My Workout in "The Now"

I’ve had quite a few friends who were, and still are, serious body-builders (heavy lifting, in order to get ‘definition’ or to ‘bulk up’). At one point (long ago), I trained with a friend of mine who was hoping to compete nationally. Karen did brutal short, fast repetitions with progressively heavier weights, while I (pathetically) mimicked her workout with lighter ones. I came to admire the discipline that chasing the perfect, chiseled physique requires. Not just the commitment to hours at the gym, but restrictive diets and the comprehensive mindset of the lifestyle. For me, personally, much of that lifestyle depended upon the daily (sometimes hourly) exertion of willpower, self-control, and extreme focus.

I flashed-back to “powering through” intense and exhausting workouts as I listened to – my term, hopefully not sounding too cheeky – a Wellness Guru. As it happens, one of Deepak Chopra’s daughters. The story she shared was about her in-person interview with author Eckhart Tolle (his best-known book, “The Power of Now”). Ms. Chopra shared with her audience that she’d tried for months to gain access to Tolle (despite the ‘intro’ she had, with her father and Eckhart already being friends and colleagues). But with Tolle’s schedule (and him not being very inclined to travel), it was proving almost impossible. Then one day, when she’d almost given up on the idea, the author’s assistant called:  could Ms. Chopra meet Mr. Tolle in Stockholm?

“The Power of Now” is all about controlling The Mind. From Tolle’s perspective, there is no Past and no Future; only the Present Moment exists. We’ve heard this before, but Tolle lives this ‘mental workout’, as Chopra discovered. At first, she shared, Chopra thought the author was playing a game with her. Try as she might to get him to talk about his personal and professional journey, to each question she asked about his Past, his response re-directed her to the very moment of the experience the two of them were sharing in the interview.

Chopra said that it took her awhile to get the ‘hang’ of Tolle’s process. His assistant had allocated 2 hours for the interview, but – Chopra confided during her talk – she’d spent a frustrating ninety minutes asking (the wrong type of) questions and being rebuffed. Tolle’s focus was so consistently in the Present Moment that it seemed (to Chopra) to be almost beyond belief; almost beyond human ability and understanding.

On a slow day, I might be able to clear my mind to meditate for maybe five minutes. If I’m honest, two or three minutes are spent ‘working’ at it, which I know is not the point. On a more typical day, my tendency to plan, structure and execute whatever’s on my To-Do list seems like a much better use of my time. Often, I catch myself either Troubleshooting, via Past recall, or trying to peer-into the Future, struggling to anticipate any and all scenarios.

For the novice trying to focus on The Now, Tolle suggests a thought experiment:  Try to pinpoint where one thought ends, and the next one begins (perhaps while looking at a painting, or a flower – something simple). This space between thoughts Tolle calls The Gap. I’m paraphrasing from his book:  “When you find it, step into it and see how long you can stay there without the next conscious thought pushing you out of the Gap.”

I’ve been practicing this ‘In the Now’ exercise for awhile now; stretching my time in The Gap feels like testing already-sore mental muscles. But when I do get there (in the Gap), it’s the most amazing sense of calm imaginable; it’s just really hard to sustain. One thing I have learned through this discipline is just how strong my preoccupation with Yesterday and Tomorrow is. I have imaginary ‘arguments’ with Tolle:  “How can I possibly plan what I want for my Life without a review of my Past, and without fantasizing over my vision and hopes for my Future?”

I can still recall the day I officially gave a ‘hard pass’ to the competitive body-building workout. A friend and I went downtown, to the old-school Carnation Soda Fountain. I ordered the most decadent item on the menu:  a triple-chocolate sundae. These days, I’ve accepted the fact that whatever feels like a ‘workout’ to me probably isn’t going to work out for me, in the long run. I’ll continue trying to coax my ever-busy mind into The Gap whenever I can remind myself to. But I’m finding that balance is much more fun than perfection.

Being "Set"

I try not to consciously compare myself to others in my age group – in any major category of ‘status’ (health and well-being, financial stability, the successes of our children out in the world). But sometimes the differences smack me in the face, urging me to take a look at The Good Stuff in my life. If anyone ever asked me, I’d share that my achievements feel somewhat random and accidental:  I’ve made some big blunders along the way, and am grateful that I didn’t do more damage to myself or those I love.

Talking recently with a friend (who also lives across the street from me), added to my sense of gratitude. And wonderment. A “There, but for the grace of God” moment. We don’t know each other that well, but more than just superficially. His cancer-scare. The current downward spiral of two of his adult children. The recent death of his father – a pillar in his world, now ashes in an urn on the mantle. Over time, I’ve discovered that my friend’s outward appearance of Success (a beautiful house; a cabin in the mountains; a wide array of vehicles; four- now adult- children that had apparently never given him much concern growing up) is only a small part of his Story.

