State of Emergency

I hate running late. I feel dreadful showing up later than I said I would, even if I am meeting someone who I know for sure will be half an hour late. I get super stressed about it. For years I built so much contingency time into every timetable that I would show up half an hour early for everything and had to carry a book with me to fill in all that wait time. Even if I am running to time and expecting to arrive precisely on time it stresses me out, because there’s no wiggle room. What if there’s a train cancellation? Or a traffic problem? Or I forget something and have to go back? I like to have plenty of time to spare to cover not just one of these contingencies, but all of them.

Something seems to have changed, though, over the last few years. Now I leave at the last possible moment. I still hate to run late, but I also don’t want to risk hanging around waiting. I want to do everything hit and run style. In and out before the dust settles. The ideal child pickup or drop off involves barely slowing down (kidding! I do stop, but I wish I didn’t have to!). The last thing I want is to waste time waiting. Which is odd, because busy teacher, mother, and researcher that I am, a little time to breathe should be a precious and treasured thing.

I could rationalise it away saying “of course I like time to breathe, but I want it on my terms, in my comfy chair in the sun” – which would sound all very plausible, until you take into account that I never build that breathing space into my day. Instead I build several days into each day, and spend time hurtling from one double booking to the next, constantly churning over in my head all of the things I need to remember before the next crisis hits.

There’s been quite a lot written about over-scheduling our children, but I don’t have time to over-schedule my kids. I’m too busy rushing to my next meeting (on my day off). We rarely seem to stop and consider the idea that we may be over-scheduling ourselves. It might not even be a case of over-scheduling. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say “over-optimising”, and it’s rooted in the belief that we don’t have time. We don’t have time to waste. We have to be productive. We are too busy to waste time doing nothing.

In the first half of this year I stopped walking across to the local cafe for coffee while at work, because I felt I didn’t have the time. I stopped going to the staffroom at lunchtime because I always have students to see or meetings to run. My friends outside of work didn’t get a look in, and my friends at work and I became ships that pass at recess, shouting brief dopplering greetings as we fly by.

And guess what? I’m burning out. Melting down. Stretched beyond breaking point. And all because I’m regularly pushing everything to the limit, and limiting nothing.

So now I’m trying to build the slack back into my day. Leaving early for meetings and appointments, and staying off the smartphone when I get there early. Instead I take the time to breathe, look around me, maybe even chat to passers by. I’m riding to work when driving would save me 10 minutes, so that I get both exercise and breathing space. I’m still going to meetings on my days off, and helping students at lunchtime, but I’m also trying to schedule coffees and call friends. Some days don’t quite work out, but hey – I’m a work in progress. And I’m making some progress. On a good day. When I remember to breathe.

How do you carve out your own breathing space?

Fitting your own oxygen mask

I read a beautiful thing on another blog today. Titled “Today I lived,” it is a poetic tribute to all the times we want to turn away, to scream, to hide inside ourselves, but we don’t. We want to scream at our kids, but we don’t. We want to slam the door, but we don’t. We want to shut the world out, but we don’t.

The trouble with that lovely tribute is that some days all I can see is all the times I have screamed. The students I couldn’t reach. The problems my kids had that I wasn’t sympathetic about. The doors I did slam, and the actions I regret.

When we do the Successful Thing in the evenings to remind ourselves of what we have achieved lately, I try very hard to give myself credit, even for the little things. To remind myself that however bad the day felt, I did stuff. I got up and went to work when I wanted to stay in bed. I solved a tricky programming problem. I helped someone. I used the stairs instead of the lift – or, when I’m sick, I remembered to use the lift instead of the stairs and actually ended the day still functional. That’s a score, in my book! Yet some days it’s really hard to come up with even a small success.

Have you ever listened to the safety briefing on a plane and actually thought about those oxygen masks? “Be sure to fit your own mask before helping others,” is the standard line. Which makes sense, because you can’t fit the oxygen mask on your toddler if you have passed out from lack of oxygen yourself. I think those days when I can’t find anything to write for the Successful Thing are the days when I haven’t fitted my own oxygen mask.

