Enough

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You are enough to fulfill your purpose,
You’re enough to receive His love;
You’re enough to be thoroughly adored
By your father God above.

You have enough to live this life
With grace and hope and joy;

You have enough to satisfy all your needs
And have surplus to spend on toys.

You are enough to lift your head up
And meet people eye to eye.
You are enough to achieve what’s important in this life
Before the day you die.

You have enough in His daily blessings
That you so often neglect to see.
You have enough to truly thrive, my friend,
For His grace is sufficient for thee.

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’

2 Corinthians 12:9

You know when you’re somewhere or doing something, and you notice that you’ve been entirely present and entirely content – if only for a few moments? That was me this afternoon, just for awhile, sitting outside in the back yard with a cuppa and looking up at the big blue sky.

Imagine if we lived like that all the time. If only we lived like that all the time. I’m pretty sure that’s the way life was intended. I’ve just never met anyone who got it right all the time, or even most of the time – though some I reckon come close, and often their life’s pretty simple.

One of the strongest and most persistent lies, I think, is that we need more. It’s so powerful because you can be consciously and actively countering that claim in your thought life day by day, but it only takes a few moments of letting your guard down to find yourself back in that place of feeling lack.

Some would claim our society has been deliberately engineered to cultivate that feeling of lack, either a lack we perceive in ourselves, our circumstances, finances, relationships or any other area. Whether that claim is true or not, I think many people can relate to a sense of lack at times that often gets in the way of real contentment and happiness.

For Christmas this year a relative gifted our family with a voucher to take our kids to see a movie at Village Gold Class. The boys had never experienced the big recliners and “special” experience of Gold Class before. We were all very excited.

As we sat in the entry lounge and considered the menu for snacks and nibbles my wife and I decided we’d purchase an individual soft drink and popcorn for each of us, which fit into our budget. However my oldest son became disagreeable because he wanted a milkshake instead of a soft drink, which cost quite a deal more. I was upset and disappointed. I felt he wasn’t appreciating the gift of the Gold Class experience or the soft drink and popcorn that we were offering him, or even our family time together. How could he not see that the whole outing was already so special, and didn’t require a milkshake to make it so? My wife and I stood our ground, eventually he relented and we all enjoyed the movie. Happy ending.

This afternoon I was relaxing outside thinking about that, journaling a little (which I haven’t done for awhile), praying now and then. It suddenly occurred to me how often I play the role of my son from the above scenario. I began to think of all the daily blessings I fail to appreciate and notice in my life whenever I’m pining for something I feel I lack. It was a bit of a humbling moment. I remembered how upset I was with my son at the time, but too often I’m the unappreciative one.

I’m sure God holds our children up to us as mirrors, at times.

Maybe it was the outdoors, the pleasant weather or just my mood, but this afternoon I was feeling pretty blessed. I looked around our small back garden and felt appreciation for the blue sky, the breeze, the plants, the big tree, the time to sit alone outside and really relax.

I studied a tiny green shoot of a weed I noticed (one of many) poking up between the brickwork on the ground as I sipped my cuppa. It certainly didn’t have my blessing to be there, but in that moment I was even able to appreciate it too. It was green and thriving, despite having just an itty bit of soil between those bricks. Unwanted, with so little in the way of resources for life, it was growing anyway.

greenweed

 

And that brings me back to the lie.

The truth is, we don’t actually need all that much to live and even thrive – to feel joy, hope, contentment and a sense of purpose.

When I thought about it this afternoon, what I think I really want in my life (beyond the survival necessities) is joy, hope, contentment and purpose – and none of those things is affected by my external circumstances as much as my internal outlook.

I just need to remember to hold onto that truth, amidst the barrage of lies I encounter every day.

I still have a lot of work to do in my thought life.

One of my traps is falling into an “I need…” thought cycle. It usually rears its head when I’m tired or haven’t been looking after myself too well, and the longer I go round in circles thinking about all I lack, the worse I feel. It’s not a fun place to be, but once you’re there it’s like being stuck on a major freeway with no off ramps nearby. The trick is to realise early that you’re headed in that direction and make a quick turnoff before the on ramp.

So I’m determined to override every “I need..” thought with an “I have…” statement. I’m going to replace lack with plenty. I’m going to ignore the lies and hold tight to the truth.

I am blessed.
I have…

enough

 

Big Voice Small Voice

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This morning I got up and decided to get in a run after work. That was before a full day teaching, helping out a colleague between bites of lunch and then a meeting after my final class.

