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?

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?

4 Times You Should Always Say Yes to Your Kids

Parenting, positive thinking

I have two little ones and they are the light of my life. They are wonderful. They are also a never-ending fount of requests, demands, questions, and needs. It can be exhausting. A lot of them time I’m telling them no…

  • Mommy, can I paint the couch? No.
  • Mommy, can I have candy for dinner? No.
  • Mommy, can I ride the dog? Um, nooooo.

So, I’ve been thinking lately about times when I can and should say yes. As they say, the days are long but the years are short. Here are four times when I try to always say yes:

#1 – Can I help?

My daughter is 7 and very interested in everything I’m doing. She wants to help, participate, and learn. She’ll often approach me when I’m in the midst of a complicated household task and ask to help. It’s so tempting to say no, but so worth it to say yes. It may take a bit longer to finish the recipe with her little hands in the way. She may get eggshell in the batter or spill the sugar, but it gives us a chance to really talk. She tells me things about her life in those moments that I just don’t hear at other times. Getting things done together is a great way to bond and it gives me a chance to impart skills and knowledge. So, it may take longer and be messier, but it’s worth it to say yes.

Along these lines, my 4-year-old son is now in the habit of “doing the mail” with me. I collect the mail all week in a basket near the door. He takes each piece of junk mail or envelope to the recycling while I open the next and we make it a race. The other day I did the mail without him and he was so sad. Goes to show that even the most mundane tasks can be a fun way to connect with your little ones.

#2 – Can I tell you something?

“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  – Dr. Seuss

It seems that my kids always want to tell me something important and consequential while I’m carrying a load of laundry up the steps or vacuuming the living room. They have a knack for timing. But when they ask if they can tell me something, I try to stop and listen. Their fears and concerns may seem trivial to me in the moment, but they don’t feel that way to them. And, more importantly, I want them to know that I am always there to listen so that when the big things come along, they won’t hesitate to talk to me. I can remember mulling over problems as a child that felt big and scary and hard to talk about. I’m sure they didn’t seem that way to my parents, but I always knew that I could go to them with what was on my mind and in my heart.

#3 – Can I snuggle with you?

I’m a sucker for a good snuggle. I know full well that the time is coming when they won’t want to lay in my bed in the early morning and snuggle. I try not to borrow trouble, so I push thoughts of that time out of my mind. Time feels frozen when I’m holding my children tight and whispering in their tiny ears. I know that I’ll return to that place in my mind for many years to come. For now, I’ll snuggle with them anytime they want to. Including, I should say, when I’m fully dressed for work, carrying my bag, and ready to rush out for the train.

#4 – Will you play with me?

Confession time – I only say yes to this about 40% of the time. There are a couple of reasons. Most of the time it’s because I’m checking off my weekend to-do list  or trying desperately to wrangle them to bed so that I can eat dinner. And that stuff is important and real. Having an orderly home is part of how I stay centered and calm, which makes me a better mother. But, there is another reason…I don’t really enjoy kids games. It’s true! I’ve watched those moms who get down and dirty playing the kid games or doing crafts. It’s just not me. But, here’s the deal, when my kids ask me to play with them, they are inviting me into their world. Their world is fascinating and weird and funny and, when I do say yes, I usually end up enjoying it. So, I’m resolved to say yes to this one more often.

When do you try to say yes to your kids? 


A Practice of Gratitude

This is a post about how to create a practice of gratitude. I have a great deal for which to be grateful. I live in a beautiful place, I’m healthy, my children are thriving, I have enough to eat, and I have a warm, lovely home. But, still, I sometimes find myself wallowing in self-pity and frustration. Over the past year or so, I’ve been consciously trying to strengthen my gratitude muscle and I’ve found that the more I do it, the more naturally it comes. It really is amazing how gratitude can change your whole outlook on life. Here’s a few tips to get started:

Reframe Your Comparative Set
The first and most important recommendation I have for gratitude is to reframe your comparative set. If you are a striver like me, you may have a competitive streak. You may be drawn to compare your life to your colleagues, your college friends, your family members. That’s all good and well and the subject of a different post for the future about the power of being aspirational. But, it is also really important to remember how great you have it. I find that reflecting a bit on what life is like for so many people in the world who lack access to clean water or medical care, live in war-torn places, or struggle to provide for their children, reminds me how basically awesome my life is. I have won the life lottery in so many ways. If people who have struggled and suffered can rise above their circumstances and contribute to the world (e.g.Malala), then I can let go of the fact that my commute took too long. Along those lines, finding a way to spend helping time with people whose challenges surpass your own can be a wonderful way to be of service and put your own woes in perspective.

Write it Down

About a year ago, I started a Gratitude Journal. There are a lot of great apps out for this. I like the “Gratitude Journal – The Life-changing app” because after I make an entry it gives me a gratitude related quote and I LOVE a good quote. It’s very simple and straightforward and I usually end up writing about the same things – my kids, my health, etc. I also end up listing people in the journal. I’ve had a couple of times at work where I’ve told someone that they make it to my gratitude journal and they emit a palpable  warm glow. I try to do my journal entry on my morning commute and I’ve noticed a qualitative difference in my mental outlook on the days that I’ve written in the journal. 

Share Gratitude with Your Kids

Shortly after she started school, we noticed that it was hard to get my then 6-year old daughter to tell us much about what had happened during her day. So, we started a new practice with her that we call What Went Well. Right before bed, we each list three things that went well on that day. Because of What Went Well, she has told me about people and situations at school that I would not have heard about otherwise and it has helped her to focus on all the wonderful things in her life. And, it usually gives me a good chance to tell her about some way in which I am grateful for her. She loves to be listed on our What Went Wells!

Meditate on It

Meditation is awesome and if you are reading this blog, maybe you’ve tried it. If not, no time like the present to be present. I use the Calm app, which I love. They have a 7-days of gratitude series that I highly recommend. The single most helpful tip I’ve used in meditating is to focus on a particular idea or word or feeling. That helps to quiet my busy mind. Gratitude is a particularly powerful idea on which to meditate because it infuses you with such a sense of abundance and well-being. And, you don’t have to be sitting on a cushion in a quiet place to do it. You can stop anywhere, anytime, and spend a few moments of quiet breathing, focusing on all the wonderful things in your life.

Say Thank You

Maybe the most foundational move in the gratitude playbook is to share your gratitude with the people in your life. This practice has the dual impact of uplifting both you and the recipient of your gratitude. At the suggestion of the Calm 7-days of gratitude series, I recently sent my husband an email articulating all the things about him for which I am grateful (or at least a lot of them). He loved it, and I loved sending it. When we really reflect on the people in our lives, we find that there is much in them that we love and cherish. Tell them! It will strengthen your relationships in profound ways.

I believe that a practice of gratitude is the foundation for a happy outlook on life. Thank you for reading this post. For what or whom are you grateful today?