I follow Courtney Carver’s blog, Be More With Less, and she coined a name for a dynamic that’s been a problem for me my whole life.
She calls it schedule shaming, and it describes “measuring who we are by what we accomplish.” Accomplish in the sense of produce. In other words, being mean to ourselves at the end of the day because we didn’t “do” enough.
I’ve known for several years this is a problem for me, but I haven’t had a way to change it until I read Courtney’s post. The remedy is so simple I’m embarrassed I didn’t come up with it myself. I’m usually good at this sort of thing.
Instead of listening to that internal voice about what we should have done and didn’t do, and what a lazy, worthless, waste of space we are, she suggests applying a new set of questions, a better set of questions, to determine our value.
A list! I like lists! I took the idea and ran with it:
What were my feelings today? (Feelings are single words like mad, glad, sad, scared and ashamed, and we can experience any combination and number of them.)
After reading Courtney’s post, making my list, and making notes for this post, I put all my focus on these replacement questions every time I started hearing that internal critic tell me I’m useless and don’t deserve to take up space.
I immediately noticed two things, and those things have remained unchanged every day since then.
I am a much nicer person when I don’t judge my worth by production.
I accomplish far more, with less resistance and more joy, than I did before.
I feel like a dumbass on a couple of levels. First, I know very well (who doesn’t?) a carrot always works better than a stick. Nobody has ever been able to beat me into submission, including myself. Love and connection motivate me far more than any kind of force or coercion. As for disapproval – spare me. I don’t give a damn about winning anyone’s approval. People have been disapproving of me my whole life no matter what I do. I’m used to it.
Second, I’ve struggled with schedule shaming forever, and when I say struggle, I mean self-loathing, self-harm, financial dysfunction, compulsion, speeding, and mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. And all those years it was this easy to fix. All I needed to do was put being before doing and give myself permission and recognition for the person I naturally and honestly am.
The coronavirus has cast a harsh light onto the balance between being, doing, and having. I think about this kind of thing all the time anyway, but the shutdowns, furloughs, and limitations to our ability to live normally have made many people who were too busy and driven to notice such things newly aware. Interestingly, present circumstances have impacted our doing and having much more than our being. Being goes on, sick or well, rich or poor, working or not working, masked or unmasked. Being is what truly defines us, in spite of our attachment to things, activities, and identities. Without being, we’re just empty shells, and we really are wasting our lives, no matter what we accomplish or have.
Today I laughed until I ached at our kitten, Ozzy, who falls asleep on his feet and spends minutes with eyes tight shut, swaying and slumping, before he finally gives up and lies down. That’s what I remember about my day. I cleaned the kitchen, did a load of laundry, wrote, and dealt with the green caterpillars eating my growing dill, too, but none of that was as sweet, as real, or as important as laughing at Oz and the love and gratitude I feel for this small creature.
I’ve been rereading James Herriot, who was a Yorkshire veterinarian. It’s been a long time since I last read him. His books are filled with love, affection and humor for the animals and people he spent his life with, but there’s another thread running vividly through all his books, a thread of place. He loved Yorkshire, the hills, moors and Dales, the little towns, the seasons and remote old stone farms, walls and buildings. Every page communicates his gratitude and contentment with his life and the place he worked. He and his wife raised two children. He worked all hours, and it was hard work. He was qualified before antibiotics and what we think of as modern medicine. He made very little money, but he was rich in love and contentment.
Dr. Herriot knew how to live deeply. One of his greatest joys was to pull over during his rounds and sit in the heather with his dog, drinking in the air, the view and the silence.
As I’ve been reading Herriot, the Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. I’ve never liked it. I hate noise and crowds. Fireworks are terrifying for many animals, both domestic and wild. They’re also dangerous and a fire risk. My idea of a really good Fourth is a nice, drenching three-day rain during which I stay peacefully at home.
This year, in addition to the usual associations, we have a pandemic. Each of the holidays this summer seem to be dividing the country more and more painfully, and all the hype and noise around escalating infection rates, distortions, denials, lies, economic concerns and travel concerns made me feel particularly anxious and miserable this year.
My Be Still Now practice has developed nicely. I’ve done it every morning for more than a month and it’s become a useful and enjoyable habit. It occurred to me, as I was sitting over the holiday weekend, that during this time I have an experience of depth. As I breathe and watch my thoughts move across my consciousness like clouds across the sky, I sink down to another kind of being, below the sound of boats, campers and ATVs passing the house, below my agonized empathy for animals, below my fear of fire, and below my general anxiety about the pandemic.
In the space of sitting, I move beyond and beneath clock, calendar, distraction, and compulsion. There is only the peace of breath, sun and rain, birdsong, wind, growing things, and the cycles and seasons of this place and my life. I feel peaceful and content. There’s nowhere I need to go and nothing I need to do. It’s all right here, right now.