I got home a little later than I had envisioned and the internal dialogue started…

BIG VOICE: You’re tired, it’s a bit late anyway, it’s been a big day. Wouldn’t it be nice instead just to chill out for a little and read some more of ‘Gone Girl’ before dinner, while the boys are happy playing? Maybe you can get up at 5.30am tomorrow and get in a run then instead…

Small Voice: As if that will happen. It’s a beautiful day for a run, and you’ll feel better if you go.

So I went, and it was a good run and I did feel better.

Sometimes wisdom is listening to the small voice and not the big one. When you ignore the big voice, it gets a little bit smaller. When you listen to the small voice, it gets a little bit bigger.

Later, cleaned up and relaxed, I feel good about choosing to go for the run.

BIG VOICE: Good on you! Now you deserve a special ice cream treat from the corner shop.

I slap that big voice right back into its box – take that! – and grab the last Tim Tam out of the fridge.

So I’m a work in progress – just like you.

Remedial Class on Gratitude

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About a month ago, I picked up a horrible throat infection that had me feverish and stuck in bed for most of a week. It took another week and a bit after that for a full recovery. Needless to say, my family and I were planning a very quiet, restful Easter school holiday break. I was looking forward to just taking it easy and doing some work here and there around the house – like attacking the jungle that our front garden had become.

So it caught me by surprise when I found myself feeling a little envious as I read or heard about friends going away, going on camping trips, etc. It was surprising because once I stopped and thought about it, I confirmed I really didn’t want to go on a camping trip or go away these holidays – it’s just that everyone else seemed to be doing so and having lots of fun while they were at it.

At the same time, following Easter, I somehow dropped into a super-low mood that lasted for most of the week. Once upon a time any low mood, for me, used to only last the day at most. Even if I went to bed glum, next morning I’d be right as rain. In fact, it was partly this change last year – this deviation from ‘my normal’ – that provoked me to seek some help with my mental health.

This recent low mood persisted, despite my best efforts to lift myself out of it and ‘cheer up’. It really wasn’t a fun week at all.

Near the end of that week, a new plan on the Mindfulness app I use on my phone caught my attention. It was titled ‘Seven days of Gratitude’, and I decided to complete it. While the new plan’s content was inspirational and motivating, I don’t think it was the plan itself but simply the nudge back towards focusing on gratitude that had some impact. I decided to embrace that in earnest, making a conscious effort each day, and it helped lift my mood considerably.

I’m not a stranger to actively practising gratitude, but isn’t it funny how we so easily fall out of the habit? Or we know its value in our head but it doesn’t penetrate our heart, let alone manifest in our daily activities. Why is it sometimes so hard to consistently do what’s good for us?

This second week has been a good week, and I’ve come out of that hole I was in. Practising gratitude has helped, but I’ve also been better at letting go and letting God take charge of the things beyond my control.

Maybe it was the pastor at my church last week sharing in his sermon,

You may not know what tomorrow holds,
But He holds tomorrow.

In my last post, I concluded with my understanding that God wants me to look to him more for guidance and to let him lead. I reflected that when I have done so in the past, those have been the easiest days. This past week has demonstrated that yet again.

I remember on Monday morning even before rising from bed, praying ‘God, today I give into your hands. Let it be what you will it to be, but shine your light on me and let me feel your love.

We had a great day that day, and at the end of it I thanked God for shining his light on me so brightly.

We went to the library as a family and borrowed about a hundred books, after the boys and I had played some X Box on the kids’ level of the library (of course you go to the library to play X Box).

After we got home I took Harry, our six-year-old, out for some one-on-one “Daddy time”. We took a picnic lunch, played hide-and-seek in the park, mucked about with the sand at the beach, paddled in the pool and rolled around together on the grass. We walked up the grassy hill to the top and then ran down it as fast as we could barefoot. We did whatever Harry wanted to do. The beautiful weather helped, but somehow I was able to just let go and thoroughly enjoy it and enjoy him.

harry1

Since then, my holiday break has been better. I’ve appreciated lots of little things, in particular my family. We’ve stayed home all holidays, usually just out in the morning to the park or the river or the skate park. Other than that, we’ve drawn lots, done lots of coloring, played Lego, had family movie sessions and read lots of books. I got most of the jungle tamed again out the front of the house.

I look back over my holiday break with contentment now. Even that first week, the low mood, had its purpose I think. God leads us through valleys and over mountains. The first week was a dark valley, but it led me to turn more earnestly to him every day and it reminded me to have gratefulness. It was a remedial class on gratitude.

If God can heal

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Possibly one of the greatest challenges in the healing process, I’ve found, is that it sometimes occurs much more slowly and takes a lot longer than we would wish. Often, once on the road back to health we can wonder – why can’t I just be all well again now?

recovering-please-wait

recovering-please-wait” by A. Schaff. CC by-NC licence, some rights reserved.