Recently I offered to run a short mindfulness session at work, before school, once a week. Part of the reason I offered was that I knew that this way I would at least get one mindfulness session in per week. Mindfulness is really hard for me to maintain on my own. I know it’s incredibly good for me. I know I am happier and calmer when I do it regularly. Yet it’s the first thing to go when I get busy or stressed – even though it’s most important at those times! But if I have promised to do it for someone else, I will do it. I’ll prioritise fitting someone else’s oxygen mask, but not my own. When I set it down in text like that, it sounds really crazy. But it is who I am.

I was talking to a friend the other day about how hard he is on himself, and I was dispensing sage advice by the handful. “Don’t beat yourself up when you feel like didn’t measure up on a day,” I said. “Work out what you can learn from it, and try again tomorrow. And above all give yourself credit for the stuff you did achieve today.” This, I think, is a form of mindfulness. This is being aware of your whole day, not just the bits that hurt. And this is being kind to yourself. This is also advice I am very bad at taking myself.

It’s really easy to get caught up in what your kids need. In your responsibilities at work. In making time and putting in effort for everyone but yourself. Especially if you are unwell, as I’ve been over the last few months, and your energy and time are so constrained that there just isn’t enough for everyone who needs it. It’s really easy to put yourself last. To not fit your own oxygen mask. To wind up slamming doors, screaming at the kids, and losing it at work. So far over the edge that you can’t even see it with a telescope.

For me, at least, the way I often respond to these events is to beat myself up for not being the parent I want to be. The friend I want to be. Or the teacher I want to be. And this is an ingrained habit that is hard to break. But I am starting to realise that it’s easier to replace a habit than to break one. Focusing on not doing something is like trying not to smile – more difficult the harder you try. So I am planning to try focusing on doing something instead. I’m going to work on fitting my own oxygen mask. I’m going to try to take those days as a warning – like an alarm that goes off when the plane begins to depressurize – instead of taking them as failure.

Today I’m going to go for a walk, and meet a friend. Tonight I’m going out to my favourite restaurant in all the world, and tomorrow I’m going to get some marking done, but I’m also going to spend some time lying in the sunshine with a few back copies of Cosmos magazine. And I’m going to breathe. Deeply. And maybe that way tomorrow will be better than yesterday, and I will remember to fit my own oxygen mask next time, before the doors slam and the screaming starts.



The time to be happy

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years thinking “Once X is over, I can be happy,” for varying values of X. Once my kids are a little older and more independent. Once I get rid of my chronic pain. Once my Mum’s dementia is diagnosed and managed. Once my Dad’s cancer is under control. Once this term is over. Once I get this marking done. Once the weather is better. Once my allergies sort themselves out. Once I finish this latest onerous task in a long list of onerous tasks.

It has finally dawned on me that I am indefinitely postponing my happiness, and making a lifetime habit of stress. Today on facebook I saw a friend’s newly created “meditation space”. In it, she had framed this quote: “The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now.” It struck me how incredibly apt that was, so I googled the quote and found the full version:

“Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.” Robert Green Ingersoll.

It doesn’t roll quite so trippingly off the tongue, but in its entirety it is profoundly poignant. Here and now is all we can be sure of. Five minutes from now anything could have happened, but right here, right now, we are alive. We have friends. We have loved ones. And whatever frustration and trauma we are experiencing, or more often predicting and hence dreading, we are here. Alive, vibrant, loved, and loving.

It’s so easy to get caught up in a state of perpetual stress and panic. Too much to do, things moving too fast, and, especially pointless, too much to fear. Things that might happen. Traumas that tomorrow might bring. People who might give us trouble. Pain that might result from our actions.

So often, these things don’t come to pass, yet a roaring river of moments rushes by unnoticed, because we are so busy being churned up by our expectations of things that never happen.

Mindfulness is a great way to pull yourself back to the present moment, but sometimes mindfulness is pretty difficult to access. Even when you know it’s worthwhile. Even when you know how much it helps you. Sometimes you just don’t feel like there is time or energy for it.

That’s where the last part of the quote is almost miraculous. “The way to be happy is to make others so.”