We all have access to this deep life, but it seems the modern world conspires to keep us away from it. We are assaulted by so much noise, so much seductive glitter and shine, so much chaos and so many voices. Clocks, calendars and screens rule our lives, as do the numbers in our bank accounts and on our bills and credit cards. We are completely caught up in short-term, surface activity.
To live deep is to remember geologic time and rediscover patience and perspective. To live deep is to climb into the mossy throat of an old well, filled with sweet water that knows ferns and frogs and underground springs. Living deeply takes us to the roots of things, the quiet musk of earth, mycelium, mineral and microorganism. We enter the endurance of bones and seeds, the long memory of stone.
Most of all, living deeply takes me below my thoughts and into my feelings. In that deep space I find all the women and children I have been and all the wounds I’ve neglected. Without thoughts attached to them, my feelings are intense, yet simple. I discover an affection and empathy for my fears, old and new. I gain intuitive understanding and insight into my behavior and choices.
I meet myself in the depths, my most primal, innocent, wise self. I put my arms around myself, kiss my own shoulders. Gratitude wells in me, along with comfort and love. Creativity and inspiration blossom. I rest.
This deep time anchors my day. I usually sit for less than an hour. Even 20 minutes of retreat below the surface agitations of life provide me with balance and peace. Living deeply prevents me from speeding and helps me control my compulsions. It helps me stay conscious as I make choices about how much media I allow into my life, how much distraction, and how much noise. It opens me to the simple joys of working in the garden, sitting in the sun, watching the trees move in the wind, listening to the birds, and playing with our two kittens.
James Herriot had fears, inadequacies and troubles, just as we all do. He knew a thing I’m only just learning, though, and that is the skill of downing tools and simply being, welcoming the joy of uncomplicated presence and feeling gratitude for the experience of life in all its magic and mystery.
The meaning and experience of life is not on a screen, on a calendar or clock, or in dollars and cents. Those are but glimmers on the water, the topmost leaves on a tree, a passing cloud, ephemeral and only meaningful because we make them so.
The real stuff of life is slow, deep, quiet and timeless. We carry it always within us, but no amount of doing or having can unlock it. The key is being, just that.
I also recently developed a daily practice of sitting and focusing on my breath, which has been enormously helpful in my life. A few days ago, my partner and I had a conversation over breakfast I found difficult, and I trudged up the stairs to my attic aerie for my Be Still Now time feeling upset and discouraged.
Usually when I’m upset I get busy with exercise, a project, online solitaire or a book in order to distract myself. I almost never sit still with my feelings immediately after an upset. However, I’m stubbornly committed to my Be Still Now time, so I got settled comfortably in my chair and began.
It was hard. It was hard to even find my breath in the midst of my discomfort. I remembered the article about helping kids become mentally strong. One of the ways to do that is to allow them to experience being uncomfortable. Remembering that, and struggling with my own discomfort, made me curious. What would happen if I made myself sit for my usual time in spite of my discomfort? What if I viewed the circumstances as an opportunity instead of a reason to give up? What if it didn’t matter if I had even a minute of peace and stillness as long as I sat patiently with my mental and emotional chaos for a few minutes, not distracting, not fixing, not thinking, not compulsively avoiding, not writing or processing, but just feeling?
Curiosity is a great gift. I wish we nurtured it in one another more effectively and consistently.
So I sat, and it was messy. My mind was all over the place, as were my feelings. I cried a few tears. I stayed with my breath as much as I could, but I couldn’t achieve the restful, peaceful place just a few days of consistent practice has given me the ability to reach. The urge to get up and do something was fierce. The urge to be mean to myself was equally compelling. I breathed and tried to let those thoughts go. I didn’t try to get rid of the feelings, but stayed with them. It reminded me of swimming in the ocean and dealing with the surge of waves.
Gradually, I settled down. Both my pulse and breathing slowed and I stopped crying. I consciously relaxed and breathed from my belly rather than my shoulders. I stopped thinking about the time and relaxed in my chair rather than nailing myself to it.
On an intellectual level, I recognized immediately upon reading that article the value of letting our kids be uncomfortable. As a mom, I refrained from saving my sons from the consequences of their choices or trying to fix everything they struggled with. In my own private life I’m stoic and don’t dramatize my emotional pain to others. Part of that comes from being an introvert, part from my difficulty in trusting others, and part from the harsh feeling I probably deserve whatever distress I’m experiencing and thus don’t get to whine about it.
On an emotional level, though, I realized during that Be Still Now time that none of my usual coping mechanisms when faced with emotional distress are as powerful as simply being with it. I can’t even remember what it was all about now. I remember coming downstairs after I finished sitting and apologizing to my partner for being unnecessarily bitchy with him, but after that bit of cleanup the whole thing was over. I went on into the day feeling just fine.