The past couple weeks, as mentioned in last week’s post, I’ve been experiencing that challenge just a little.

On the up side, I feel like I’m managing the stresses of my life more effectively most of the time. I’m gaining better control of my thoughts and emotions, through my mindfulness practice and other strategies. I’m feeling less overwhelmed less often, meaning sometimes I’m having strings of days where I cope well and feel close to being ‘back to normal’.

On the other hand, that sometimes makes it harder to accept the times when I’m not really coping and when I have to concede that I’m not there yet.

As a Christian, it can be challenging to have anxiety. After all, In Philippians 4:6 we’re encouraged,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God.

And as I maintain my mindfulness practice and my slow Saturdays and stopping to breathe, I also pray for healing and recovery from the state I found myself in especially late last year.

I know God can heal, even in these modern times. I was reminded of that just a few months ago.

I was at work when I got a call from my wife at the end of the day. She had been picking the kids up from school when her back gave out. She was in severe pain and couldn’t move. She needed me to come get her and the boys, because there was no way she could drive.

When I got there I knew it was bad. Even the tiniest movement was excruciating for her. Luckily, it was a short trip home and she struggled into bed amid tears of agony. Even lying still, she was in terrible pain and we both knew what to expect. We’d been down this road many times before.

We knew the signs. She would be virtually bed-ridden, unable to move much, always in pain for up to 12 weeks. We knew this from numerous experiences of it before and I had no doubt that that was what we were facing here.

That night as my wife lay in pain and as I put the boys to bed alone, I prayed with them – that God would lay his loving hands on their mum and heal her. It was truly miraculous that she was up and hobbling gingerly about just a few hours later! Unheard of in our experience.

This was at a time where my anxiety was at its peak, and I’m not sure how I would have coped if things had run their usual course this time. I can’t help thinking that God was ensuring that my wife would be well enough to provide the amazing support to me that she has over the past months.

So if God can heal, why doesn’t he just make me all better now?

In fact we’re all somewhat flawed and have shortcomings of one sort or another. Why doesn’t he just click his fingers and make us all perfect people right now – today?

Here’s some of what I think, at least in relation to my own context.

#1 – It wouldn’t stick.

I know God could just heal me. Wham! Perfect human being. But how long would I stay that way? To me, its a bit like solving a Rubik’s Cube where all the coloured squares are mixed up. I could peel off the dots and put them back on in the right places, but I wouldn’t have learnt what strategies to use to actually solve the puzzle without cheating next time.

By Cbuckley (Self-published work by Cbuckley) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Cbuckley (Self-published work by Cbuckley) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I think God’s more interested in helping me grow through my challenges so that  – hopefully – I can stay well for the long haul and not end up back where I started.

I think sometimes our lives resemble a mixed up, tangled web of threads. I need to learn how to untangle those threads and keep them untangled, and to learn how to do that I have to persevere with the knots.

#2 – With me, not for me.

I also think he wants to work with me on getting better. He wants me to be actively involved and consciously part of the process. What I’ve learnt about God is that what he craves from me most is relationship. I know that feeling well because it’s the same way I feel about my own kids.

What do I want most and enjoy most with them? Doing things together, including solving problems and completing projects. Sometimes as a dad, it’s tempting to jump in and just do things for my kids but we all get a lot more out of it if we’re working together – the end product is better, and our relationship becomes closer and stronger in the process. Not to mention, if I do things for my kids all the time then they’ll never learn how to do things for themselves.

God wants to see growth in us as human beings and also growth in our relationship with him.

#3 – I still need to learn to ‘let go, and let God’ more completely.

Most recently I’m learning that I still need to let go of control over my life and my healing process, and give that control to God. Over the past weeks I have had this frequent refrain in my mind, asking “Where is God in this?” And I don’t think it’s been a question about his presence in the midst of my journey, because that’s a given.

But am I allowing him his proper place in this process? I’m including him, but I think I’m still holding control over the process a lot. I still need to let go. I keep coming back to this post I read on the blog Beauty Beyond Bones a while ago, because it speaks to this point so eloquently.

The irony of God in this situation is that he could step in and take over if he chose, because he has that power. He wants sovereignty over all of our lives, including the messy parts. But he won’t take it by force.

He’s again like a parent with a child, asking “Do you want some help with that?” Look more to the Beauty Beyond Bones post link above for a wonderful extension on this idea.

God will heal me, in his own good time and in a way that will be much more lasting and profound than the quick-fix we often look for. in this process he’s teaching me stillness, he’s teaching me balance, he’s teaching me patience.

be still

Scripture on wall” by Paul O’Rear. CC by-SA licence, some rights reserved.