I know of no better way to get your head out of your own… troubles… than to focus on alleviating someone else’s. To care about someone else. To make the time to wonder how someone else is doing, and how you might improve their day.

Recently I had cause to wander through the city of Melbourne with my two gorgeous girls, one at a time, a week apart. The first time was with my newly minted 11 year old, who saw a vendor of The Big Issue and insisted I stop to buy a copy. I commented that I had wondered whether to wait until I saw my usual vendor, Gordon, and she said “Just buy one while you see it, Mum!”  The time to be happy is now, indeed. This particular vendor could not speak clearly, not manipulate his copies of the magazine with his fingers. I asked him for change and he gestured towards his money bag. I hesitated, not wanting to take liberties, and it was my daughter who knew what to do, who quietly took charge and sorted the situation.

A week later, as I walked past a different vendor with my 7 year old I noticed that it was a new issue of the magazine, just as my 7 year old nudged me expectantly, and pointed towards the vendor. It was clear to her that it was time to buy a Big Issue, because she knows that’s what you do. The place to be happy is here.

Today I was home with that same 7 year old, who was mildly unwell. She oscillated between being pretty miserable, and wanting to play. I spent the day half heartedly trying to work, while actually feeling pretty tired and miserable myself, until I gave in to her pleading, and we sat down and played Connect 4. I applied myself to trying very hard not to win too fast, and quickly found that she was far more astute than I gave her credit for. I actually needed to concentrate, and once, as I was smugly preparing a “learning experience” for her, she won before I realised I was under threat. We both spent much of the game laughing and complimenting each other’s sneakiness. There were giggles, high fives, and a great sense of companionship. I felt better than I had all day.

I hadn’t wanted to play Connect 4. I wanted to read, or work, or do other solitary but oh-so-virtuous pursuits. In making her happy, I wound up much happier myself.

Here and now I am alive. Loved. Loving. Fulfilled. And here and now is all there is. I must remember that, next time I am stressing about there and then.

What’s your bigger picture?

Did you ever have one of those moments when you suddenly become aware of your life, and can’t work out how you got here?

I had one today. I went to my grade 6 daughter’s school assembly this morning, to watch her receive her badge as the inaugural Sustainability Captain for her school. My tall, long haired, brilliant, gorgeous 10 year old, proudly wearing her badge and resolving to be the greatest Sustainability Captain she could possibly be. Her amazing 7 year old sister spoke up confidently in the same assembly.

My daughters.

Then I went to visit some friends I used to work with, proudly showed them the work of some of my students, and raved about how much I love my job. I picked up some historic computing artifacts with which to amaze my students, and grinned as I pictured their reactions.

My students. My job.

I’ve been letting the meditation slip lately, and today I forced myself to start again. I did a lot of meditation over the holidays, and like most things practice helps a lot, so I picked it up again relatively easily today, even in the face of distractions. One of the interesting side effects of mindfulness is that it seems to allow me to step outside my life for a moment and observe it from a distance.

What I saw took my breath away. Day to day I get easily caught up in the little dramas – the kids squabbling, the weather being toooooooooo hot (if you don’t live in Melbourne, please forgive the extra “o”s, and take my word for it that they have been more than justified of late), me being too tired, work being too busy, all the things I wasn’t perfect at, and all the things I can’t do, all the stress I can’t avoid. Meditation allows me to step away from all of those little demons jumping up and down and demanding my attention, and lets me see the bigger picture. It turns out that, regardless of the dramas of the day, I’m in a pretty amazing place right now.

One of my friends recently told me that in dealing with people with dementia, one of the most important lessons to learn is that everything is a phase. Phases shift, and change, and end. Whatever drama you are in the middle of, it’s temporary. That’s hard to see when you are lost and fighting in the trenches. Sometimes the best thing I can do for myself is see the bigger picture, and remember that tomorrow is another day. We can plan, and scheme, and twist ourselves inside out trying to prepare for a future that is entirely unpredictable, or we can be in the moment, enjoying today and letting tomorrow take care of itself.

Can you see your bigger picture? What do you do to get yourself past the day’s tensions and dramas, and see your life as it is truly unfolding?

