Is it productive? A meditation practice for when thoughts produce fear

Breast cancer in 2015 changed the way my brain worked, and it changed the way I work with clients. I tried to think my way through decisions about treatments and lifestyle and what makes life rich, full and meaningful, and I found that I could not find peace through my thinking, planning, judging brain. I still needed it for some tasks in life, and it worked well enough for those. But for these issues of the heart and soul, it did not work. Not only did it not work, but it actually had a destructive effect. In the absence of new data to take into account, my rational brain spun in deepening spirals that took me farther from light and down into despair.

Fast forward, I’m almost a year out from my final surgery. I’ve worked with my brain space a lot, and it has changed how I coach my clients. I resumed my own meditation practice in the fall of 2015 and began to teach meditation again in late spring of this year. I’ve now brought meditation tools and tips into many of my coaching sessions. In light of recent U.S. election events, it seemed timely to offer the following small, simple meditation tool for those who wish to stop the anxiety that arises from repetitive, traumatizing trains of thoughts.

Is it Productive? 

If you’ve never meditated or only just begun, it can feel nearly impossible to stop the stream of thoughts about things, even when that stream of thoughts feels destructive. Our brains are wired to keep us alert to danger, so even if that danger is primarily in our thoughts, we will likely have a hard time shifting focus if we perceive danger there. Some of us can close the computer, turn off the radio and TV and walk away for a while. Some of us have a harder time. Trauma in our backgrounds can make this even more difficult to do.

When we sit in meditation (or use moving meditation, as in yoga, tai chi or even mindful walking), we begin to notice our thoughts and develop a little distance from them. Rather than being consumed by our thoughts, we begin to recognize that they move by as if they were scenes on a movie screen. At some point, we realize that the observer self is actually rather peaceful and calm.

In meditation, we practice two things quite a bit:

1) We practice focus. This is very much like going to the gym and lifting weights. By practicing, we develop the “muscle” of focus. At first, it can seem like we will never be able to focus, but over time, we gain greater ability to focus on what we wish to focus on. It can be the breath, body sensation, a sound, an image. Eventually, we gain some ability to shift over to this observer mind and to notice what we are trying to notice, rather than everything else.

2) We practice equanimity. Equanimity means mental calmness. We don’t react, judge or attach to what we’re noticing. We notice what we’re focusing on without harsh judgment of whether we’re focusing well or not. We cultivate curiosity and playfulness.

So here’s where the question, “Is it productive?” comes in. After a while, I begin to have some choices about what part of my brain I’m engaging. When I have a logical decision to make (like the one we engaged with in order to decide on a new heating system for our home), I can make spreadsheets, ponder pros and cons, look at bottom line data in order to make decisions. I can calculate, strategize and plan. Then, when I want to disconnect from my rational mind, I have cultivated some tools of focus and equanimity to help me do so. How, then, do I know which one to engage?

I ask myself (and my clients), “Is it productive?”

Here are some examples:

  • The internal dialogue you hear says that you are not worthy of your space on the planet and haunts you with recrimination for all your past failures.
  • Your boss has been very quiet lately, and you fear that he/she is unhappy with you. You obsess about what you may have done to displease them.
  • The fatigue you’ve been feeling lately is causing you anxiety. Is it a serious illness? Maybe you have a serious illness, and now you’re afraid it may be progressing. This unwanted thought intrudes into your daily activities.
  • Societal events have taken a turn you didn’t expect or want. You churn with fear for what might happen to your neighbors, your planet, your children. You can’t sleep, and you feel your blood pressure rising.

What does “productive” mean? For me, that means that my train of thought leads to positive, rather than destructive, action and states of mind. In all of the examples above, the repetitive thoughts about these things causes stress hormones to rise, disrupts the ability to sleep or engage in good self-care, and diverts energy from the very actions that might change the situations that trouble me. They are not productive.

When I ask myself, “Is it productive? Is it leading me to positive action and healthy states of mind?” and I come up with a “no,” I take that as a cue to shift my focus to present-moment awareness. I return to breath. I notice that I’m doing dishes, driving, sitting with my family members. Perhaps I need to jot down some of my troubling thoughts because they are bringing up some important things to consider for future action. Fine. I jot them down so I can stop obsessing about them and fearing that I will forget an important point. Then I return to present-moment awareness.

In light of election events this past week, many people are troubled. They have fears that are arguably not unfounded. However, if the fears have become intrusive and destructive to mental and physical health, it may be time to ask, “Is it productive?” and shift awareness.  There are people counting on us to do the work of kindness and justice in the world, and we will need all of our available energy for that purpose.

