Let’s face it, things don’t seem to be going very well, pretty much anywhere at this point. With this continuing level of stress and chaos on the outside, it’s more important than ever that we practice strengthening our mindfulness skills and focus on well-being.
I’ve been contemplating what we discussed over the past few weeks, specifically who I want to be now. I’m having a little trouble answering that question, so I shifted it to how do I want to be and the first word that popped into my head was at ease. I want to be a person who is at ease. What does that mean?
Ease can be used as both a verb and a noun. As a noun, ease means absence of difficulty or effort. It can also mean free from worries or problems, especially related to one’s material situation. That definitely fits how I’m feeling.
As a verb, ease means to make something unpleasant or intense less serious or severe. Again, fits perfectly. Ease is not as popular anymore as words like tranquility or peace, but those two words don’t align exactly with what I’m wanting. I don’t want to lay in the lilies feeling blissed out and serene. I want to simply lessen the intensity of my anxiety and worry so that I can be productive and effective without the constant distractions that my mind keeps creating.
I’m so grateful for my mindfulness practice because I honestly believe I would be very depressed by now if not for it. But practicing mindfulness does not exempt me from worry or from negative thoughts swirling around in my head. And at root, I’m a natural fixer, so if there’s a problem, I have a strong urge to take action. But as we’ve talked about many times, there’s not much action I can take on all of the problems rattling around in my brain.
So how I want to be now is more at ease. I want to be aware of the problems we’re facing and open to opportunities to contribute to solutions, but I want to be less intense, especially in my mind, which would not only help me be more relaxed, but allow my creative side to flourish and come up with new ideas for addressing old problems.
In searching for ways to increase my sense of ease, I found a few that look helpful. I’m sure I’m not alone in that my routine is out of whack. I set it and stick with it for a while, and then something else happens and I let it slide. To feel at ease, we have to have some sense of control and since we cannot control what’s happening in our governments, on the streets or in much of our external lives, that means pulling that control in, both within our homes and our minds. Create a schedule and stick to it, regardless of what’s on the news or what changes are occurring in businesses, schools, etc. As you create the schedule, ease up on packing it full.
I may be Miss Productivity, but I have never been more aware that my brain is not firing on all pistons. I have a very hard time staying focused all of the time, my energy is all over the place day-to-day, as is my motivation, and I’m much more fatigued than usual. All signs of stress, which is probably pretty normal under our circumstances. But instead of crawling back into bed and pulling the covers over my head, I’m lightening my schedule. If my brain is struggling, trying to do more is not the solution. I’m plugging in space – time I can use for what I need on that day. If I’m feeling great, I can certainly do more work in those slots, but if I’m not, I can take a break, take a walk, meditate, sit by the fish pond for a while doing absolutely nothing. Basically, I’m scheduling for ease. By being kind to myself, I’m not only increasing my feeling of ease, but I’m allowing my entire system to reset and that may be critical for both my mental and physical well-being.
While working, I’m being more diligent about mono-tasking. You may recall that our brains can’t actually multi-task, but task switch which makes us mentally tired and increases mistakes. I’ve been mono-tasking for a couple of years now and I know it’s effective in increasing my productivity, but now it’s also giving my brain a break, which gives me more processing power to manage my emotions. If you’re trying to work from home with kids under foot and other people working and interrupting you, it might be a good time to take a good long look at your schedule. Are there spots that could be moved to allow you more focused-time to work on something instead of switching between 5 different things at once?
Almost all of us are having to learn new software, tasks, behaviors and more every single day and while that can be rewarding, it’s also exhausting. We can’t stay constantly outside of our internal safety zones, so do something each day that lets you visit that safe space. Maybe it’s meditating, cooking, doing a crossword puzzle, reading a book. You can do anything that you know well, brings you comfort and reminds you that you have mastered a lot of skills over the years and can use those skills quite easily now.
Another effective way to increase ease is to slow down. Intentionally walking slower actually relaxes you. Slow down your movements and notice the sensations on your skin, in your muscles and your mind. This is a wonderful mindful activity and ultimately boosts your well-being.