The Matrix is here

Today I was standing in a checkout queue at a large department store. The queue seemed miles long, so I was trying to use that time for a little mindfulness – becoming aware of the passage of air across my skin, the feeling of my feet in my sandals, and the breath going in and out of my body. Before long I became aware that I was, in fact, aware of none of these things, but mindlessly absorbed in the blaring continuous roll of ads leaping out of the television screens all around us.

I took a deep breath, tore my gaze away from the screens and tried to refocus, but I kept getting dragged back to the ads again. So I tried to make eye contact with my fellow inmat^ I mean queuers, but they were all ensnared by the screen too. There seemed to be no escape from the cleverly manipulative power of those huge plasma screens.

And here I am, on a gloriously sunny day, sitting my my darkened study ensnared by yet another screen. The seductive liquid crystal glow of my laptop holds me trapped, from actively working through to mindlessly browsing the endless web.

Sometimes I feel as though I’m running on ice
Paying the price too long
Kind of get the feeling that I’m running on ice
Where did my life go wrong

Billy Joel – Running on Ice

Bob Brown recently referred to technology as “some manufactured reality which has taken the human brain and is racing off with it in captivity.” In the same speech he told a story of being on a flight over some breathtaking view of natural beauty, with his blind open so that he could see it. Every other blind in the cabin was down, and every other passenger was transfixed by their in-flight entertainment – oblivious to the out-flight entertainment right outside the windows. In short order Bob was asked to please put his blind down, as it meant people couldn’t see their screens properly. Oh! The horror of not being able to see your screen!

This manufactured reality is awfully compelling. When I am angry, sad or frustrated, or when I am wildly happy about something, or just have a quirky thought, I have a strong urge to post about it on facebook, where I will likely receive a lot of validation from what is, in general, a lovely and supportive community. But I used to call someone. Or visit someone. Or, gosh, wait an hour or two for my gratification. And when I am done posting, I don’t get up and walk away, to play with the kids or work in the garden. I check the weather page, and the ABC news site, and a few blogs I follow. I browse twitter, and before I know it the internet has eaten my day again.

I know it. I hate it. I fight against it. Yet every day I am complicit in allowing the internet to consume my soul.

The trouble is that it’s not just the laptop in the study any more. It’s not even just my phone. The screens are everywhere – in the supermarket and the department stores. At the petrol pump and on the public transport. In the cafes and the restaurants – now this I find truly bizarre! Why, at a cafe, would I want my attention distracted from my companions, my food and my chai latte by a screen that is carefully calculated to imprison my attention and hold it captive forever?

They say this highway’s going my way
But I don’t know where it’s taking me
It’s a bad waste, a sad case, a rat race
It’s breaking me

Billy Joel – Running on Ice

All the tiny gaps in your day that used to be filled by quiet contemplation and a little spontaneous breathing are now being sold for profit. And the profit is not yours or mine.

Those pauses for breath are as important for re-ravelling our souls as sleep. They are moments when we can soothe the ragged edges that stress carves out of us, and pause to regroup for the next frenzied onslaught of life. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to build those spaces back into our lives. Which is why I’m going outside to water my veggies.

Balancing Act

Some years ago, when I was leaving my job in academia and wondering what my next career would look like, I did a bunch of questionnaires designed to tell me things about myself. Like many such devices, they were really tools to highlight things that I already knew, but they were remarkably useful. They brought my priorities into sharp relief.

Among other things, the resulting analysis made it clear that I needed to do something I believed in. Something I felt passionate about. Something I knew was going to make the world a better place.

Being of a rather literal turn of mind, I started to do pro-bono work for Oxfam Australia, then worked for the Breastfeeding Association of Australia. Both roles and organisations I felt strongly about, but not jobs where I really experienced flow. Flow, if you haven’t met it before, is the state of complete focus that you achieve when you are doing something you love, something you are good at, and something that you are challenged by – challenged enough that you are stretched and working hard, but not challenged so much that you are frustrated and not achieving.

I believe flow is closely related to mindfulness – in that you are wholly committed to what you are doing in the present moment. Your every sense and faculty is devoted to your task. It’s a great feeling, and I get it when I am teaching – especially when I am teaching content that I know well, that I feel strongly about, and that my students are engaging with and challenging me on.  The greatest moments in my classes are usually when my students argue with me.

