Wandering Mind

(Due to a technical glitch, most of you were not notified when I last posted. You can follow this link to read the post if you missed it. I think the problem is fixed now!)

As so often happens, several threads came together to weave this post. The first was a suggestion from Seth Godin to follow our wandering mind, as that’s where our heart might be.

On first read, I smiled and thought “of course,” because following my imagination is one of my greatest pleasures.

As I considered it over a period of days, however, noting where my mind wanders, I discovered something.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

I happily follow my wandering mind as long as I feel undisturbed about where it goes. The minute I start to get uncomfortable, however, I shackle it. Brutally. This might be with distraction, compulsive productivity, or starting to speed. A lot of people eat, overexercise, or get trapped in substance abuse. Let us count the ways!

I have rules about where my mind is allowed to go. I enforce my rules without mercy, in collaboration with draconian internal voices. My rigidity is not so much about my thoughts wandering as it is the feelings I have about my thoughts. This is emotional intelligence 101, and I’ve written about it before.

Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.

In essence, then, I’m putting a lid on my feelings. Again. Still.

Sigh.

It doesn’t work. It never works, and I know this, but I do it anyway.

I do it for the same reason we all attempt to avoid painful feelings. They’re painful! Avoidance is easier than allowing ourselves to feel them, find healthy ways to express them, and let them go.

How many thoughts do we have in a day? I suspect most of us chew on the same preoccupations day after day, whether our thoughts engender feelings of rage, grief, fear, or shame, or a combination du jour. Uncomfortable territory. Also highly addictive territory. I’m chagrined to admit my own attraction to struggle. It’s so easy! Which is ridiculous, because it makes everything much, much harder than it needs to be, physically, emotionally, and generally.

Maybe what I mean is it’s so familiar!

As humans, we have an irresistible compulsion to notice, emphasize, and dwell upon the negative rather than the positive. That’s why so many people find relief in a gratitude practice, including me. Switching from a negative to positive focus requires mindfulness and mental effort, but the relief from anxiety and stress is immediate.

I should do it more often. Like ten times a day.

Understand, I’m not suggesting we avoid our feelings. I’m suggesting we take control of our thoughts, especially the negative kind. Feelings rise and fall inescapably. They’re biochemical messages from our physical bodies. We were made to have feelings. What we do with them, of course, is well within our control. Thoughts, however, are ours to steer.

Feelings, though arising naturally, are contagious and easily manipulated. That’s why advertising and social pressure work so well. Our feelings can be deliberately manufactured to serve those who would control our money, our votes, and our humanity.

On the other hand, this means we can to some degree manipulate our own feelings with our thoughts.

I came across an article by writer and speaker Rob Henderson, who I follow on Substack. He wrote a piece listing lessons he’s learned during a challenging life, beginning in the foster care system. One of the lessons is “you are what you do.” Not what you feel, but what you do.

I thought immediately of my writing community on Substack, where each of us struggles with what it means to be a writer. I don’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve called myself a writer ever since I began writing. Writers write. That’s what I do.

I like to keep things simple (even though I often don’t, which is a perfect example of what I say versus what I do!)

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

We are what we do. I agree. We are not entirely defined by what we think and feel. I’ve known that ever since I went through emotional intelligence training. We’re also not defined by who we say we are, or who others say we are. We are not our highly polished and desperately maintained identity. Our true thoughts and feelings, the private stuff no one else can see or hear, steer our choices and actions, and those are what truly reveal our most authentic selves.

It follows if we want to change, we must do things differently. As many others have discovered long before me, true change comes from the inside out. If we manage our thoughts and feelings in healthy ways, our actions change. That’s why short-term strategies like diets often fail. A temporary diet does not address our broken relationship with food, a much harder proposition to tackle.

We seem to be on a giant rack, ever widening, between who we think we should be or must be and who we really are. The struggle and tension threaten to tear us apart, yet we cling to our rack, desperately holding ourselves together, too afraid to relax into who we really are and make peace with our true selves.

In a constant state of tension, we don’t let our minds wander. We can’t afford to. We don’t have access to the peace and quiet or even boredom a wandering mind requires. Our technology has erased the fertile ground of boredom, particularly for our children. We feed our hearts a diet of distraction, manufactured drama, busyness and productivity; a hunger for more, bigger, better, newer things, and expect it to be satisfied. We ignore or numb our feelings, or turn them into destruction of ourselves and others.