He’s teaching me to look to him for guidance more and to let him take the lead. That’s something that’s really counter-cultural and hard to do, but I’m slowly learning, learning, learning.

And when I do look to him to lead, those are the easiest days on this journey.

Patience

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This week’s post has been a real struggle. Obviously – it’s four days late.

Not because of the content or the focus, but because of the lack thereof. Don’t misunderstand, I have a page full of future topic ideas and I’ve started writing a post for this week several times, but every time felt forced. So I stopped.

I knew when I started this project of a-blog-post-a-week that there was a small danger. It could become a source of further unease and tension for me, if I held to my intention of a post a week too strongly.

The intention is to keep me focused on finding balance, peace and stillness throughout this year despite the distractions of everyday life, work and everything else. It’s working surprisingly well, and I am really enjoying writing each week. I love that sense of ideas flowing together like a stream. It’s often helpful putting my ideas into a structured, coherent form instead of rumbling around in my head. Most of the time I’m writing as much to myself as I am to any “audience” reading this.

Only this week, nothing has seemed to come together and I didn’t get that “flow” feeling I’m always encouraging the young writers in my English classes to find.

Image is in public domain.

Image is in public domain.

Part of it has been time. It’s been a busy week and usually I allow time for ideas to coalesce together in my mind and then time to write the post. That’s been a challenge this week.

I don’t want to force a topic before it’s fully formed in my mind. I feel like I need to just wait and let my ideas germinate and grow, forming more before I write. So for now I’m sitting on my page of future topic ideas and learning to be patient.

It’s my natural inclination to want to fulfill my commitment to a post a week, but I’m learning to be patient with myself too. While I’m not really happy with this post, I’m telling myself it’s “good enough”.

I need to remind myself that this is a journey I am on, changing habits of action and of thought. And habits don’t change easily or fast. They change slowly, with constant intentional focus until they’re replaced with new habits.

There are no shortcuts.

The good news is that I am seeing change. Sometimes it’s three steps forward and two steps back – and often I’d like it to be a lot faster – but it’s progress all the same.

I’m slowing down, pursuing hobbies and listening to my body. I’m taking care of myself better. I’m learning to let go of a lot of stuff and making room for what’s important. These are all positive steps.

I’m getting lots of practice at patience, and that can only be a good thing.

Patience
The video below is part of a series of videos titled Gratitude Revealed by Louie Schwartzberg.
Feel inspired? You can visit the Gratitude Revealed website to explore the rest of the series. 

Breathe

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I vaguely remember one time when I was a kid, getting all worked up during a fight with one of my siblings. I don’t remember well what it was all about. What I do remember is my mum taking me by the hand and leading me into the lounge room, seating me in the recliner and helping me to calm myself simply by focussing on my breath. A wise woman, my mum.

That was back in the eighties, decades prior to the current mindfulness movement. It was one experience that started to teach me the power of using the breath. Later, as a young adult and prior to kids, I enjoyed beginning most mornings with a session of gentle, deep breathing and meditation. That twenty or thirty minutes of focussed attention and deep breathing would leave me feeling alert and calm.

As a wake up ritual it was better than coffee.

The details are hazy, but somewhere in the midst of having kids and wanting to be a fully hands-on dad, I stopped.

Now, I’m learning to breathe all over again.

Tonight, bedtime for my eight-year-old has been challenging. He’s overtired, tremendously fractious and has chipped away at my patience. His manner is loud and argumentative, but underneath all that he’s just tired. He’s feeling emotions of an intensity he’s still learning to manage and express appropriately. He is sensitive in personality and feels emotions strongly. I wouldn’t change that about him for the world.

Yet tonight he just won’t settle and I feel incredibly tense from our wrangling. If my wife was home we’d normally tag-team to change the dynamic, but I’m on my own tonight as she is out. I think about calling her to come home.

I retreat to the kitchen to regroup, stand there with eyes closed as I slowly draw in a breath. I count as I inhale 1-2-3-4, hold 1-2, exhale 1-2-3-4-5-6. Repeat. I continue for five to ten minutes, focused solely on my breath, and feel myself begin to relax.

I return to the bedroom and my son. He’s a little calmer too and accepts my offer to place my hands soothingly on him as I guide him through a calming relaxation of his own. It’s a ritual we’ve adopted when he can’t sleep. I guide him through deep, gentle breaths, feeling his soft pillow, the snuggly blankets, imagining his body relaxing and sinking into the mattress. I don’t get very far – he’s fast asleep in two minutes flat.