Power and strength from discomfort. Well, not from the discomfort itself but from what I chose to do with it. Interesting.
It’s notable I don’t convert sitting and breathing into compulsivity or hurting myself. I immediately noticed any mean thoughts and let them go. After all, we’re made to have feelings. There’s no shame in them, no unnatural deformity, no weakness. We can choose to be self-destructive, but our feelings won’t stop. I wonder to what degree my previous choices in dealing with upsets have made everything worse rather than better. Perhaps the key all along has been to sit still and let the waves crash over me until the storm passes.
Storms do pass.
If discomfort is an opportunity to build strength, both kids and adults can benefit from it. Life guarantees discomfort of various kinds, after all. I’m in no way condoning rape, bullying, racism, abuse, or a depressingly long list of other deliberate cruelties, by the way. I’m talking about everyday discomforts of frustration, confusion, guilt and embarrassment; the discomfort we experience physically with various aches, pains and bodily functions; and the discomfort and inconvenience of our feelings — the kind of experiences we all share.
Never has our entitlement been clearer to me than during these months of the pandemic. The simple action of wearing a mask has become a politicized gauntlet. Some people find waiting in line to enter a business in order to maintain social distancing or waiting in their cars for a chair to get their hair cut intolerable. I can hardly call it discomfort. It’s not really even that inconvenient. We can do everything but cook dinner in our cars these days, for pity’s sake.
Some folks are loud about their contempt and scorn for recommendations designed to keep us all safe, and for those who follow them. They bluster, honk their car horns, glare, and go into tirades while waiting in line for a cashier. Their attitude is one of being cleverer, better informed, stronger and braver than the rest of us.
It’s a lie. All I can see in this behavior is ignorance, fear, and weakness. Interestingly, many who refuse to mask say they do it because they refuse to live in fear. I wonder if those folks eat potato salad with mayonnaise that’s been on the picnic table all day, decline to stop at red lights, ignore a rattlesnake’s warning and don’t hydrate when they’re working hard in high heat and humidity. They’re obviously much more concerned about what people will think of their courage (a sure sign that they have doubts about it) than they are of protecting themselves or others. You know, the other people in the world to whom they might pass on the virus? Such folks have the emotional development of a toddler. Sadly, they get plenty of modeling, validation and enabling for their behavior. They’d rather die than adapt — and they are dying. Unfortunately, they’re killing others, too.
It’s not just kids who need to learn to deal with discomfort, or inconvenience, or change, or new rules. We all do. If controlling coronavirus means a certain amount of inconvenience and discomfort, it’s worth it. If ending racism means the unfairly privileged become less privileged in order that others may share more equally in resources and opportunities, and corrupt systems and institutions get an overhaul, count me in.
Life is hard enough without being forced to play a rigged game.
Going through discomfort in order to arrive at a stronger, more just and power-with global community is a path of strength and resilience. Denialism, arguing with what is, willful ignorance and support of power-over dynamics is a path of weakness and, ultimately, deselection. If you don’t believe me, observe a child who has been allowed to experience a reasonable amount of discomfort with loving support, and compare that child with one who is continually rescued from the consequences of his or her choices and the full experience of life. It’s not hard to see the difference.
It’s not hard to see the difference in adults, either.
Social change begins at an individual level. This is another chocolate-or-vanilla choice. Are we willing to embrace, or at least tolerate, discomfort, or are we too weak and fearful to consider the truth that we’re no more entitled, immune or privileged than anyone else? Racism is a human construct rooted in greed, hatred and fear. We constructed and supported it, and we can deconstruct and refuse to tolerate it. We must, for everyone’s sake. Make no mistake, if it can happen to whichever currently disenfranchised group you care to name, it can happen to any of us.
I’d love to be one of those serene, appropriately disciplined (as opposed to compulsive or utterly feckless) people who achieve an effective, useful, consistent morning routine.
Even during what I think of as “normal” times when my life was structured predictably by work and other obligations and activities, my morning schedule varied. Now, during weeks of unstructured time, I’m realizing how important it is for me to take responsibility for creating the shape of my life, rather than passively allowing work and other extrinsic forces to do it for me.
On the other hand, spontaneity is good, right? Going with the flow? Following my bliss?
I’m better at routine than I am at spontaneity. I’m better at working than relaxing. I get an A+ in productivity and a D at simply being.
I watch people who spend hours a day in front of a screen, reading, or otherwise appearing to do nothing but laze around with a mixture of envy, fury and contempt. How can they do that? I wish I could do that and still live with myself. I hate myself if I reach the end of the day with nothing to show for it. (Show who?) The shame and guilt of just being and not doing is annihilating.
Doing is also my favorite remedy for anxiety, and that’s when the dark tentacles of compulsivity wrap around my ankles and start crawling up my body.
