The most painful things are the most true.

Like being on every pre-sales call. Eventually you learn to just keep your mouth shut and nod. And of course deal with the fallout in the post-sale implementation.

How Hard Could Just Sitting There Be? Turns out…

"Petal", Agnes Martin (1964)
“Petal”, Agnes Martin (1964)

You know how when you’re into something you suddenly see it everywhere? Maybe it was there all along and you were (and this is particularly apt) unaware of it? Or maybe it’s just that you stumbled onto something trendy at just the right time that you accidentally trend-set yourself? Or something like that anyway.

Mindfulness meditation. It’s a thing. And it’s everywhere.

Meditation is not new, of course. It’s an ancient practice. And the whole “mindfulness meditation as a science-based health-assisting practice” goes back a few decades. But here I am, sitting in a weekly MBSR class trying to learn it for myself. And when I open my eyes from one of our sitting meditations, I now see it around me so much.

For a while in the early 2000s, I had a daily meditation practice. I didn’t call it that, because that is way too close to using crystal deodorant and “sprouting my own” for me. I didn’t even really think of it as a “daily” “meditation” “practice” in any sense of those three words. Instead, most evenings, just as I was going to bed, I’d sit on the edge of my bed (or sometimes lied down, but mostly sat) and focus on breathing and trying to relax. I’d start at my head and just work down, trying to consciously relax each part of my body as I went. It took maybe 15-20 minutes and it basically just helped me sleep better. I guess I thought of it vaguely as “cleansing” in some way. I didn’t think of it as reducing stress or have any thoughts about it at all during the rest of the day. It just let me breathe out my tension.

And then, for some reason that I don’t even recall because it probably wasn’t a reason so much as just a change in my routine, I stopped. I knew about formal meditation, of course. I mean: I live in California so it’s impossible not to know about things like meditation and hemp and VC pitching and Burning Man, even if they aren’t things you ever want to actually engage in yourself. But I’ve done a few evenings at the local Buddhist meditation center doing a more formal meditation sitting and listening to their dharma talk. I’m not at all religious or even spiritual, but I enjoyed these and I felt a bit lighter afterwards. So I was predisposed to think there was something in this sitting and breathing for an hour or so stuff after all.

A few months ago, shit got rather real in my life. I’m a naturally anxious person at the best of times. On a 1-10 scale I’m probably operating around a 7 or 8 just being alive. But some other stuff, none of which I’m going to get into on the internet, started piling up and I was not coping well. In the grand tradition of “I just don’t believe in…” that exists in my family I also did that thing where you just try to ignore something is going on and hope it goes away? That didn’t work. Neither did the other option I felt I had which was just to “steer into the skid” and work ever harder. When things are truly out of your control and your photo is in the dictionary next to the definition for “control freak” something’s got to break. Turns out, when I get over-anxious I get hostile. I get angry and lash out and it’s never at the people who truly deserve it. Something really had to give after I would react to someone saying the wrong thing with hysterical crying and losing all the feeling in my hands.

So I signed up for a 10-week class for MBSR for women. Once a week, about half a dozen of us meet and are lead by two instructors through a combination of mediation exercises and some general group discussion. Two months, and one full day in silent meditation later, I can say: it’s helping. I guess? It’s hard to know exactly but I feel better in general so why not ascribe it to this?

I’ve had a hard time with the sitting meditation, which I didn’t expect. Based on my previous experiences I thought I’d pick it back up easily but I really struggle with doing it for any length of time every day. But what I’ve picked up and really started to love and crave is a walking mediation practice. For about 30-45 minutes each night I just… pace pretty much describes it, but leisurely-like, back and forth in my living room/office. The cats think I’m completely insane and probably if anyone else saw me they’d think so too. But it’s actually the opposite of insanity – it’s giving me my sanity back.

I know I’m not the first to the mindfulness party. But like converts anywhere, I feel I need to share what I’ve learned (and am still learning) about a simple-to-learn but not-so-easy-to-really-do practice that might work for others. When I work with coaching clients I’m very clear that I have no training in, nor intentions to deliver, any kind of personal or psychological advice or counseling. I’m focused on their actions and processes around their work, not really their feelings about it but it’s also clear that sometimes there are truly psychological barriers holding us back from achieving what we truly want and have all the best intentions to achieve. For some people those require personal counseling, but for me at this time I seemed to require a whole new way of approaching what the world was delivering to me.

Next week is our last class and I’ll miss that formal reminder/setting. I do well when there’s homework and a structure of reporting to someone else. There are options though, SFMOMA is doing a Slow Art Day tour. Can I look at art for 10 minutes straight? Yeah! Easy! I stared at the Agnes Martin piece here for nearly an hour once.