 

 

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The Writer’s Process and the Role of the CEO

I wear at least three different hats when I write: the Creative, the Critic and the CEO. Each one involves a different mindset and its own space to work.

The Creative requires freedom to play. She will make a big mess, lots of pages of total garbage, and a lot of creative gold, if given time and space to do her thing. She comes up with lots of ideas that end up going nowhere, but she also comes up with ideas out of that process which lead to books and blogs and interesting business ideas. The Creative is very much “in the Now,” and doesn’t so much plan as play.

The Critic takes all the mess the Creative has made and sorts it out. She says, “This is garbage; this is not. This could be really good, if…” The Critic edits and shapes the mess into something professionally acceptable and, hopefully, excellent. She’s also a bit short-sighted and digs into the nitty-gritty of what’s in front of her. She can, however, step outside of herself and say, “How does this feel to my target reader, not just to me?”

The CEO’s job is to manage the relationship between the two and the flow of the big picture. The CEO knows the budget of resources (time, energy, money) and the writer’s career trajectory. The CEO, if operating from a place of understanding the Creative and the Critic, knows that the two don’t always work well together. Given an understanding of the constraints, the CEO gives the Creative enough room to play, shushing the Critic’s desire to jump in and start editing now and waits until the Creative has had a chance to explore and play with the options and the content. When the timing is right, the CEO unleashes the Critic to do a mighty job of cleaning up. The CEO knows to separate the two processes because the Critic can easily shutdown the Creative and cut off the flow of content she needs for her maniacal editing. Everyone ends up unhappy when that happens.

How do you manage the relationship between these parts of your writing self? What tools do you have to quiet the Critic, free-up the Creative, and manage the process for your writing success? Where do you get hung-up in that management process?

Coaching from experience

As a coach, I draw on a number of tools I’ve gathered over the years: training in mediation; communication training from a variety of sources; community building work from M. Scott Peck’s FCE organization and the related Quaker tradition of gaining clarity from asking questions and listening deeply to the answers; training and certification as a coach.

But what I also draw on is my personal experience. I just completed the publication process on my book, The Wilderness of Motherhood: A memoir of hope and healing (available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback formats). I had to deal with my own excitement and enthusiasm; my boredom; my impatience; my procrastination; my overwhelm at figuring out the technical aspects of publishing and marketing; my hopes and anxiety about the outcomes.

I had to do a lot of self-management through that process. I set up accountability relationships to keep me on track. I got outside editors to help me with the tougher aspects of smoothing-out the storyline and finding the errors I couldn’t see because I was too close to the project myself. Sometimes, I had to let it rest, and I worked on acceptance of the fact that there are seasons for working on a book – and seasons for letting it incubate. I had to let go of my guilt, at times, that I wasn’t working better or faster. And then, I needed to slowly keep showing up to slog through the technical details of self-publishing.

When I work with my coaching clients, I’m not just drawing from abstract (though wonderful) concepts about how to work through difficult, long-term projects and how to achieve goals. There’s a messy self-management process that most people discover when their longings, self-defeating tendencies, strengths and weaknesses collide. I get it. I’m doing the same work my clients are doing, and we walk through their challenges together.

Redefining Success: Perfectionism as only one tool of many (Part II)

We are multifaceted beings, but we can lose sight of that when one aspect of our personalities or identities becomes dominant. One place this can become a serious problem is in the case of perfectionism and our definition of success.

Perfectionism can be a useful aspect of ourselves. Being extremely picky about the quality of our work can make our work shine. However, perfectionism tends to be a tyrant when we identify it as our entire way of being and when we don’t know how or when to rein it in. In other words, I can spend an extra hour or two fine-tuning an important presentation, but when that level of scrutiny and criticism starts to invade my down time or won’t let me stop working when I really need to be done, it is more like a cancer to the spirit than a cure for dreaded mediocrity. It does not always stay within useful bounds and seems greedy to infiltrate areas where it does not serve us.

When I say to myself, “I am a perfectionist,” the limitation here is in believing that is all that I am. The thing we need to do to counteract this is to notice that there is a part of us that can observe the perfectionist. That part, that observer, is a part that may also be able to identify other parts of us. What are your other parts? Are you also playful? Creative? Able to be present to others? Take a moment to list some of the other aspects of yourself that might be at play in your life and might have a useful role in how you define success. 

Success looks really different through the eyes of a creative process or a playful process or a mundane/rote process. For example, if I’m brainstorming for a novel, success may be several pages of scribbled notes, with only a few useful ideas, but those ideas are the writing gold that will serve as the first stage of my writing project. If I want to spend time with my son, it’s clearly more successful to me if we’ve had a fun time and gotten done some of our tasks than if we’ve checked off everything but not had an emotionally connected time. And there are, of course, some things that don’t deserve the level of intensity that tyrannical perfectionism insists upon: cleaning the toilet, sweeping floors, raking the yard. Good enough is truly success in those situations.