I wander back to the living room and sink onto the couch. I’m tired – close to, but not entirely, spent. Another small victory, not over my son but over the anxiety that has plagued me these past months. Within half an hour I’m at the computer in the flow of writing this post. This is progress.

These days I’m back to starting my days with twenty minutes of mindfulness meditation, longer on weekends and when I can. Anecdotally, I know this breathing-based practice is helping. I’m calmer and cope better with incidents like tonight’s bedtime challenges. I feel more in control of my emotions and my body’s physiological reactions. I’m not entirely there yet. I still have moments where I’m caught by surprise, where I feel overwhelmed, unable right then to keep my mind and emotions in check. But those times are getting less frequent. I know the meditation and the breathing exercises are helping.

It’s not an inherently spiritual practice, despite its potential to allow a quiet space within me for the spiritual. To connect spiritually or lean into God’s presence, I pray. The meditation is all about training my brain.

Image is in public domain. Source: Pixabay.com

Image is in public domain. Source: pixabay.com

I call it “practice” because that’s exactly what I am doing. I’m strengthening my ability to focus my attention as well as to observe circumstances and even thoughts and emotions in a more detached way. Daily meditation is like reps at the gym to build up muscles.

Recent neuroimaging research indicates that meditation can help people become better at focusing attention, for longer and with less effort. It has been demonstrated to reduce the size and influence of the amygdala, the “fear centre” of the brain which is often overactive in people with anxiety. Not only does it appear to be very helpful where anxiety is already present, but its influence on the brain also has a protective quality.

Back to my focus on simply breathing, and less structured exercises like my moment in the kitchen tonight are effective too. Breathing is one of the few bodily processes that operates under dual control. By taking over conscious control of breathing – making it slow and rhythmic – it’s possible to reverse the body’s stress response. We react less emotionally while the rational, thinking part of the brain stays in control.

That’s the plan, anyway, but it seems to be working for me – sometimes. Of course, that’s why they call it practice.

My mum was onto something when she sat me down in that chair and told me to breathe. The breath is an always-there healing and stress management resource. I’m tapping into it daily and bit by bit, rediscovering the calm I once took for granted.

When was the last time you were conscious and intentional about your breath?

Wonder and Awe

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I get comfortable in my seat, reclining back and relaxing, ready to enjoy the show. I breathe a long, gentle breath in and out in contentment. I made the right decision.

The right decision was to get up at 3.50am in the morning. I had ignored the part of my mind telling me that bed was where I needed to be, the part questioning what the hell I thought I was doing. The right decision was to get some gear together and drive along quiet roads to a rural location – a clearing on the edge of a dry lake bed.

The moon hadn’t yet risen so all was in darkness as I carefully parked the car and headed the short distance to my destination, but it was darkness I came seeking.

I came for dark sky and bright stars.

Yep, I think, as I sit back and admire an abundance of stars like I’d never see from my backyard in town. I made the right decision, and it was worth it. The getting up early, losing a few hours’ sleep, the 30min drive, the time spent finding this spot.

A dark sky spot.

It needed to be easily and publicly accessible, not too far away, with flat terrain and as little obstruction of the horizon as possible. I located the general region by a combination of Google Maps and Dark Site Finder. A daytime reconnaissance mission during the summer break confirmed the site was perfect.

I sit in the darkness on my chair, chosen purposely for its near-horizontal recline, its comfort and portability. I relax and let my eyes adjust. Somewhere crickets chirp their nighttime chorus, and I can faintly hear occasional traffic on the highway 2km away. Off to my right I hear a rustling in the trees. The primitive part of my brain reacts. I imagine a four-legged predator for a few moments before realising the rustling is some harmless animal munching on leaves. I relax.

I see Crux and Centaurus, locate the bright star Archenar. I’ve brought along dad’s old binoculars but mostly I just gaze up naked-eyed. I find Venus and Mercury and watch the sliver moon rise beneath them as the dawn inexorably approaches. In the north-western sky I spy four shooting stars, one of them especially bright.

I gaze up in wonder and awe, feeling so small yet a part of something beautiful. I marvel at God’s amazing creation and the majestic splendour of the starlit tapestry above me. I feel a peace and a stillness inside me. I hope that it stays.

I watch the moon climb higher, chased closely by the approaching dawn. Too soon the sky lightens and lightens, the stars fade and then they are gone. Only the brightest remain. They too will soon disappear. It’s time for me to go.

I’ve always had an interest in the stars. I remember one Scout camp as a youngster, us sitting round a bonfire on a Saturday night listening to ‘Take 40’ on the radio. Above, the starry heavens as only seen in rural locales.