We’ve all heard and read about Glass Half Full, and Glass Half Empty people. Even though Pop-Psych tends to rely on super-simplistic ways of organizing complex human stories, sometimes it does ‘nail’ it. What I recently learned, however, is that the human heart can actually talk itself into either perspective. So, my friend/neighbor (calling him Dan, here) and I were discussing the stage in life – so adverts, articles and even greeting cards would have us believe – where ‘carefree living’ is finally accessible. I call it, being “set”. Money in the bank; work that you love; vacay when you choose; a comfortable home space; and of course, health and well-being.

But the unspoken truth is that being “set” is really more about the heart than the head. You might think that you have all of the trappings of it, but then something or someone ‘tanks’ your happiness in a way that causes a re-think. So it was, with Dan. It wasn’t his own personal situation gone awry, but the decisions and actions of one of his adult children that suddenly put Dan into a tailspin. When he put his angst into words, it came out like this:  “This isn’t how it’s supposed to go! At this stage of Life, my children are supposed to be a comfort, not a worry!” (I couldn’t help but think – Wow:  did I miss the Memo guaranteeing ‘Golden Years’?)

Turns out, Dan’s 30-something son appeared to be “set”, then did a 180 and nose-dived into personal and financial crisis. The (married, with children) son had boomeranged back home, needing all sorts of emotional and material care. Dan stepped-up, as he felt he needed to do as Papa, and took-charge. But then, once he’d taken charge, he resented having his Peace obliterated by an adult who had the emotional power to pluck heart strings.

Trying not to feel smug – that always provokes a humbling ‘poke’ from The Universe – I listened to a perspective (Dan’s) that reinforced what I’ve learned along the way. Being “set” isn’t what media, especially social media, would have us think it is. It’s like the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘feeling’:  the former producing something; the latter being fluid and kind of ephemeral. Turns out, whatever feels like it should be ‘in stone’ seldom is. Careers, love affairs, seemingly ‘successful’ (whatever that means) adult children, friendships; and, stages in life that we’re led to believe will be ‘carefree’.

Over this past weekend I traveled to California’s beautiful Central Coast and watched – for a long while – the surfers enjoying what appeared to be very decent waves. Wet-suited (our Pacific being notoriously cold), tenacious (no matter how many times they were tossed under Winter’s gray-blue waves they popped up like corks) and exuberant as they deftly (and not so deftly) tried to stay poised and balanced for The Best Ride.

The Black Dog

Depression is sometimes referred to as “the common cold” of mental illness, due to its prevalence in the United States. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is constantly tracking data on people 12 years and older, relative to such things as doctor and ER visits, prescribed medications, racial disparities, vulnerable groups, and depression that leads to death by suicide.

sheffield.co.uk
enwikipedia.org

Britain’s former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill suffered from it profoundly. He called it The Black Dog: a dark shadow that slipped into his mind quietly, without being summoned, or welcomed. According to historical records, the prime minister made no secret of his depression, which would sometimes last for days. “Taking the Black Dog” is still a familiar expresson for depression’s symptoms, and an important mental health facility in Sydney, Australia uses the phrase in its name.

With stats reflecting that depression is not an insignificant problem in the U.S., it continues to amaze me that it’s still so hard to talk about. Even in family situations, where a young person is involved, an inability to share ‘just how bad it is’ is common. I know that I could easily extend that statement to mental illness in general. But even though psychological disorders have been “outed” in the media, making it seem as though depression is akin to the common cold, we see it, but we don’t really understand it. I suspect, too, that often we’re reluctant to accept it as a valid, potentially serious illness.

Recently I provided some direction and encouragement to a young adult who’s roughly halfway through her doctoral studies. She described an array of personal concerns that, to me, sounded like a version of depression (defintely not diagnosing, here). She linked her feelings about work, school, and her parents (still living at home) to her general aimlessness, lack of focus and energy. But she also referred to her emotions as ‘fake’ because, as she put it, “There’s just no logical reason for me to feel this way. Life isn’t that hard.” Or is it? Can depression be misinterpreted as mere self-indulgence? My parents looked at it that way, with disastrous consequences for my mother.

Churchill, annamasonart.com

For years after Churchill left public service, a debate raged about whether or not his darkest Black Dog moments allowed the prime minister to perceive Hitler’s threat more acutely than allied politicians. Regardless of the help or hindrance, Churchill was never accused of malingering or being too morose; rather, he’s remembered to this day as courageously fighting his own inner demons by acknowledging them publicly: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in…” Far from ignoring his problem, this man wove his depression into his life as a strength: paradoxically, a reason to persevere. I aspire to such Bravery.

A Softer Light

tuigarden.co.nz

As I travel about my city running errands, I notice what many people also see – so many businesses laying out change-of-season reminders, enticing us to buy the decorations that help everyone enjoy the seasons and holidays more fully. That’s the idea, anyway. Not that we need reminding that, here in the Northern Hemisphere, kids have gone back to school, the weather is (or soon will be) changing, days growing darker much earlier. It’s definitely a change I believe we all intuit. For some, the feeling heralds a slow slog to Holiday times they’d really rather leap-frog over entirely. For others, the frenzied Holiday season can’t come soon enough.