I’ve written before about my tendency to speed, back in the old days before coronavirus. My life was familiar to me then. I knew how to use my time and energy. I felt effective without being compulsive. I thought I’d defeated my old self-destructive patterns. I felt balanced and healthy most of the time.
Then I discovered, to my chagrin, I was still speeding unconsciously in some parts of my life. It troubled me, and I resolved to bring that behavior into consciousness and change it, which is why I wrote about it. I discovered a great way to pull the plug on unconscious speeding is to develop a practice of sitting in silence daily.
I’m avoiding using the term “meditation” because it’s so loaded, for me at least. I’ve no interest in a guru, a chant or a sacred sound. I don’t have a special cushion or adopt a particular position. That’s all just in my way. What does work for me is sitting comfortably with my eyes closed, concentrating on the natural flow of my breathing. The world doesn’t have to be quiet. The room doesn’t need to be light or dark or smell of incense. I don’t need a special timer. The only thing required is the most difficult, boring part: Stop. Sit my ass down. Breathe.
I call this my Be Still Now time, and I’m annoyed by how powerful it is. I’m annoyed because it can’t be right that sitting, doing nothing but being, is more powerful and peaceful than doing and doing and doing. Everyone knows how important it is to be productive!
The problem with all this pressure to do is that sometimes I can’t stop. It’s a hard thing to explain to anyone who’s not compulsive.
I start out feeling focused, energetic and excited about a project or task, looking forward to the satisfaction of completing it and looking back on a day in which I didn’t “waste” time. I begin working. I think about the task in front of me, but my mind also wanders as I work, sometimes into dark, fearful places. Pretty soon I’m working a little harder, a little faster, trying not to feel uncomfortable feelings, trying not to remember, trying not to worry.
Time ceases to exist, but vaguely, through my mental and emotional chaos, I realize I’m tired. I’m overheated and my shirt is sticking to my back. I’m filthy. The bugs are feasting on me. I’m thirsty. I feel all those things, but they’re not nearly as important as the noise in my head and my momentum. Doing the project or task (as perfectly as possible) becomes far more important than my state of being. I’m no longer in control of my day or my activity. I’m not pacing myself. I don’t give a damn about taking care of myself. I’m not having fun or feeling satisfied, and I don’t care about finishing. In fact, I hope I never finish. I want to go on and on until I’m beyond thought or feeling. If I stop, something just behind me, hard on my heels, will tear me to pieces.
I absolutely know if I work hard enough and long enough I’ll find peace, my uncomfortable feelings will resolve, and I’ll be safe and happy and able to rest.
In that state of mind, just stopping is unthinkable. The very suggestion makes me want to tear out someone’s throat. Part of me realizes I’m out of control, speeding again, and it’s dangerous and self-destructive, but I feel unable to make a different choice.
I do, of course, eventually stop. I tell myself I was productive and did good work. I search for that feeling of gratification over a hard job well done, but I can’t find it. I feel more like I’ve been beaten up than anything else. I’m physically exhausted but my thoughts and feelings are churning and I’m pacing the floor, trying to crawl out of my skin, searching desperately for another project to throw myself into.
I’ve acted out this pattern my whole life, and until very recently it didn’t stop until I got sick or physical pain disabled me. I rarely get sick now, and I no longer have physical pain, thanks to my diet. I’ve gotten much better at using my support system and dealing with my feelings more appropriately. Still, the right kind of stressors over a long period of time, combined with not paying close attention to how I’m doing, reactivates my compulsivity.
The best way to pay attention to how I’m doing is to sit for a few minutes every day and just breathe. I’m not sure how, or why, but I’m quite sure it helps. The funny thing is, I don’t inquire within during that time, I just watch thoughts rise in my mind and let them go. Now and then I get a creative inspiration, which I jot down before going back to breathing. I’m not trying to process feelings or figure anything out. I’m not, in fact, doing or producing anything. I’m just sitting and breathing, and it’s so quiet!
I realize, in that timeless space, peace and safety, both of which I’ve searched for my whole life, are fully present and always have been. I can’t chase them down or earn them. They’re not elsewhere. We have not become separated or severed. I am not lost. Neither peace nor safety can be found in compulsive doing. All I need to do is be still, be quiet, for just a few minutes, and they are there.
I’d love to say I’ll Be Still Now every morning for the rest of my life and never be compulsive again, but it’s probably not true. I’ll get distracted, or bored, or lazy. My routine will change. I’ll make something else more important than my sit time. I’ll self-sabotage in all the ways we do self-sabotage. Fortunately, life will continue to be challenging and provide plenty of things to feel anxious and fearful about, and I will continue to work for growth and health, which means I’ll hold myself accountable and return home, to that quiet daily space in which compulsivity cannot live or take root and peace can find me.
Be. Still. Now.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you.