This weekend’s early-morning adventure has been one small step towards rediscovering passions, interests and hobbies – things I haven’t found time or energy for in recent years. Stargazing didn’t seem practical when I was so busy and tired with other aspects of life.

But there’s something magical in long contemplation of that glorious tapestry above. I intend to do more of it. I think it whispers gently to my sometimes-overwrought soul. Wonder and awe. That’s what I feel as I gaze above.

There are still some experiences that haven’t really changed since the beginning, despite technology and social change. We can still look up in wonder and awe.

Maybe van Gogh felt the same, looking out from his bedroom window in Provence.

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Calm, peaceful, content: what I feel as I head home seeking breakfast.

I’m praying for clear skies another weekend soon.

The Clock Watcher

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Are you a clock watcher?

Clock watchers start their day checking the nearest clock the moment they get up – even on non-alarm days. They have a habitual time for most activities throughout their day that they rarely stray from. Clock watchers always know what time it is, to the nearest five minutes, because that’s frequently the longest they’ll go before another look.

Image is in public domain.

Image is in public domain.

In Lee Child’s highly popular Jack Reacher series of novels, Reacher has this uncanny ability to know the time down to the minute – just in his head and without checking any chronographs. I love his character, but his incredible knack for marking the passage of time so accurately sometimes leads me to roll my eyes when I forget to switch my brain off while reading. I’m no Jack Reacher but I am pretty good at judging the passage of time, and I think it’s because I’ve unconsciously had so much practice in between so many looks at my watch. If there was an Olympic event in Rio this year for clock watching, I’d at least be in with a chance.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that some readers can relate just a little.

It’s hard not to be a clock watcher at least to some small degree in western culture. In our industrialised world the clock dictates our movements and activities to a great degree. In most workplaces, time measured in minutes and seconds is crucial. As a teacher, it’s almost essential that I watch the clock throughout each class: timing lesson segments, ensuring I’m on track, wrapping up in a ‘timely’ fashion, sometimes keeping students on track with their work using a little impromptu time pressure during specific activities.

In his more than decade-old but still highly relevant book ‘In Praise of Slowness‘, Carl Honore explains how the rise of the mechanical age and the industrial revolution led to society slicing time down into smaller and smaller increments (Watch his TED talk for a more bite-size summary of the book). Once upon a time, there were only three times in the day that you could be sure of noting with any accuracy – dawn, noon and dusk. Now we count milliseconds and we grow up learning that every minute counts. Honore claims that as a society we have become subscribed to a ‘cult of speed’.

I relate to that a lot. I’m predisposed, because part of my personality is to like to be organised and to plan ahead. In the morning I typically get up, check the clock and then often by the time I have reached the kitchen (for coffee) I have already hypothetically mapped out my day. Even on weekends and days off I have regular times in my head for everything. I tend to naturally create a schedule. This is very helpful in getting things done and achieving tasks efficiently but it can also be limiting and sometimes lead to unnecessary stress.

If I plan to take my boys out for a play at the skate park on a Saturday morning, I’ll decide even before arriving there how long I think we’ll stay for. Then, while we’re there, I often check my watch to see how we’re tracking against the timeline I have created. It’s not because I don’t enjoy time out with my kids, it’s just that I have this schedule… It’s limiting in the sense that I can be a little inflexible about changes – we might leave the skate park either before or long after the boys have actually had enough, simply because I have set a time and automatically follow it if I’m not careful.

Another limitation I sometimes find is that it’s hard to be mindfully present in the moment if I’m constantly checking (mentally or otherwise) that I’m “on track” time wise. I sometimes think I’m a bit like the “Jesus Christ” basalisk lizards that run on water, in those times when I’m more focussed on getting things done and following the timeline than enjoying the moment. I’m really only skimming the surface of each moment in time rather than slowing down and really sinking into it in all its rich depth.

I am capable of adapting of course or consciously choosing to slow down and have a schedule-less day, but for me it historically doesn’t often occur naturally.

That’s about to change.

© Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

This year, inspired by Honore and fueled by my quest for a more mindful experience of daily life, I’m intending to have Slow Saturdays. I reckon by the end of each week most of us are ready for a Slow Saturday and many of you are probably naturally very good at them. For me, I’ve decided to be a little more intentional about it.

My first Slow Saturday was just this weekend.

The principle of my Slow Saturdays is simple. It’s not about being lazy and doing nothing on those days; I expect sometimes my Saturdays will be really productive with jobs about the house, for example. It’s more about my mental outlook on the day.