I often think of this Chinese proverb:

Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.

Toxic positivity is not an effective coping mechanism. Nor is a state of deep depression and withdrawal, as in addiction. I want to find a path between the two.

Perhaps my wandering mind knows the path and will point the way if I allow it to. Perhaps our minds know exactly where our hearts are but we’re too afraid to know.

Questions:

  • When your mind wanders, where does it go?
  • How do you feel about where your mind wanders?
  • How do you think an inability to focus (distractibility) might in some cases be connected to a refusal to follow the guidance of mind and heart?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

Reality Check

I’m a spinner, a speeder, a thought racer. (Yes, I know it doesn’t help. I know rocking chairs and hamster wheels go nowhere. I know worrying is pointless.) Under the right conditions, the inside of my brain is like a dusty attic filled with hysterical cats zooming in all directions, climbing the walls, knocking over piles of junk, filling the air with dust and yowls. Chaos. Destruction. I call it speeding. I call it anxiety. The world calls it racing thoughts.

Whatever we call it, it’s a miserable state of mind, and a common one.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Herding cats, as any cat lover will tell you, never works. Sheep, maybe. Cows. But not cats.

However, at times familiar life goes off the rails in such varied, complex, and unforeseen ways I find myself once again herding cats, usually during the hours I need to be sleeping, though sometimes those hours bleed over into days when I’m supposed to be focusing. On something productive or something relaxing or something. But all I’ve got are catapulting (pun intended) thoughts and emotions racing around in my brain.

Not long ago, before the start of my current cat rodeo, I read somewhere (probably Substack) about The Rule of 9s. I’ve since gone back to look for it, but I can’t find the original source. Anyway, I didn’t come up with it myself. I wish I had.

The Rule of 9s is a tool used to identify what really matters. Or, if you like to look at things bass-ackwards, like me, what really doesn’t matter.

This morning, for example. I could garden, work on business at my desk, write, or make a Spotify playlist. I have just under two hours at my disposal before I head off to work.

I have a lot of desk business just now as my brother and I (mostly my brother) wind up my recently deceased mother’s estate and deal with our inheritance. By inheritance, I mean not just assets, but the inevitable emotional inheritance we all receive from our families of origin. What I’ve heard is true. When a parent dies, we cannot be prepared for the ways it changes us and how uncomfortable some of that change is.

My metaphorical cats – these mixed up thoughts and feelings — pull me in different directions at the same time. Everything feels overwhelming right now. It’s irritating. Two items on my grocery list and I’m overwhelmed. Now and then I have a few minutes free from the inundation, but I get a call, a text, another document to sign, and I’m overwhelmed again.

Fortunately, I just learned The Rule of 9s.

So, the option of gardening. It’s hot outside. Really, really hot and humid. Just when the weather should be getting crisper and cooler, a heat wave has arrived. It will ease in the next couple of days, but it’s brought a resurgence of mosquitoes and it’s not fun to be outside. So, no garden this morning. I’ll wait for cooler weather. Is that a crisis?

Photo by Morgan Sessions on Unsplash

Will gardening or not gardening matter in 9 seconds? In 9 minutes? In 9 hours? In 9 days? In 9 months? It might start to matter then, because I’ll be making spring plans and whatever progress I make this fall will affect those plans. But it’s clearly not urgent. I won’t remember choosing or not choosing gardening today.

Business at my desk. I’ve already done some of that this morning. Balanced the checkbook. Looked for a document I’m waiting on from my bank (not there yet). Made some notes. Did some planning. Considered options. I have money in my account. All the bills are paid. I don’t need to spend anything today. Will taking care of more business or not taking care of more business matter in 9 seconds? Nine minutes? Nine hours? Nine days? It might start to matter at that point, as one thing leads to another as we wade through this process. If I stay on top of tasks, step by step, I know I’ll eventually come out of the tunnel with effective systems in place that work for me and respect my goals and values. Tempting to start herding the cats quivering on my desk, but I only have two hours and nothing is urgent.

Make a Spotify playlist. I may shortly have an opportunity to bring a dance program to the community. I’ve tried several times in years past without success, but I haven’t given up hope. Now that I’m on Spotify (though I have misgivings about how platforms like this fail to support artists), I wanted to get a few of my dance playlists put together. I have them burned onto CDs and in iTunes, but not on Spotify. However, I don’t have any solid dates for dance now. It’s all in the planning stages. At some point it will matter, but not right now.