Playing increases a sense of ease and this one I’m having the most challenges with. I know how important it is to play and laugh, but I’m doing way too little of it lately. As you know, I’ve tried various tactics, but I’m just not finding fun and I’m having trouble coming up with an idea that’s playful. That’s made me very intrigued to talk to Jeff Harry of Rediscover Your Play. He’ll be joining us on the show in a couple of weeks and I’m hoping he can help. In the meantime, I’ll continue my search and I encourage you to do the same. Play is extremely beneficial to our well-being, so it’s worth the effort.
One last tip I found was to declutter your home since it’s difficult to feel at ease when your house is a mess. I’m embarrassingly organized (yes, my clothing is color-coordinated in my closet), but my house had become a mess. Two people trying to work from a small home with lots of technology requirements had created a living space that wasn’t livable. Camera lights, computer screens, microphones, etc., sitting in the middle of the living/dining area was a decent temporary situation, but months into this, it was getting depressing. Add to that clutter all of the extra supplies purchased that is so out of the ordinary, like giant packages of toilet paper, paper towels, broth, masks, canned goods, coffee and more, just in case we go back into a strict shutdown, and the house was starting to look like a prepper’s bunker.
So, I spent my entire weekend moving all of the furniture out of the guest room and into storage, then setting up a proper office/studio so that the teacher I live with can actually focus on teaching his classes all day instead of shuffling lights and paperwork to make a space for us to eat.
I’m physically sore everywhere, but I can feel a difference mentally. I can leave my studio and walk into the house and see a comfortable living space again. No work, no equipment, just a comfortable, functional space. I can make lunch again without fear of making noise that will disturb a class of kids online. I can take a break and straighten up the living room or do some dishes. I can stop worrying that delivery people or others are going to knock on the front door while he’s in the middle of a lecture online. Shockingly, it feels much more normal. And that has definitely moved me more into ease.
Almost everything has felt hard to me over the past few months, requiring more effort and discomfort. But it doesn’t have to. I can lighten up, stop taking everything so seriously, and most importantly, pay attention to how I’m feeling and doing. I can accept that I’m going to have productive days and useless days. I can remember that the world does not spin on which of those days I have. Life keeps going, even if I have to take a break from it.
As for all of those problems out there, I know they’re still there. But I can remember that even if I can’t fix them, I can continue contributing to the greater good which may help someone find the solutions. I can keep teaching mindfulness, I can keep mediating conflicts that erupt on teams, I can keep supporting leaders who are struggling with how to keep their organizations running and I can keep reminding people to take care of themselves. I can also keep reminding myself and you that life will get better. We’re in the midst of drastic change and unrest, but the result of all of this tumult may be a better world, and that’s something we can all hope for.
Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves... Everything can be taken from a human but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Mindfulness is the mental exercise needed to free ourselves from our own negative thoughts and distressing emotions. Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke Of Insight, describes our ability to regulate the neurological process that she calls the 90-second rule: “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”
Of course, most of us are not consciously choosing to stay in that loop. We haven’t trained our minds to recognize that we’re doing this and that’s where meditation comes in. It takes practice, as with any skill, but meditating on our difficult emotions can lead us to the point that when a difficult emotion arises, we can simply count to 90 and then notice that the emotions pass.
Meditation trains us to be resilient, which we really need during this time of mass uncertainty. The problem for many is that there can be great discomfort in sitting still and noticing our thoughts when we’re full of difficult emotions, so we typically try to resist whatever feelings come up by doing something to distract ourselves, or we put our heads in the sand and hope they’ll pass.
Neither of these strategies work because the feelings don’t go away and the emotions pop out in unexpected ways, like a sudden bout of crying or a flash of anger in response to a minor incident. A more helpful strategy is to learn how to stay with and even turn toward the difficult emotions.
Keep in mind that this is a process. It takes repetitive practice to build the skill to look toward something unpleasant. It may take longer for those dealing with grief, PTSD or other serious issues to achieve the ability to apply the 90 second rule. That’s okay. We can all get there and enjoy less distress in our lives. We can learn how to live a life at ease.