Here are some basic guidelines:

  1. As much as possible, avoid time-keeping. On Saturday I left my watch off and deliberately ignored the clock on the microwave as much as I could. I didn’t make it all day long without a look, but I did pretty well.
  2. Do everything slower, and do it mindfully. I kind of had some hits and misses in the mindfulness area on Saturday, but on balance I did take my day at a much more sedate pace.
  3. Try to avoid appointments. This might be challenging at some point, I’m sure, but I’m going to try to avoid needing to be somewhere at any particular time on Saturdays. I’m realistic that on some days that won’t be possible, but I’ll try.
  4. Feel my way through the day. Eat when I feel hungry, for example, rather than automatically at 12pm for lunch (my habitual weekend lunchtime).
  5. Treat #1-4 above as ‘guidelines’ rather than rules. A bit like Captain Barbossa from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean‘, I won’t be too rigid about following the above guidelines to the letter all the time.

I want to be OK with not doing things perfectly and be kind to myself if I fall into old habits. After all, this is one day out of seven (and during the other six, especially at work, my scheduling mind is being seriously reinforced).

Being slow every day, or all the time, is pretty much impossible and maybe not even desirable in our culture and society. However I think having one day when it’s OK – even expected – to take life at a slower pace, is a good thing.

So if you’re meeting me on a Saturday this year and I’m late, be kind. I’m just a little bit slow.

Could you do with one slow day a week?

Letting Go

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So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name.

“It is Well” / Bethel Music feat. Kristene DiMarco

I’ve been spending some time over these last couple weeks of the school holidays thinking about how I intend to take care of myself better, manage anxiety and respond more effectively to stress throughout this year.

What will this look like in practical terms? I have most of my overall plan for that nutted out, which I intend to share in an upcoming post sometime soon.

One particular area I intend to focus on is letting go.

I love one of my wife’s favourite sayings, which is well known in many Christian circles: “Let go, and let God”. The saying is not about giving up involvement altogether in a particular situation or context, but accepting that often control of the circumstances or outcome is out of our hands. Historically, I’m best at doing this sort of letting go when I really don’t have any choice – all other options have been exhausted.

On the other hand, letting go can be as much about the past as about future outcomes. Recently a pastor at our church used the analogy of a boat, describing the difficulty in moving forward if we’re tied down by heavy anchors from the past. There can be movement to and fro, but no real change.

boat-691804_640

Image is in public domain.

I like that analogy and it makes sense to me.

The more I have thought about letting go recently, the more I have wondered:

  • What exactly do I want to let go of?
  • How will I go about doing that in the day-to-day?

I began to make a list. The list isn’t finished, but here are just a few things I want to let go of this year:

Expectations

I’m learning that I’m often unrealistic and unfair, especially to myself, in the expectations I hold. In my roles as a dad, a husband, a friend, a professional in my career, I often have expectations that don’t fit the context and situation. In big life contexts and smaller day-to-day scenarios, often my expectations are clouded by ideas about how things should be. I’m getting better at checking my expectations against the reality of my life context to ensure they are realistic and fair, but it’s an ongoing challenge.

The Past

I don’t consciously dwell on the past, but I have realised I often unconsciously let it shape my expectations of similar situations in the present or future; sometimes I “catastrophise” based on what has occurred in the past. Instead I want to treat each new day and situation as unique.

Perfection

I’m having a go this year at lowering my standards – though not too far – in areas that are less important. At work, I sometimes spend extra time making a student handout look perfectly set out and organised when in reality that level of attention to detail is unnecessary and inefficient. At home, I don’t cope well with “mess” and that’s something I need to find some balance on. These are just two examples.

Success and Judgement

This is a change of mindset that goes hand-in-hand with my mindfulness practice. I think it’s a bit counter-cultural in some ways in western society. I want to hold back more often on judgements about success and failure, right and wrong, good and bad in terms of what I do. I want to treat more of my experiences, good and bad, as simply steps on my journey – and it doesn’t matter if I succeeded or failed today, only that I keep going tomorrow.

Needing to have control

Control is often a major concern for people, and that’s true for myself. I find it hard to relinquish control at times and I am most comfortable when I feel in control. It’s probably human nature to feel this way, but situations where we’re completely in control are also very rare or even often illusory. If I can become more comfortable with less control over situations, I’ll be better for it.

This isn’t a complete list and with some of the items above, maybe it’s more a case of letting the rope slip through my hands a little rather than letting go entirely. It’s about finding balance.

Letting go of some things day-to-day is hard. It’s easy to form the intention to do so, but more difficult to put it consistently into practice. I’m working on being more aware of my thoughts throughout each day and regularly making reality checks. The longer I continue, the easier it’ll become.

What do you want to let go of this year?