Playing Hooky

Ben Affleck in ArgoIt’s been a busy few weeks, both at BrightLight and at my day job, a reflection on this being that kind of season I guess. I looked at my calendar for the remaining months of the year and freaked out at how little time there was left and how much I had to get done. It seems like it went from lazy summer to crazy fall.

By the end of last week I’d just had it. I was Done and I’m sure you know what I mean. So, I played hooky. At 3pm on Friday I left work and went to the movies. It was revelatory.

There’s no point in lying: I have played hooky before – taken off “sick” when I really wasn’t. But it was always to do something else. And I mean “To Do” in the capital letters of a To Do List. I needed to run an errand that had been long neglected or just to plain catch up on laundry that threatened to overwhelm my apartment so much it was close to easier just to move than to do it. I’ve never taken off for something plain fun and frivolous. I tried to at least respect the fact that if I was engaging in some trickery I was at least doing it for earnest reasons. And now, if I may say so, Screw That. Let’s do this again.

I went to a 3:45 pm showing of Argo, which just came out. I bought a soda and some M&Ms and had a crazy good time sitting in a dark theatre in the middle of a working afternoon. It was certainly a better use of my time than just sitting at work not really accomplishing anything and, given how I was feeling at the time, mostly making things worse. Instead, I felt so relaxed. Once I’d made the decision I was going to take off and I was just going to go to the movies and not work on the dozens of things on my “To Do, No Really, You Need To Do This List”, I was nearly giddy. As far as I’m concerned the movie should win every award ever for how great it made me feel (in reality it was good and fun but not really the greatest movie of all time*). When I walked out two hours later I was completely refreshed.

Probably freelancers get this. One of the main appeals is to have your own schedule – go to the movies mid-day. Take a long lunch. And, of course, pay for that by working long into the night. But I’ve generally appreciated the regularity of my 9-5 where my hours are boxed in – both for my company’s benefit and for mine. It tells me when to focus on what, which is a structure I need.

But I will absolutely do this again sometime. And sooner rather than later.

(* Ben Affleck’s shaggy hair and beard are amazing and I hope that trend catches on outside Brooklyn)

Being busy doesn’t mean you’re getting anything done.

 

I think the line below about “professional martyrdom” is so right-on. But it’s not just professional – people are also “so busy” in their personal lives as well. It’s a competitive thing, always being too busy. What are we really busy for? Usually nothing that worthwhile – checking email, reading Twitter (hey, yo! Sign up to follow me so you too can get non-stop cat pictures!), documenting our lunch on Instagram. I do it, I’m a total kettle-calling pot on this one.

And yet the conventional workplace – the office – condemns the optimal working day as contemptibly slack. Watch carefully the next time someone rushes purposefully past you in the office corridor, shielded from eye contact by the ubiquitous smartphone, radiating the carefully honed “Can’t stop, too busy” expression so characteristic of corporate ambition. They are not rushing to arrive somewhere, still less to achieve anything. They are rushing because rushing is how they display how hard they work.

The cult of busyness extends far beyond grumpy bosses and line managers. It is a cultural malaise. In every area of public life, we demand not only that people work harder, but, crucially, that they be seen to work ever harder. This is the age of professional martyrdom.

As someone really interested in efficient time management I think that we try to fill available time because in most cases if you aren’t “so busy” people get suspicious. Maybe you aren’t working as hard as you could be (ah, the Cult of Productivity!) or maybe you aren’t experiencing everything life has to offer to the fullest. You have to be cramming something worthwhile (and by “worthwhile” it has to be something you can post to your various social media outlets with the intent of making other people jealous. Don’t lie! That’s totally what’s going on!) into every spare second. Truly, this is killing us and it isn’t moving us ahead. There has to be a better way.

Magic. It’s just magic. Sorry to disappoint you.

This seems to happen to me often: I’m at work (the daytime one) and someone calls my line from one of our customer service departments, “I have someone on the line who can’t <do x>, can you help them? I can’t figure out what’s going on.”. Ok, sure. The person comes on the line and I ask them to walk me through what they’ve been trying. Inevitably, 9 times out of 10, it works fine. “Oh! It worked. I don’t know why it didn’t work before but it looks like it’s working now. What did you do?”.

I do fess up “Nothing. I didn’t do anything. I guess whatever it was was just temporary.” (“just temporary” being, of course, help desk slang for “some dumbass thing you did but won’t admit to, right?”). The truth is, though, since they came on the phone I was throwing high magic spells at the server and that’s what I did. MAGIC.