Not every process benefits from the scrutiny of perfectionism, and it’s not always a useful tool to pick up. My coaching question for the client who struggles with perfectionism is this: which tool would they like to pick up at any given point? If perfectionism is the best tool to serve your goals, then by all means, use it. However, there are many other tools in your tool bag, and you can always gain more of them. Allow yourself to get into Master Carpenter mode, where all the tools can be used to their greatest potential, rather than relying solely on the hammer of perfectionism. Success does not lie in crushing everything under the pounding of unrealistic expectations; it lies in employing the right approach to the right problem.

Step back. Look at the many aspects of your personality and the tools you possess. Which ones will you employ, and where will you do so? How does success look different when you employ more than one tool? 

Redefining Success – Part I

At the end of the day, most people I know do not feel successful. Despite the fact that they’re working non-stop and reaching many of their goals, they don’t feel successful. I’d like to offer some thoughts from both my coaching practice and my personal experience to help us all feel more successful at the end of the day. 

What and who defines success for you?

Most of us think we know what success is, until we try to put it into words. Then it starts to sound ridiculous. Is success really about ticking off every item on your to-do list? Is it really about getting everything done perfectly? 

One of the things I ask my clients to do is to is to ask themselves what defines success at the end of their day. If you work for yourself (and a lot of my clients are freelance writers or otherwise entrepreneurial), you’ve got to meet a couple of metrics at the end of the day in order to be successful.

1) Your own standard of work. If you work for yourself, you no longer have a boss telling you how much to produce each day, either in terms of product or money. You set the barre. Where is that barre for you? How much money? How many words? What does a “productive” day look like for you? Are you a tyrant, or are you being reasonable with yourself? What makes your work meaningful, and have you taken some action toward producing that meaningful work or planning for it to become a larger part of your workday over time? 

If you are familiar with SMART goals, you know that vague, unrealistic goals don’t even count as goals. They need to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-sensitive. These metrics are meant to keep our goals truly reachable – and workable in the larger scheme of life.

2) Your client’s standard of work. There’s a reasonable argument that can be made that you no longer have a boss, but now every client is a boss. Personally, my own standard here is this: I have to please enough of my clients to meet my financial goals and professional goals. Sometimes, I will run across a difficult client. Maybe I could please them, if I twisted and contorted myself to meet their unrealistic expectations. Maybe they are only difficult because they are difficult for me to work with. Does it mean I’m a failure if I can’t please them? Perhaps the best thing I can do for myself, my sanity and for that client’s project success is to fire the clients who don’t work well for me (and for whom it’s way too emotionally or time expensive for me to work well for them) and to find better clients. I feel good at the end of the day if I’ve referred them to a better fit coach or writer. I don’t have to please everyone, but I have to please enough of them to reach my goals, and I want to do that in a way that makes sense for me.

What about the Big Picture?

At the end of the day, success is about more than work and money. What other parts of life need to be nurtured for you to feel successful?

I’ve got two big areas of life that I need to attend to. I’ll share them with you, and I ask you to consider what needs to be on your list in order to feel your life has been successful, apart from your work 

1. Self-care. If I don’t attend to my self-care, I will eventually cease to be of use to myself, to my family or my clients. On the physical side of things, I need to eat well, drink enough water, exercise, and sleep enough. If these things are in place 95% of the time, I’m going to be a sustainable operation. If I don’t, I risk breaking down. If my self-tracking shows I am neglecting these things more than 5% of the time, I need to put on the brakes and re-evaluate, pronto. 

The other aspect of self-care is my emotional and spiritual self. I need to journal, create art, pray and meditate at a frequency that nurtures my emotions and spirit. If I do these things with 95% success, I’m going to chug along really well. If I break down more than that, I’m headed for trouble.

2. Family. My husband and my son are my two top people. If at the end of the day I have connected with them, know what’s happening with them and been present and supportive of them, that is a successful day. I will not always connect with them at the same depth, but we have times scheduled together that are vital to these relationships being solid and working. If I’m showing up for them in space and time, with my attention fully engaged, then that is critical aspect of a successful day.

What about the rest?

There’s a lot more on my list to do every day. It includes things like house cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, financial tracking, getting dressed, shuttling my son to karate and piano lessons, and so on. I’m going to get a lot of those things done on most days. However, if I’ve taken care of my self-care, my primary relationships and the core values of my business, the rest is gravy. I can rest at the end of the day knowing I’ve been successful. There will always be more to do. However, my success does not depend on getting everything done in perfect fashion. It relies on furthering my core directives in life and business. 

