reaaaaally slow. I find it nearly unbearable to watch him do something like, say, make a sandwich.

Implicit in all this striving are expectations for how things will turn out. I don’t always handle it well when things don’t go as planned. I feel an outsized sense of disappointment and don’t adjust quickly. Many an average day has been ruined for me because I expected it to be extraordinary. So, I’ve been thinking some about the role that our expectations play in our happiness. Here are a few ways that I am trying to consciously lower my expectations and achieve greater happiness.

Get Real

This one is key for me. I tend to be overly optimistic about what I think I can achieve, both in the short and long-term. These days, I’m trying to let go of some of those self-imposed expectations. I’ve become, as it were, over-accessorized with things to do.

I’m taking Coco Chanel’s advice and winnowing down my list. Does the house need to be in tip-top shape? Nope. Do I need to get involved with the PTA thing? Nope. Don’t get me wrong, I still get a lot done. I’m just learning to be a tad more realistic about what’s really possible on any given day.

I’m also working on getting more real about special occasions – holidays, vacations, family gatherings etc. I tend to spend a lot of mental energy thinking about how wonderful and fulfilling these events will be. They usually are, just not typically in the way I expected. I’m learning to enjoy the planning and preparation without being burdened by all the expectations it creates.

Don’t Let Others Control Your Happiness

The thing with expectations is that they usually involve other people. And the thing about other people is that you have no control over them. None. Including, by the way, your spouse and children. I remember my parents had a flip chart in our house with a quote that said, “Let no man decide your day.”

This is especially true with the most challenging people in our lives. I will often plan out my approach to difficult interactions. The problem is, my imaginings usually also include how the other person will react to what I say or do. Bad plan. One of the hardest lessons in life is that we don’t control people around us and the way they behave is usually not about us. So, I’m resolved to give others less power over how I feel, both good and bad. As a classic Type A over-achiever, I really  crave positive feedback. But, I’ve come to understand that that can be a sort of trap that keeps me needing and wanting and gives the people around me way too much control over my happiness. Better to cultivate an inner contentment that is not reliant on the mercurial responses of the people around me.

Change Your Comparative Set

One of my first posts was about the power of gratitude and reframing your comparative set. There will always, always be someone richer, prettier, fitter, and more successful than you. I enjoy personal finance blogs, including Mr. Money Mustache and Financial Samurai. A common theme on these blogs is the notion of hedonic adaptation. Essentially, it’s really easy to get used to luxury and to start thinking of it as normal and required. Think about the device that you are using to read this blog. Could you live without it? You did, of course, and not that long ago. I’m not suggesting that you  get rid of all your earthly possessions. I do think, though, that it is important to guard against this tendency for lifestyle bloat and to consciously remind yourself of how comfortable your life really is.

Take Joy in the Mundane

Simple pleasures. A long bath, reading to your kids, a quiet dinner at home. Learn to savor these things. Most days are ordinary. If you can learn to take pleasure in everyday things, you’ll find more contentment. Lately, I’ve been trying to slow down for some of the everyday tasks that I particularly enjoy. I’ve not yet reached the level of mindfulness that allows me to savor, for example, scrubbing the bathtub. But, I am learning to take real pleasure in things like watering my plants, making my bed while I listen to the radio, or cooking dinner with my family. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time imagining my future and what my life would be like. It mostly isn’t what I thought it would be like, but it’s also more wonderful than I could have imagined.

How do expectations influence your happiness?