Writing. It’s my weekend to publish on Harvesting Stones. I don’t have to. It’s not required. But I’d like to, if for no other reason than it’s my usual routine, a stepping stone in the current chaos, and it comforts me to be doing something normal. Not to mention how much I enjoy it. Hard to think about focusing on it, though. All those cats whizzing around …

Will writing or not writing matter in 9 seconds? Nine minutes? Nine hours? Nine days? It won’t matter to the world, but it matters to me. It will matter to me in two days, when Saturday morning comes and I either do or do not have a rough draft I’m happy with.

So I’m writing. And while I’m doing that, miraculously, the other cats settle down. Tired, I guess. Maybe they’ll curl up in the chaos they’ve wrought and sleep a while. Sleep is good.

As I live my life and listen to the inside of my head, especially the anxiety, the fear, the resistance, the catastrophizing, I pull out The Rule of 9s and apply it. Will this matter in 9 seconds? In other words, will I die in 9 seconds if I don’t do whatever-it-is or figure it out, completely and perfectly? How about in 9 hours? (Have you ever noticed how crazy your nighttime I-can’t-sleep thoughts are in the light of day?) In 9 days will I even remember whatever feels stressful this minute? Will the fearful thing I can imagine happening be important in 9 weeks? In 9 months? In 9 years?

The Rule of 9s requires I slow down and think. The questions give me perspective, help me with a reality check. I stop reacting and remember my power to choose. I decide what’s more important than my peace of mind (not much). Hysteria is contagious; so is calm.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

Applying The Rule of 9s settles the cats right down. One or two may still zoom, because cats are contrary like that, but the chaos diminishes as I become intentional and mindful. I can find some focus, at least for a few minutes. I know what to do next, in the next 9 seconds, anyway. The next 9 years can take care of themselves.

 

 

 

Questions:

  • What are your strategies for pulling yourself out of racing thoughts and anxiety loops?
  • How do you choose priorities?
  • Is your experience one of choice in life, or one of reaction and compulsion?
  • Share something ridiculous that’s kept you up at night.

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

Accuracy Versus Precision

I subscribe to Seth Godin, who provides me with a few sentences of daily food for thought in my Inbox. This week, I read this link about the difference between accuracy and precision.

Godin’s distinction between the two is one I never thought about before, but I have been thinking about roots.

Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash

Deep roots. Strong roots.

Roots grow toward sustenance. They don’t grow toward, or in, barren soil. Cell by cell, rootlet by rootlet, inch by inch, they spread, seeking water, seeking the soil and mineral resource they need. Cell by cell, stem by stem, twig by twig, inch by inch, trees and plants grow aboveground in search of sunlight.

Trees and plants want to live. They seek the resources necessary to do so. Survival is their simple, accurate agenda. A seed germinates and grows toward successful reproduction, wherever it happens to be.

Exactly how the roots and crown need to grow, exactly where the best sustenance and water will be found, exactly what the quality and quantity of sunlight will be, all these precise determinations have no meaning unless the imperative to survive exists, and can’t be planned ahead. It all depends on context.

The accuracy comes first. Then the precise details.

I’m thinking about this because we are relocating, not from Maine, but from this old farmhouse.

A year ago, I wrote a series of posts about holistic management, and I’ve been reviewing my holistic plan regularly ever since. My intention, my accurate intention, in Godin’s language, is to create a simpler, more sustainable life.

The precise details? Well, that’s a hairball of monstrous proportions that’s currently keeping me up nights.

Maybe it doesn’t need to. I started with an accurate intention and have taken all kinds of steps toward that, not only with my physical living situation, but also with my writing and life in general. The precise details of each of those steps were not visible to me a year ago when I created my plan and started acting. I moved forward, and identified and dealt with specifics as I came to them.

When I was younger, I had an easier time with big changes, because there was always time to adjust, to go back, to change my mind, to make another choice in the future. But now, as my partner and I age, it feels more urgent to get it exactly right and position myself perfectly for any eventuality.

This is silly, of course. The things we agonize over usually never happen, and if they do, they don’t happen in the way we predicted. The challenges we do encounter are often complete surprises we could never have foreseen or imagined.

Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash

Godin’s thought for the day reminded me, again, that life is a journey. It’s a process. It unfolds. Much as I’d like to know exactly where and when, who and how, those precise details are hidden in the future. It’s not time to know them yet. Right now, today, I need to live those questions and steer with my intention: a simpler, more sustainable life.