Questions for You

What is success for you? How can you redefine success so that it works for you and your life as you find it now? Is someone else’s standard of success driving your sense of satisfaction? How can you take back ownership of your satisfaction with your life?

Redefining Success: Part II – The Tyranny of the Inner Perfectionist

For the love of writing: my favorite tool to overcome procrastination

I love writing. I have loved writing all my life. Except when I haven’t.

I have a visceral relationship with writing, and I have determined as an adult that writing is a tool without which I cannot think. After a period of time without writing (varying from hours to days), a sensation fills my chest cavity. It is as if an open faucet has been filling my chest over that time, and it has now filled me up. Writing is the mechanism by which I pour it out. On the page, I can identify the contents clearly. If I don’t empty the container, the thoughts float around in murky places, and I cannot clearly see them, understand them or work with them. I will sneak out to write in the same way a smoker will slip out of a social situation to smoke. Inhale. Exhale. Ahhhh, relief from the craving. 

And yet, despite this drive, I still find ways to procrastinate. I’m completing my memoir these days, The Wilderness of Motherhood. I will self-publish it in April. I have now gone through a couple rounds of edits, and I’m completing yet another in order to get the document to an editor who will help the final fine-tuning process. When I get into it, I love it. I love working with the words, re-reading what I’ve written and finding it to be good. “When I get into it,” is the operative phrase here. I have managed to waste hours, days, weeks, even months avoiding those edits. I don’t understand the mechanism of it, but I am working actively with the method of getting past it. I suppose you could call it ironic that I haven’t yet gotten around to understanding my procrastination. I’ve previously written on this blog about procrastination; I have also taught classes addressing it. Frankly, at this point, I am ready to stop using my examination of procrastination as a means to procrastinate from my writing.

My most powerful tool to get past the procrastination is community accountability. I started a Google Group called “Project Clock-In” for the express purpose of getting my own stuff done more effectively (Check it out, and if you’d like to join, drop me a note with your email address. I’ll send you an invite). I invited other people in, and they seem to be profiting from the group, as well. I had really selfish motives for setting it up in the first place: I know that when I state my intentions and plans for the day to other people, I am significantly more likely to fulfill those intentions than if I think about them or even put them on my calendar. Other people’s witnessing of my plans shines a light there and helps me to focus and to overcome my selective amnesia. I have goals for my writing, my business, my personal life that, if I don’t have reminders of their importance, I simply forget how much they mean to me in the course of the day. Noisy, minor crises take over my day, and the more meaningful projects that fulfill my calling quietly languish.

I’ve written recently about 2014 being the “year of rigorous tracking.” I’ve tracked my use of time and money. Time is a resource that flows through my fingers at the same rate, whether I use it well or not. The benefit of tracking is that I recognize sooner when I’m not using my time for what’s important, and it helps me to identify my patterns that work well and that don’t work so well. For me, and for many others who find social supports to be invigorating and focusing, accountability can make the difference between getting that beloved writing project done or not.

 

Time tracking: two big rocks

Prior to this era of personal time tracking, if you told me I had two hours to myself, I would make a list of 20 things I hoped to get done in that time. Then one of two things would happen: I would either work frantically to accomplish as many of them as possible (and feel entirely spent at the end), or I would become frozen with the immensity of the tasks before me. i would waste the time and get none of the important things done. 

What I found myself saying this month is, “My priority in the next two hours is to get x and y done.”  It didn’t mean I stopped after I got those two things done. I often got much more done. But focusing on those two priorities helped me to feel less frantic, anxious and overwhelmed (surely, I could get two things done!), and I was less exhausted at the end of that time. I usually got those two priorities done, and they were the two Big Rocks in my mayonnaise jar. The rest of the sand and pebbles fit in around them.

The mayonnaise jar analogy, if you don’t already know it, goes something like this:

A professor brought a mayonnaise jar, some large rocks, some smaller rocks, some pebbles and some sand to class. He asked the students if those items could all fit into the jar. The students thought it wasn’t possible.

The professor then proceeded to put the big rocks in first, followed by the smaller rocks, the pebbles, and finally, the sand. It all fit, after he gave it a good shake and let all the small things settle inside the jar.

He told the students that time is the same way. If you start with all the small, piddly stuff, you’ll never fit the big, important rocks in. But if you get the big, important rocks in first, you can shake down the contents and find that the smaller, less important stuff fits into the smaller spaces.

May you get those two or three “big rocks” in today!