As I go into a craft store for a few sewing items, I hurry past the Styrofoam pumpkins, pre-made wreaths and  heavily-scented piles of pine cones. Not that I’m a grumpy “Bah, to the holidays !” type of person. I just don’t want to be rushed into changes before I’m ready.

freeimages.com

It varies from year to year, but I always notice that as our summer season winds down, the light coming through the trees in my yard changes. It becomes softer. Maybe not as cool as I would like it to be (this is California), but definitely a different color and intensity. Buttery and diffuse. The shadows in my yard have a different slant to them somehow. They’ve grown longer and their edges are blurred.

I enjoy living in a place where I can see these subtle differences slowly coming. From the leaves on my Pistache tree blending from green to gold, to the giant Live Oak leaning over my bedroom shedding its acorns that sound like small, hard bombs as they hit the roof.  (A crack on the head from one of those really hurts.)

The new season ushers in changes in me, which is why I like the process to be leisurely and peaceful. I just had my birthday. I’m taking stock of ‘where I am’ in terms of Living My Best Life. Whether or not I’ve written down the goals I’ve had for myself throughout the year (which I measure by birthday-to-birthday, not December 31 to January 1), I know in my heart where I stand. I look at the half-finished redo of my rose garden (it suddenly got too hot and I lost interest). I look at the recipes I’ve torn out of magazines but never tried (as I opted for one-skillet meals while finishing my dissertation).

gettyimages.co.uk

The lists of projects that seemed exciting in late winter and early spring were over-taken by complicated personal relationships and family members needing so much more from me this year —  for some reason. As the days grow shorter, I feel quieter in my soul. I feel “ok” with what I did, and didn’t accomplish in My Year. I look forward to the cooler, darker fall and winter months as a time of rest, integration, and renewal. I ease into this time, sensing that it’s meant to be slowly savored, just as the tasty morsels of lovingly-prepared food delights, as well as nourishes. All of the Distractions that hover nearby will need to wait just a bit, while I watch the bright yellow finches scuffling at the feeder, to fatten themselves up for winter, charming me with their odd little voices

sohotravel.me

Peace in Mind

Western culture Readers of a certain age might not have grown up with the expression, to “Fly by the seat of your pants”. On its face, it makes no sense. But when my grandmother used it – especially with reference to something I was doing or even thinking about doing – there was no mistaking her disapproval. “Flying by the seat of your pants” is a phrase from aviation history; back in the day when airplane pilots had few navigational instruments and had to rely on their instincts. (Aviation also gave us the phrase, to “wing it”.) Both expressions roughly translate as, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but I’m doing it !”

When I was much younger, I for sure did a lot of “winging it”:  trusting my instincts about what felt true and correct at the time. As I’ve grown older, however, Life has taken on more of a jigsaw-puzzle experience:  a lot of pieces showing up on the table; its just a matter of fitting them all together for the beautiful picture I know is hiding in that jumble of shapes.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time and energy looking at those shapes:  education; career, marriage, family, more education, a left-turn in my career, friendships and deep connections, and travel. Always, lots and lots of travel. Are there any other pieces I haven’t mentioned? Yes:  a home by the sea, good health, grandchildren, abundant love and creativity (whatever those puzzle pieces look like – snippets of a rainbow, I think).

gettyimages

What happens to my mood when the pieces don’t fit together when, and how I think they should? Sometimes I feel as though my Life might be on someone else’s timeline; so, a little frustrated. Why aren’t things coming-together when I want them to? Alana Fairchild, channeler (my word) of all things Rumi, offers a thought that – thankfully – soothes my troubled thoughts most of the time:  “…it’s best to  participate in this Life with much less certainty than the mind would have us believe is needed for Inner Peace. Inner Peace doesn’t come with understanding; it comes with trusting.

Deep in my soul I know that Trust is key to feeling peace in my mind and heart. Trust can translate as, whatever words we choose to use to describe our individual beliefs and hope for this world:  Source energy, God, Buddha, Gaia, Allah – just to name a few. Whatever’s going on, it will all be “ok”. Will it? I’d love to get that in writing.

Klimpt’s “Mother & Child”, bingimages

I think about how difficult Trust can feel, especially when Life is filled with successive hard-knocks. How do we keep getting up and standing, let alone trying our best to move forward, albeit one step at a time? The answer to that question is uniquely personal; but in the midst of my own struggles, and after working with so many damaged children and adults over my many years in public service, I can offer what I’ve seen, heard, and felt. The most at-risk people in the world can and do not only survive, but can eventually thrive. Even without a faith in a deity or higher power, there’s very often an instinctive desire to survive:  to climb up, and out of despair.

The human spirit is amazing in its strength and grace. Peace in mind begins, then, in honoring the living, breathing essence of one’s existence. Life feels fragile, but it’s not accidental. Our primary ‘certainty’, even without full understanding, must be the value of our own lives. We learn to Trust our own beating hearts, regardless of how many times we feel betrayed by others. Peace in mind that can never, despite how complicated or jumbled Life may seem at times, be misguided or misplaced. I’m going to relax in that Peace today, however long it lasts.

%d bloggers like this: