Ask the Body; She Knows

During a sermon on gratitude yesterday, our intern minister referred to a book about America before the Europeans arrived. The central point of the book is revealing the ways that the culture of Native Americans was more “developed” and “evolved” than most of us might suppose.

aerial-architecture-black-and-white-700974As a former social studies teacher the idea was not new to me, but it gave me pause as it clearly demonstrated this idea that we have, at least in the places where I experience the cultural cloud, that being evolved and developed is evidenced by complexity and complication. We are evolved when we live in dense centers of population and develop cultural events and places to hold them, when we do more stuff, when we have more stuff. It’s an interesting premise, an assumption. It’s an assumption I’m not sure I agree with.

It got me to wondering if we make this assumption on an individual level as well. Do we complicate things out of some kind of sense that THIS is what being grown, sophisticated, fulfilled, evolved is all about? I can’t speak for anybody else (as much as I’d like to), but for me the answer is an unqualified yes.

I have often complicated my life because I felt that was the responsible, the practical, the adult thing to do. I have lingered over problems and lived in the pause for months, nay years, at a time because answering a difficult question with the simplicity of what I wanted was unacceptable. I have added things to my life because my culture tells me they are the right things to want, to seek, to add, and to plan for me and for my family. I have chosen complexity as evolution. I am sitting here seeing that so clearly and yet seeing it doesn’t necessarily make clear an alternate path.

This is the part of this tale of complexity and cultural absorption where another writer would encourage you to embrace simplicity: to downsize, to purge all of the trappings of commercial existence. I’m pretty sure I’ve bought books about doing just that – yes the irony is everywhere.

I am not that writer. I can appreciate simplicity but frankly am not that low maintenance (and that’s an admission that has been a long time coming). I greatly enjoy creature comforts. I also really love to have enough room to be by myself despite having a full house. And then, there are the books.

My life is also tied to the lives of at least three other people who have little interest in tiny houses and washing dishes by hand.

So perhaps it’s a cheat, but in challenging this artificial complexity, I want to recommend not a zealous pursuit of simplicity, but the more ambiguous but tremendously revealing practice of discernment.

For those of us who live or have lived with ministers, discernment is a regular part of common speech, but it doesn’t necessarily get a lot of play elsewhere, which is interesting in and of itself. Merriam-Webster tells us that discernment is: “the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure.”

In the ministerial context, discernment usually refers to sorting out one’s call to ministry: “What is God calling me to do in this moment, in this career, in this life?” In other contexts, discernment really just refers to engaging in a careful examination of the stuff that may not be visible on the surface when you have a choice to make. Discernment is usually seen as a process, one that involves a pause and some serious reflection.

And so I return to this idea of complexity and simplicity in our lives and which path is better for us. We reach complexity through addition: the addition of stuff, the addition of needs and wants, the addition of ideas about who we are and should be, the addition of obligations, the addition of activities, the addition of relationships and connections. We reach simplicity through subtraction of the same list.

It seems to me that we cannot simply say that either complexity or simplicity are inherently virtuous/better/more evolved, but that it is proceeding through our lives with discernment that allows us to be more healthy, better developed, both more human and divine as we navigate the terrain before us.

looking-up-sitting-woman-1588038How do we exercise that discernment? The temptation is to gather data, but I want to suggest an alternate path, one that digs into the obscure bits that don’t usually get featured in our pro-con way of making choices.

When we want to add to our lives: be still for a moment and see how the body feels with the idea of this addition. Does it feel light, expansive, warm, excited? Does it feel heavy, tied down, drained, exhausted? The body can help you to discern how you feel about things that you may not feel good about saying out loud (even to yourself).

When we want to subtract: be still for a moment and see how the body feels with the idea of this subtraction. Does it feel more free? Does breathing become deeper and more satisfying? Does the body contract and shrink? The body can tell you when it’s time to let go of something and when something should be maintained.

Discernment can be tricky. You mind has a library of books full of stories between you and the answers to the questions you ask, the choices you long to make. What if the body can light up that darkness with some clarity? What if the way that you actually feel can make the obscure tangible?

As we enter into this season of gratitude and gathering, take a moment to check in with that body and see what she has to say about all of this. Where does your complexity fill your cup? When does simplicity feed your soul? What choices are actually so much simpler than your brain wants them to be?

Ask your body. She knows.

Don’t Invite Chaos

We’ve been having some work done on the house. Nothing dramatic, just attending to some things that were on the scale from droopy to downright non-functional. In that process we got a new toilet and vanity for the bathroom on the first floor of our house. Really glamorous topic, right? Don’t worry, it’s not going to get any earthier than this.

bathroom-clean-faucet-145512The first floor bath is a half bath, and it is the one that gets the most use by guests. The toilet in it was there when we moved in and whoever chose it must have been short. I have nothing against short people, but there are toilet height realities at work here. As some of my extended family (nearly all of whom are tall) get older, my concern about the shorty toilet grew. Rather than install a bar for guests to haul themselves up with, we got a new toilet and dumped the vanity that was there for a nicer one. Now, I measured the vanity that was in there. I chose carefully from the incredibly ridiculous number of options, but I didn’t take the depth into account, so the switch, which was supposed to be seamless, invisible, easy peasy now created a mess by exposing part of the wall that was unpainted and damaged from the old vanity. My guy took care of the damage, but he is not a paint guy so lo and behold our easy peasy switch now has another element to it.

I’ve not really been happy with the color in that room for a while. I liked it when I chose it… It happens sometimes. So, as these little changes were taking place I thought “Maybe it’s time to just repaint the sucker.” When the damaged wall appeared I thought: “Guess I’ll be doing that sooner rather than later.” When we had a break in the installation process because we were waiting on backsplash parts I thought: “I should probably do that before he comes back to finish the job.”

I mentioned this to my husband. “You’re probably right. We should do that before he comes back.” I started thinking about paint color (something we literally NEVER agree on by the way).

And then I said: “He’s coming back in four days.” Scot mumbled and then said: “Well, let’s do it this weekend.”

I pointed out that this weekend does not exist. Saturday is the date of darling daughter’s end of term violin recital. It is also the rescheduled date of darling son’s season ending soccer tournament, which may NOT end in time for all of us to make the recital. The next day features church (did I mention he’s a seminarian?), a meeting in the afternoon and plans to hear a civil rights speaker that evening. Apparently painting on the weekend meant at night or something. No thanks. That left two work days, one of which featured him being gone and the other of which featured a VERY long list of things I needed to do for my practice.

So I’m doing all of this logistical math. I can see the writing on the wall, but still there’s a part of me trying to figure out how to make it work. Maybe if I skipped that, but then I’d have to call so and so and I haven’t even chosen a color yet. I could probably go after dinner tonight and get paint. Then I could start first thing in the morning while I drink my coffee…. Seriously?

I had pretty much lost the thread. I decided this needed to be done. I had a vague dissatisfaction with the color – not hate mind you, just vague dissatisfaction. That escalated to needing to take care of that and then to needing to address it pretty much immediately multi-tasking, maybe also talking on the phone and recording a guided meditation. Sounds perfect, right?

And all of this urgency was just because if I painted it before he came back, the finish along the edge of the backsplash would look nicer. Yep, that’s it. That’s all. A line of paint that will likely be water spattered and camouflaged by the weird crap my kids leave in there most days anyway.

I’m gong to intentionally make things more difficult, jam pack my schedule, reorganize my priorities, give up rest and family time for that? What happens then? Do I win some kind of award? Does my house get featured in a magazine? Can I post a picture on Facebook and have everyone ooh and ah?

I saw it all happening, all of these semi-conscious decisions to escalate, to make it better, more, now, and it wasn’t until I was very nearly about to pick up my keys to go to the hardware store at a stupid time of day to get paint (with some internal grumbling and resentment by the way) that I realized that I was inviting chaos into my life by even considering this project. I was making things more difficult for myself for a reason that I’m still not clear on. I stopped. I took a deep breath.

I went back into the bathroom and took another look. Not perfect, but better. A little work to do for sure. Five minutes later I got an e-mail from my guy letting me know my parts were in and he would be here in the morning to install them. Times up.

And so his part of this project is now complete. Our part remains and as I was in there today, I took a look around. Maybe that color is okay after all. Maybe a touch up on the repaired part would be enough after all.

blonde-hair-brick-wall-close-up-975668I can’t say I’ll never invite chaos in again. That would be a big promise for me. But what I do want to do is to get better at seeing it, seeing the moment happen for I get too deep in, before I’ve bought the materials for that super-easy DIY or craft project so that I can just see them out of the corner of my eye as I do all of the other things I actually want to do more. I want to notice the role I play in my chaos, in my scurrying, and in my own resentment making. I want to see all of these things because I HAVE learned that seeing things changes them and a little renovation is always a good thing.