You can throw your hands up
You can be the clock
You can move a mountain
You can break rocks
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself Standing in the hall of fame
And the world’s gonna know your name
Cause you burn with the brightest flame
And the world’s gonna know your name
And you’ll be on the walls of the hall of fame
Hall of Fame, The Script.

While I was still working one day per week with the Breastfeeding Association I got the opportunity to start doing a little bit of curriculum development with my current school, and every time I set foot in a class I experienced the most amazing flow. It was a massive rush. The incredible attraction of the job and the school meant that it wasn’t long before I gave up my other work commitments and devoted myself wholly to teaching.

Last night our latest crop of year 12s had their valedictory dinner, and our illustrious leader made a comment about all of us – teachers and students alike – having stepped out of our comfort zone in order to move to our school. For me that was particularly poignant, as my first day at this school was the start of a completely new career. It was a massive step for me. It’s strange, in your late 30s, to feel as young, naive and ignorant as a new graduate, yet there I was. Established in one career, but nonetheless leaping off the deep end into an entirely different one. New workplace. New vocation. New life.

I don’t think I have spent a day inside my comfort zone since I started. And yet that is precisely why I experience flow so often in this job. I love it. I give it everything I have. And I push the boundaries every day. Every year I learn to know and love a new class of students, and every year it breaks my heart to say goodbye to them, even as I am excited and challenged by the next group. Every year I give my students everything I’ve got, and get more in return than I could possibly imagine.

Of course this does raise the question of balance. The problem with doing a job you love and believe in is that it’s very easy to want to do everything all at once. To reach higher, run faster, and do more every day. Sooner or later that doesn’t end well. It’s such a privilege to have a job that gives me astonishing joy, but it comes with a price that I have not yet learned to manage. I struggle to remember to take deep breaths and postpone some tasks until tomorrow, next week, or even next year. A colleague today teasingly implied that I effectively work full time hours for half time pay, and I was somewhat lost for a reply. It’s a lot more true than I’d like it to be.

At the very least, working the hours that I do, I would like to be doing my job better. To be more organised. To be more creative. To just be better at… well… at everything. But even working far more hours than I am supposed to, there just isn’t time.

Today a games developer friend of mine told my students that he has found that late nights mean more bugs. That starting at 9 and finishing at 5:30 ultimately gets the work done faster, and at higher quality, than trying to pull all nighters and work 60 hour weeks. I did a lot of not very subtle nudging of my students and saying “see? see??? more bugs!” and yet it took me all day to realise that I need to heed that lesson at least as much as my students do.

To have a job that fills me with such vivid delight is worth almost any price, but maybe I can negotiate the terms a little. With that in mind, perhaps I will go home on time today. Or at least less late than usual.

Ganging up

Once a week I start work at the start of the school day, rather than part way through, because my husband takes our kids to school. For weeks I have been trying to get to work extra early on that day so that I can make it to a mindfulness session that runs in the mornings, and until today I have never quite made it. This morning I was running on schedule for a change, and made it out the door in plenty of time to ride to work, park my bike and unpack my gear… except that as I stepped out the door I heard a rather raucous creaking noise from above, and I looked up into the large white cedar in our front yard and saw three gang gangs perched in the tree, happily munching on the remains of last year’s berries.

Gang gang

Male Gang gang eating last year’s White Cedar fruit

For a moment I hesitated. I could stay and admire the Gang gangs, who are infrequent visitors to our neighbourhood. They have always been particular favourites of mine for their dusty black plumage and the spectacular red crest of the boys. Or I could leap onto my bike and rush to make it in to work in time for the mindfulness session for a change. Then it dawned on me – there is nothing more mindful than pausing to admire birds in your own garden. This was a ready made, wing-delivered mindfulness session of my very own.