That’s the tree I planted last year. Now it’s beginning to grow. The roots are seeking nourishment. The plant aboveground is seeking sunlight. When I look back over the last twelve months, I can see how much growth there’s been, but as I lived the last year I didn’t think about growth or progress. I dealt with specifics arising out of my accurate, intentional seed and put one foot in front of the other.

Now we approach the still, dark, heart of winter, and as I take stock, look over my shoulder and raise my gaze to the horizon ahead, I realize afresh movement in the right direction is what counts. The specifics reveal themselves in their own time. Whatever my feelings of anxiety, fear, and overwhelm, I’m also flowing in the current of my accurate intention.

I’m forced to admit I have a choice. I can rest in faith in myself, in my intentions, and in life generally. I can cultivate my curiosity and sense of exploration, discovery, and fun.

Or I can make myself miserable trying to figure out every single detail yesterday and pushing this important transition to go as fast as possible so I don’t have to feel my feelings and wrestle with my panic-stricken thoughts any more.

It’s really not a choice I want to make. I don’t feel I have the energy to fight my compulsion to speed like a maniac through my life right now, obsessing about money, cleaning, and showings, collecting and packing boxes, and checking online every 10 minutes for new MLS listings. In Central Maine. In December. In our modest price range.

But even as I think that thought, I know it’s a lie. Whatever will be, will be. There’s only so much power I have in this picture. What’s really at stake is whether I enjoy the ride as much as I can or exhaust myself, risking illness and injury, just when I most need to be healthy and whole. One way or another, we are leaving this place and necessarily going somewhere else. Part of me wants to throw up my hands and spin out of control, but the wiser, saner part of me sees the choices clearly and knows which ones to make.

Sigh.

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

The Public Eye and other Controllers

I recently came across a haunting question in my newsfeed:

Without a public eye, who are we?

Wow.

This single question encompasses much of my uneasiness around social media and identity politics.

I don’t believe the public eye is capable of defining who we are. It certainly can’t define who I am. The public eye does not make us real.

All the public eye can know about me is what I choose to show or tell about myself. The rest is a game of let’s pretend. Much of what the public eye sees, both on social media and in real life, is a carefully crafted pseudo self, a false façade behind which a real person hides.

I’ve just finished a book called Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You, by Patricia Evans. It’s taken me a long time to get through it; it was such an intense experience I could only read a little at a time.

I’ve learned, thought and written a great deal about power and control, as regular readers know. I would have said I didn’t have much more to learn.

I would have been wrong.

I’ve never come across such a cogent and compassionate explanation for why so many people try to control others. I’m no longer a victim of controlling people, because I recognize the pattern and refuse to engage with it, but understanding why we develop the often unconscious and always toxic compulsion to control those we care about most is useful. It reinforces the fact that the need others have to control me is not about me – it’s about them. Understanding also helps me engage others with compassion and dignity.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Controlling people are like the public eye. They pretend they can define us, that they know our thoughts and feelings and our motivations. They apply labels to us. They tell us who we must be and who we cannot be. If we are noncompliant with their expectations and fantasies, they bring us to heel through tribal shaming, scapegoating, deplatforming, silencing, and other abusive tactics. Sometimes they kill us.

The biggest threat for a controlling person is an authentic person. When we insist on being ourselves, with our own preferences, thoughts, needs, and feelings, the controller feels as though they are losing control, and thus losing themselves.

This is why saying ‘no’ can result in such violent reactions.

If our sense of self depends solely on the public eye, or a controller, or a pseudo self, or a label, or a role or job, we’re in trouble.

When my sons decided to go live with their dad in the big city in their mid-teens, I fell apart. My sense of self dissolved. If I was not their mother, who was I?

I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I’d been a single, struggling mom for so many years I had no other identity, nothing private, no connection to my own soul.

For weeks I got out of bed in the middle of the night, opened their bedroom doors and stood in the dark, silent house, looking into their empty rooms, grieving and utterly lost. For a time, I didn’t know how to go on living.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

It passed, of course, as times like that do. It was simply rebirth, or rather, birth. Before the kids I’d been a wife, and before that a daughter and sister, and those roles, too, absorbed me utterly. When the kids moved out, I finally began to make friends with the stranger who was me. Not a role. Not a job. Not a people-pleasing pseudo self. Not a label.