Get It All Out, Get It All Done

I’ve been talking a lot about our stories lately, the things we tell ourselves about ourselves, about other people, about the world. But a lot of our stories aren’t even as big as all of that. We have stories on the micro-level too. We have stories about our day, about our workload, about our priorities. Well, maybe you don’t, but I sure do.

I have one persistent story that shows up often, especially if I haven’t gotten enough sleep. In fact if I made a chart to track my bad sleep nights and mornings I have this thought, I think they’d line up pretty darn well. When I haven’t gotten enough rest, my morning mantra is “I won’t be able to get it all done.” Now when I say it’s a mantra, that makes it sound like I’m doing it on purpose, that I’m choosing it, that it might be helpful. I know it’s not. This story about my day, about my workload, about the next several hours is completely counter-productive, and that’s what makes it such a great example to demonstrate the value of getting it all out. Let me explain.

How to be more productiveThis very morning I was doing that thing. “I won’t be able to get it all done.” Once the thought happened, the anxiety increased and once the anxiety increased I got a lot less clear about my plan for the day. Once I got less clear, I began to lose track of everything I actually did or didn’t need to do and after this went on for awhile (in the background while assembling lunches and nagging 5th graders out of the door), all I really wanted to do was turn on Netflix, pop Facebook open, and drink a mug of tea – the very things that would, in fact, make my annoying thought true. I wanted to self-soothe by numbing out a little to shut that nattering voice up. But I didn’t do that, at least not today (I won’t go so far as to claim that I am completely and permanently beyond that kind of behavior).

Today I whipped out a clean piece of paper. And I wrote. I wrote it all down. I wrote down all of the anxious, nagging, self-confidence killing thoughts that were whizzing through my head. I just kept writing. I got to the end of the thread and my jacked up brain started just repeating itself, wanting to be sure I really understood that I couldn’t possibly get it all done. I kept writing my thoughts and that one repeated three times at the end of a lengthy paragraph, like a needle skipping on a record. And I laughed a little when that happened. What better sign that my brain was stuck in a loop, what Brooke Castillo calls a “thought error” than having it just repeat the same sentence over and over when it was out of other words? I don’t run out of words very often, as you may have noticed, so that kind of repetition is worth a pause. The point of this whole writing exercise was to get it all out, just let my anxious brain have its moment to say it all.

I gave voice to the fear and the anxiety and in doing so, it lost some of its power. I became the observer of my own thoughts and feelings instead of reacting and feeling like I was trapped. I began to see how allowing that set of thoughts was impacting me. I could acknowledge that the desire for a morning off was based solely on the way those thoughts made me feel, well and maybe a little lack of sleep. I got it all out, like one big verbal vomit. And, well to be honest about the analogy, just like vomit, it made me feel better.

Then I was able to look at my day and decide if that thought was true. Was it really true that I couldn’t possibly get it all done? Was there really so much on my plate? If the answer was yes, I would have a series of decisions to make (as described here), but as is so often the case when I’m stuck in this particular mental trap, I didn’t have SO much to do. I did have some important things to do that I hadn’t thought about very much. I had some items that were at risk of falling through the cracks, but had not yet done so. I made a quick list of those items and set it aside.

How to change your moodAnd then I got down to the business of choosing a new thought, one that would make me feel better, that would allow for action beyond the great escape of Netflix and Facebook (I will always drink tea), and that would give me results that DON’T prove the negative thoughts I have about myself. Instead of “I won’t be able to get it all done,” I chose the perhaps only mildly ambitious but totally believable: “I will be able to get everything important done.” It didn’t make me feel like Wonder Woman – because I’m tired and that’s just not somewhere I need to try to go today. But it DID make me feel calmer and infinitely more competent. It also reminded me that some list items CAN be let go in the interest of clear-headed productivity.

I got it all out. I checked out my thoughts. I chose a better one. And that better thought allowed me to feel capable, calm, relieved and competent. Feeling that way allowed me to sit down with my planner and figure out exactly what needed doing and when, making a schedule for myself that I could follow and get results. And you know what happened? I got it all done. I got it all out and then I got it all done.