I called my family out to see, and we lingered for a while, watching them manoeuvre their way around the tree, sometimes flipping upside down to get to the best of the berries. It was a start to the day that left me smiling and peaceful. When I rode off around 10 minutes later, I figured I wasn’t going to make it to the session, so I resolved to be particularly mindful along the way. I concentrated on being aware of the traffic around me (always a wise idea!), and on feeling my feet on the pedals. I could feel the wind on my face and my hands on the handlebars. When the path around me was clear I noticed the birds and the cloud formations.

Rather than riding hard to get to work in a hurry, I cruised along simply enjoying the moment. Several pedestrians I passed going the other way smiled and said hello, which doesn’t often happen. I figured it was an indicator of my more relaxed and open attitude. And then something odd happened. As I neared work I looked at my watch and discovered that I had just ridden the fastest ride to work I’ve done in ages, and that I was in plenty of time to attend the mindfulness session.

Once I got to school I checked my watch against my phone, convinced it must have stopped. I couldn’t work out the logic of it. I wasn’t riding hard. I was more relaxed. And I got to work faster than usual. The phone confirmed the watch, and a look through my fitness tracking data showed that yes, this was the fastest ride in some time.

I think those Gang gangs served to teach me a valuable lesson. That stopping to enjoy the moment on offer, and relaxing into whatever you are doing, is far more effective than scrunching up both body and mind into a tangle of tension in an attempt to bulldoze your way through the day. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, with my coffee and my stress. I’ve been bulldozing and bludgeoning my body into getting through the day.

This morning I got my tense and wired mind out of my own way, and it was magic.

What do Gang gangs have to teach you?


Some weeks ago our icing syringe gave up its noble struggle for life, after years of faithful service. I duly trundled out and bought a new syringe, together with a new, professional style icing bag and then… I… um.  I put them somewhere. Presumably. Or I left the bag they were in somewhere, maybe? Or I accidentally cleaned them up and threw them out? I have no idea. I vividly remember buying them. After that I have absolutely no memory of doing anything with them at all.

Whatever I did do with them, I did it mindlessly. My brain was elsewhere, utterly disengaged from the present moment. My recent focus on mindfulness tells me that this is a bad thing. The more mindful you are, the better your health, the lower your anxiety levels, and the more empathic you can be. Thanks to a friend I discovered the smiling mind program a few weeks ago, and they have a lot to say about mindlessness. Mindlessness results in losing your keys, not knowing whether you have done things you intended to do, and a lot of excess anxiety, among a whole slew of other negative effects.

For me, the biggest impact is that mindlessness means that my mind, instead of being engaged in the present moment, is engaged in ramping up my stress levels – dwelling on past events, anticipating and fearing future ones, and generally building mountains out of molehills. Dr Craig Hassed, speaking on mindfulness at my workplace, said that one symptom of mindlessness is a constant low level feeling of guilt and anxiety. Does that strike a chord for you? It really does for me. A constant nagging guilt about the things I should be doing, the things I am not doing as well as I could, and the people I feel I am letting down. It eats at me and drags me down right when I can least afford it.

Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low

Only hate the road when you’re missing home

Only know you love her when you let her go

Passenger – Let Her Go

Have you ever anticipated a fight with someone? Gone over and over all the things they might say and do, and even had the whole argument in your head without ever talking to them directly? And then you see them in person and it turns out there is no fight at all. Or, worse, you wind up actually causing a fight because you have built yourself into a state of such stress and anger by anticipating reactions they might never have given, so it doesn’t occur to you that they might not do or say any of that in reality. You front up in a state of rage, with “How dare you!” at the front of your mind, when they haven’t actually said anything yet.

All that is the result of mindlessness. Because while you are having those arguments in your head, anticipating those traumas, going over and over the possible scenarios, you are not mentally present in there here and now. You are locked up inside your own head, building up a huge frothy head of anxiety.

Fortunately mindfulness is a matter of habit. You can use smiling mind to help build the habit, or you can do simple things to ground yourself in the present. I’m working on a combination of both. You can feel the floor touching your feet, or the fabric of your clothes touching your skin. You can focus on the feeling of the wind on your face. You can feel how your back presses against your chair, and listen to the sound of birds in the trees outside. You can listen to the hum of the air conditioning, or the rumble of traffic. You can stare into the fire and watch the shape of the flames, or you can give your full attention to someone who is talking to you. If you’re having trouble focusing on the conversation, try actually noticing their faces. How many freckles do they have? What colour are their eyes, really?