Just me.

I’ve never forgotten the pain of that time, the dislocation, the feeling of being erased. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of everything – dance, storytelling, writing, healing, and growing.

It was the beginning of breaking away from the control of others and the ‘public eye’.

The public eye is merciless. It makes snap judgements. It’s critical and abusive. It has expectations. It makes up a story about us and calls it truth. It punishes those of us who dare to be authentic, thoughtful, complex, unexpected, or independent.

We are not paper dolls. We are not entertainment. We are not mere reflections in any eye, public or otherwise. We pretend what others say, perceive, and think about us is the ultimate truth of our identity; we give that game of pretend enormous power. We pretend we can define others from their dating profile, Facebook activity, or outward appearance and presentation.

No. Our true identity does not depend on the public eye. Nobody was erased during lockdown or quarantine. Those of us not on social media are real people leading real lives. Introverts or extroverts, lounging in our sweats with bed head at home or sleek and groomed out on the town, we are an authentic person, even if we reject that person utterly, or have never known them.

True identity is built from the inside out, not the outside in.

With or without a public eye, we are ourselves.


 

One Step at a Time

It’s not easy to focus these days.

I’m usually good at focusing. I can multitask, but I don’t like to, and as I get older I’m less and less convinced multitasking is effective for more than simply staying afloat.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

These days, though … wow.

Last week I worked more hours than usual, my work schedule was all over the place, my laptop broke down, and I had a migraine and didn’t sleep well.

Those are all normal life challenges, but working more hours meant more exposure to news and the feelings and thoughts of people in our community. Maintaining boundaries between my own anxiety, incredulity, fear, and stress and the opinions, beliefs, and strong feelings of others while remaining respectful and professional is taking everything I have and makes normal small irritations seem overwhelming.

When the weekend came, I felt like I never wanted to talk to another human being again. Ever. About anything. I knew the feeling was temporary, but I also knew I needed to pay attention to it. I went on a news fast (helped by the absence of my laptop), slept, meditated, did some ritual, and took a day to do nothing and indulge my introversion.

Now, on Monday, I’m feeling better, but the coming week looms and I’m anxious about what it will bring. I’m also finding it difficult to concentrate on any of my usual small and pleasurable at-home tasks.

As I don’t often struggle in this way, I haven’t thought much about tools for getting motivated when we feel unable to move smoothly forward, but I’ve read quite a bit about how to do so, especially since I started practicing minimalism. This morning I had an article in my Inbox about using 15 minutes at a time to approach whatever the task(s) at hand is.

I sat down in front of my old clunky computer screen, put the keyboard in my lap and started writing this post. It’s been exactly 15 minutes since I started.

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

Clearly, I haven’t finished, but I made a good start, which is more than half the battle. Getting the flow going makes everything easier. The cats are tearing around playing. The laundry rack is folded on the floor (because the cats think it’s a climbing frame when I erect it), waiting for wet laundry, which is sitting in the washing machine. I haven’t worked on my book today, or cleaned the bathroom, or vacuumed, or swept. I haven’t exercised yet.

What I really want to do is take a nap. Or read, which ends up in taking a nap. I don’t want to think about working tomorrow, or getting gas, or the fact that I need to register the Subaru this month, or when I’ll get the laptop back and how much the repair will cost. I don’t want to think about this week’s bills or even this week’s blog post. I don’t want to think about the inauguration, politics, violence, or crazy conspiracy theories.

I don’t want to think at all. That would be good. No thinking.

I’ll never pull that one off.

In my old dance group we used to tell newcomers to dance small if they lost control of breath and balance. Dance small.

How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

How does one write a book? One word at a time.

I’m writing this post 15 minutes at a time. Hanging laundry will take less time than that, but first I have to evict the cats. That might take longer.

It’s still early afternoon. I have lots of 15-minute increments I can use.

I recently read (sorry, don’t remember where, no link!) about taking on an exercise program this way. One stretch. One set of ten repetitions. One Yoga pose. Heck, anyone can do that. The trick is to start, even if it’s the tiniest baby step imaginable, and build from that.

If I take the trouble to down tools and stretch, I’m going to want to do more than one. If I write one sentence, I’m going to want to write another.

Focusing on one step at a time. One dollar at a time. One breath at a time. One work shift at a time. One sentence at a time. One 15-minute interval at a time.

Are we there yet?

 

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash