Self-Serving for the Sake of Sanity

The joys of home ownership include gutters and neighbors and broken lawnmowers and reorganizing cupboards and quiet times alone. Life is beginning to settle down around our place, but that means that real life is also creeping back in. The real world always comes knocking eventually, right?

Because there is a real world out there that includes work and friends and stress, I have struggled to return to a routine. I know I write about this a lot, but I believe that a self-serving routine is one of the most important pieces of happiness.

Please don’t misunderstand my meaning of the term “self-serving.” I don’t mean selfish. I don’t mean ignoring family or work responsibilities for fun activities. This sort of self-serving is not healthy and doesn’t generally lead to real contentment.

By self-serving, I mean ensuring that your oxygen mask is in place before you help others. This can take the form of taking reflective moments for yourself before you try to deal with other people when they want to load their problems on you. Feeding your need for physical movement, or for flexing your creative muscle. These impulses, if ignored for too long, can result in mental fatigue.

The symptoms of mental fatigue I recognize in myself when I go too long without serving myself are a shorter fuse, an increased irritability, and a decreased ability to combat irrational thoughts. When I see myself acting in these ways, I like the person I present to the world a little less, and my overall contentment decreases.

So, to keep myself happy, and in turn present a better self to the world (it sounds trite, but appearances matter, right?), I do what I can to get 8 hours of sleep a night. I know, it’s a lot and God knows what will happen if I end up having children, but I have compulsively cried many fewer times when I sleep well. In addition, I try to journal or write every day. This feeds my creative needs. I got a fitbit a while ago, and it makes me more aware of my overall movement.

Most of all, I am trying to forgive myself when I can’t make all of the things happen. It’s important to try to stay on top of responsibilities, but it’s also good for one’s mental health to practice routine forgiveness. This is the most self-serving practice of all, and the most important. Sometimes it’s the most difficult to learn, too.

What are your self-serving activities? Share in the comments! I’d love to try some new ones!

The Constant Questions & My New(ish) Answer

There are so many times during the day that I take stock of things.  I often ask myself, “am I happy with this? Does this make me feel good? How did that go? Why did I say that?” Perhaps this is part of my anxious nature, and maybe some of it is just a human need to test the balance of the world around me and myself in it.

What I like to remind myself to stay conscious of is my internal monologue as I answer those questions. Not just, “Why did I say that?” but also, “it’s ok that you did.”

This is part of my learning to love myself a little bit more each day. A new acceptance of self that has been troublesome in the past. I championed the individuals around me, while I beat myself down for the smallest inconsistencies. My new mantra is, “It’s ok.”

So, I’m short with the guy behind the counter: it’s ok.

I don’t get up in time to meditate this morning: it’s ok.

I let myself eat cheese or meat or have one too many beers: it’s ok.

Because, after all, life is short. Worrying about whether I came off as mean to that guy behind the counter isn’t worth my time. I want to be a good person, by my level of goodness doesn’t entirely depend on my tone of voice with the guy behind the counter at the store. I want to be a person of good habits, but sometimes my sleep and a longer morning cuddle session is more important for my mental state than a morning meditation. C’est la vie! And sticking to a diet, OMG. Get over that one quick. If I had a nickel…

It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok. Don’t try harder later, just accept that today is good. It’s not revolutionary advice. Lots of other people have said it. But ya know what? It’s ok.

A Moment for Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a big trend amongst the happiness gurus lately, and for good reason. Our lives have become so busy that we tend to multi-task everything. We drive while talking on the phone, email while composing tweets, watch TV while checking our Pinterest and Facebook and watching the kids and helping with homework and cooking dinner. All of this doesn’t make us stronger, but in fact drains attention away from each task.

Add in the constant narration of anxiety and worry that some of us have running through our heads, and there’s hardly any rational space left. This can lead to those spiraling negative thoughts while cleaning the pots and pans (one of my personal traps), vacuuming the floors or mowing the lawn. I find that my brain goes out of control when I perform a repetitive task that involves silence or white noise.

In order to combat this brain-drain, we have to train ourselves to concentrate on a single task or thought. On-the-mat meditation helps, but the practice of mindfulness in situ is also useful.

Mindfulness is simply the awareness of your current task to the exclusion of all others.

One easy mindfulness exercise is to practice mindful walking. This can be done just standing up from your desk to go to the bathroom; you don’t need to spend a long time practicing this. Here are some directions:

1. While still sitting in your chair, put your feet flat on the floor. Feel your feet in your shoes, the shoes on the floor, your seat in the chair, your back resting in the chair.