These are simple tricks that can literally extend your life – and certainly make it more fun. How often do you really listen to your kids when they are telling you about your day? How many times do you suddenly realise you haven’t heard anything your partner has been saying for the last five minutes? How much stress do you create for yourself by spending so little time actually inhabiting your body right here and right now?

Meanwhile if you find a brand new icing syringe and a piping bag lying around somewhere, I’d be fascinated to know what I did with them.

PS I am curious to know how people are finding my blog, and why you choose to follow it (or not!). If you feel inclined, please leave me a comment or send me an email to let me know. Thanks!

Minding your own business

Most of us live in a kind of temporal blur. We spend so much time regretting the past and fretting about the future that we completely miss the present. We have wandering minds. Sometimes I think that I am so busy being mentally else-when that I don’t even see my own children clearly.

Wandering minds tend to stray to whatever is bothering us at the moment, and to the many things that have bothered us in the past. Research shows that this habit of brooding on the negative is a kind of chronic stress that creates minds that are physiologically prone to exaggerate and overreact to problems.

Chronic stress actually causes the centre of emotional overreaction, the amygdala, to grow measurably larger. The amygdala is the “flying off the handle” centre of the brain, so a larger amygdala leaves us with a tendency to fight (or fly) before our conscious brains have even registered that there is a problem.  Having it grow large and over-reactive is clearly not going to end well for us.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” [*]

Mindfulness, in contrast, causes the amygdala to shrink, and makes the conscious mind quicker and more agile – more able to step in before we overreact. Mindfulness is nothing more than focusing on the present moment, on what you are feeling and experiencing right now. It can be as simple as listening to the birds chirping in the nearby trees, or as difficult as meditation.

Last week I was lucky enough to be present for a talk from an eminent mindfulness researcher, Dr Craig Hassed, that comprehensively blew my mind. Dr Hassed presented us with a summary of the current state of mindfulness research. Many of us probably think of crystals and hippies when we think of mindfulness. It seems like the latest spiritual craze, and not terribly relevant to our every day lives.

Except that mindfulness is scientifically proven in a whole lot of stunning ways. It boosts our immune system, reduces our stress, and causes measurable physiological changes in our brains. It also slows the shortening of our telomeres (a biological measure of ageing). In short, mindfulness meditation is better for you than antibiotics when you are sick, or any selection of vitamins you can name. Mindfulness also leads to better empathy, improved problem solving, and enhanced emotional control. It is an anti-stress, anti-ageing wonder drug – except it’s not a drug.

Chronic stress is physically and psychologically brutal. Sometimes you can’t reduce the stress in your life, but you can change your response to it, by simply bringing your mind back to what’s in front of you, instead of endlessly chewing over stress from the past or the future.

Sometimes I’m tired, sometimes I’m shot
Sometimes I don’t know how much more I’ve got
Maybe I’m headed over the hill
Maybe I’ve set myself up for the kill
Tell me how much do you think you can take
Until the heart in you is starting to break?
Sometimes it feels like it will

I go to Extremes – Billy Joel

Craig Hassed put it beautifully – you can sit in a chair and meditate, but it’s what you do when you get out of the chair that matters. It’s relatively easy to meditate for a short time. It’s much harder to be mindful throughout your day, every day.

I suspect there is a connection between mindfulness and what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow – that wondrous state where you are completely focused on what you are doing. Flow is a feeling that no time has passed when you have actually been absorbed in something for hours. It happens when you are engaged in something that you are good at, that you are challenged by, and that you enjoy. I feel it when I’m teaching. If you are lucky enough to have a job where you experience flow, then you will be mindful at those times. But this is “accidental mindfulness”. You are perfectly mindful, but only because you are engaged in the perfect task.

Being mindful when you are doing something mindless – something that doesn’t engage you – is much harder. For example, this morning I was putting out the washing. Not exactly a riveting occupation, so my mind began to wander. Instead of allowing it to dwell on recent traumas, I brought my mind back to focus on the breeze, and the feeling of sunshine warming my skin. I listened to the birds chirping nearby, and I noticed the flowers that have come out recently. In short, I paid attention to the moment. Rather than spending those ten minutes contemplating stress, I spent them contemplating the world around me. For ten minutes I was not focused on trauma, not reinforcing the negative pathways in my mind, and not ramping up my stress levels.

Ten minutes is easy. Doing it all day is much harder. I suspect that perfect mindfulness is not an achievable goal for a human being, but it does get easier with practice. Becoming aware of your thoughts and bringing them back to where you are is much easier than trying to force yourself not to think about stressful things. The more you stress about your stress, the more you reinforce it. If, instead, you think about the patterns of light and shade in the leaves outside your window, you can pull yourself back from stressing over the past and fearing the future, and immerse yourself in the present.

Teaching yourself to be more in the moment can literally save your life. It could obviously be the difference between life and death when you’re driving – paying attention to the road in front of you rather than the phone on your lap – but it can also add years to your life through increased health and happiness.

How mindful are you?

[*] Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science 12 November 2010: Vol. 330. no. 6006, p. 932 DOI: 10.1126/ science.1192439

Time for nothing

Gluten free bread, for those of you who have not experienced it, tends to be dry and crumbly. It can be lovely fresh from the oven, but the loveliness rarely lasts for even 24 hours. After that it is only good for toast. Fortunately a bakery near us does wonderful gluten free bread that is almost as good as real bread, but for some reason they always slice it very thinly, so that when toasted it becomes excessively crunchy and dry. Periodically I order a few loaves unsliced and stash them in our freezer, so that I can slice it myself and make it thick enough for a really tasty wodge of toast. (Thank you, computer, but “wodge” is too a word, so nyer.)

Yesterday as I was slicing off my morning toast it occurred to me that pre-sliced bread is something of a mixed blessing. A really thick wodge of toast is a very lovely thing that most of us never see any more, as we sacrifice this small luxury for the convenience of being able to shove a thin spongy thing into the toaster as we fly through the morning routine, getting ready to rush out the door. Slicing my own bread takes, maybe, 30 seconds, yet before I went gluten free I almost never bothered to buy unsliced bread. Which is a shame, because a thick wodge of toast is the best thing since sliced bread.

There are a lot of devices in our lives designed to save us time. Our houses overflow with the things. Dish washers, washing machines, dryers, power mowers, microwaves, food processors, computers, and even cars – each new model guaranteed to be faster, more powerful and, importantly, shinier than the last.

Yet so many of the devices come with a cost. We speed down the road in our cars so that we can squeeze in a trip to the gym to regain the fitness we have lost by driving everywhere. Our power mowers wreck our ears, our lungs and the environment, and ultimately save us very little time, since hand mowers these days are remarkably fast and effective. Ours must be at least 15 years old now, and it still does our lawn fast, quietly, and above all safely. (Although I did fall backwards onto our old one once, obtaining the worst bruising of my life on my lower back and buttocks in an act of clumsiness that will not surprise regular readers. On the bright side nothing was severed, as it undoubtedly would have been had I fallen onto some kind of power mower.)

It is a mystery to me where all this saved time has gone. For all our houses full of time saving devices, we are busier than ever before. Too busy for friends, too busy for family, too busy to stop and chat, too busy for mindful contemplation of our lives. Too busy, it seems, even to breathe deeply and admire the sunset. We ruefully acknowledge the downsides of our busy-ness – “I’m a bad friend. I just haven’t had time to call her.” “I worry I’m not spending enough time with the kids.” “I never get to spend time with my husband.” “Life’s just too busy.”

And you’re rushing headlong
you’ve got a new goal
and you’re rushing headlong
out of control
and you think you’re so strong
but there ain’t no stopping and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Queen, Headlong.

Over the last week I have been on crutches – physically prevented from rushing anywhere. I have been forced to slow down, and in chafing against it I have discovered how much of a habit hurtling has become. I think maybe it is a kind of drug. We seem to feel that time spent doing nothing is time wasted.  And in the process we have forgotten how to breathe.

Maybe it’s time to to spend some of that time we’re saving.