2. Prepare to stand by placing your hands on the arms of your chair (if you have them) or the seat of the chair next to your bum. Feel the ground in the 4 corners of your feet and down through the palms of your hand. Try not to lock out your elbows, as you will need to push up out of the chair (and it’s just bad for your joints).

3. Push up to a standing position, slowly enough to feel your joints and muscles stretch. Feel your bones take your weight, move the weight of your body through your feet and balance yourself into all 4 corners of your feet. Stretch up to the ceiling if you need to now.

4. Letting your arms hang naturally by your side, pick up a foot, and begin walking. It may feel strange at first, to notice how you walk. Do you put your heel down first, or your toes? When does your back heel come up in relation to your front foot going down? How do your arms swing?

5. Don’t forget to breathe! Keep walking and feeling your feet moving. Feel how your leg bones work together with your abdominal muscles and your arms and all the muscles in your body.

As always, start slowly. You will want to only try this for a few minutes at first. But as you get better, transfer this ability to other tasks. I love to use this method while gardening, as it helps me to feel connected to the earth. When have you used mindfulness in your life?

Meditation | OMG I just can’t sit for that long

Whenever I share with others that I meditate, which is not often, I get one of a few responses:

a. meditation saved my life

b. I can’t sit still/quiet my mind for that long

c. huh (disinterested glazed-over look)

d. I wish I could do that, but I don’t have the time/the energy/the patience

I used to try to convince those who showed interest that meditation really was a wonderful thing, that it has saved my life, that it has made me a better, more patient and forgiving person, that it was easy, that it was worth the time spent, and that they could do it, too.

And then, one day, I remembered that I don’t like to be preached to. I don’t like anyone else telling me about their conversion experiences. Real change must find its own way to you. It took me three years of therapy and lots of missteps to actually commit to sitting down on the mat (or pillow, or chair, or whatever) and trying to do nothing for just a little while.

So, if it’s just not worked before or you’ve just been too scared/tired/busy to try, here’s some advice I’ve gathered over the years:

1. If you can sit quietly for one minute, then you can meditate. Start small. Don’t expect too much from yourself. No one’s ever been the world’s best meditator, so really, do not put so much pressure on yourself!

2. Try a bunch of different types of meditation: guided, counting, breathing, walking. Also, try different body positions: sitting, standing, laying down, working with props. One of these will be your favorite, your baseline. Others you’ll use for those days you feel wonky or weird. Try them all, it’s good to have a bunch of tools at your disposal. Don’t expect that your brand of bliss is going to look like mine.

3. Read as much as you can on the subject. It’s good to know that other people are having just as much trouble (and success) as you are! It may also give you great ideas for mantras or intentions to guide your practice.

4. Not every time you sit on the mat is going to be life-changing. Sometimes, you’re going to get up before your timer is done. Sometimes you are going to chase your thoughts. Sometimes you are going to feel icky and bad. Remember, meditation is a practice. It is what makes every other part of your life (the game!) a little bit better.

5. Meditation is not about clearing the mind (h/t theyogadoer). You are going to have thoughts. You are human! Meditation is the time to say “Yup, there that thought is. I think that sometimes,” and then, in the immortal words of Elsa, “Let It Go!”

6. Have a focus in mind when you sit down.The focus is that place you snap back to when you realize you’ve been making the grocery list or thinking about what your hair would look like another color or how you’re going to deal with that guy at work.  Some people find that just following the flow of their breathing is helpful. Others find that repeating a mantra with their breath (“I’m Okay” is a favorite suggestion from my long-time friend and life coach Meg Cline) helps to focus their practice. If you’re working in a guided meditation, follow the leader’s prompts.

No pressure, though.

What’s in Your Jug?

I have an app on my phone called “Buddha.” All it does is give me sage little nuggets of advice, proverbs and aphorisms that I think about during my day. I had one recently that I can’t get out of my head:

A jug fills drop by drop.

Ok. So, depending on whether you’re a half-full or half-empty kind of kid, or maybe somewhere in between, this can feel like a boost or a weight.

The way I see it is that your jug, your life, is filled with drops. Sometimes there is a steady stream of them and sometimes they come slowly. Some of these drops are sweet and some are bitter, but eventually they’re going to fill that jug.

I don’t have much to add except for a question: What is in your jug?