Houston, we have a problem…

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One of my favourite movies is Apollo 13. The film details the “successful failure” of NASA’s Apollo 13 mission in 1970. Intended as a moon landing mission, it instead becomes a desperate effort to bring the three astronauts home safely after a malfunction and explosion en route to the moon.

After the initial explosion and in the midst of a wild, erratic ride on board the spacecraft, Commander Jim Lovell in the movie says:

Houston, we have a problem.

It was immediately apparent from the explosion that they had a problem, and it was a big one.

In contrast, there was no single climactic event that indicated to me that I had a problem with my mental health.

It crept up on me subtly in a way that reminds me a little of the story of the frog slowly boiled alive. Although modern frog experts will tell you that a frog wouldn’t actually behave that way, the story is used as a metaphor to highlight the potential for small, gradual changes to go unnoticed. Sometimes the small, gradual changes are as much about an organism’s internal environment as external – in my case, thinking patterns. I was a calm, optimistic, hopeful guy with a consistently positive outlook on life – until I realised I wasn’t as much any more.

Of course, in my case the external environment over the past five to six years has been pretty challenging as well. My wife’s severe depression and anxiety has taken its toll on both of us. As her husband and carer I was a little removed from her first-hand experience of it, but often not by much. I have supported her through her ups and downs, sat with her when she was there but not there. I have been ready and waiting to pick up the slack at a moment’s notice each time there was the need – when her depression was so bad that she needed a stay in hospital, or at times when she was home but not capable of being who and what she wanted to be. Not only were the circumstances challenging in a practical sense, but also the reality of daily life made it a challenge to see ahead to a time when I would get back my wife, the kids get back their mum. Those were the key external challenges.

But stress is subjective, I teach my psychology students. It’s not the number or the magnitude of stressors that matter most, but an individual’s perception of those stressors and of their ability to cope. Initially, and for a long time, I coped well. I drew on my faith as a Christian, remained optimistic and focussed on each new situation pragmatically. Work was my refuge in a sense, because it was the one place that everything was more or less normal and predictable. I received enormous support from my colleagues and my employer. I rose to the challenges at home and met each obstacle, my key focus ensuring the needs of my wife and our kids were met as best I could.

Looking back now I see one critical oversight in my approach – in the flurry and busyness of caring for my wife and kids, I didn’t acknowledge the equal importance of also caring for myself. With too few tops-ups to my own fuel tank, my psychological and emotional reserves dwindled lower and lower.

Suddenly I found I wasn’t coping so well any more, and I couldn’t pinpoint quite where or how it had happened.

Initially I assumed it was just a rough stage, and in time things would improve. They didn’t; they got worse. For a long time in the back of my mind was the belief that I had to endure and stay strong for my wife’s sake, and also for my kids. I was her rock. I couldn’t start to crumble too.

I spent over a year struggling with ups and down, mostly downs, wondering if I had depression, praying, thinking I probably did. I was completely miserable, but hoping that with perseverance, effort and prayer I could get through it and keep going. Ultimately I realised that if things went on, I wouldn’t be in a state to be even mildly supportive of those I cared about most – let alone be their rock. It was past time to seek professional help.

I remember the revelation and the irony of the second session with my psychologist. We talked about anxiety as a disorder and a list of common symptoms, many of them physiological. I had just about all of them. A mental jog back over the past 18 months to two years revealed I might have had undiagnosed anxiety for as long. It’s ironic because I’m a psychology teacher and I teach my students about mental illness, including anxiety. I never twigged until that session. Then everything suddenly made sense. Sometimes in the midst of things you’re just too close to see what’s really going on.

That psych session was in early October. I came out of it with renewed hope and a clear plan for managing my anxiety. Things have gotten better and better from there – for a moment discounting my unexpected stroke a month later. Just as small, gradual changes in my thinking patterns got me here, the return to complete wellness is going to require time. But I have already taken some big steps and am in a better place already than even a couple months ago.

My wife’s health has improved and has been stable, and she has been an amazing support to me these past few months. In some ways the tables have turned – but not entirely. We’re continuing to learn how to support each other, and also care for ourselves. My family has also been very supportive.

Near the end of Apollo 13, in preparation for the crew’s successful re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the crew jettisons the service module which was damaged in the explosion. For the first time they are able to visually assess the damaged craft. They’re almost home free, with just one or two more hurdles to overcome – but they’re still awed by the extent of the damage caused to the vehicle. Almost one whole side of the service module was missing.

I kind of feel that way about my stroke. I’m still seeing a neurologist to follow-up and explore possible causes, but the only obvious risk factor was stress. When the stroke hit, I was already on my way to better management of stress and anxiety. For now, I see the stroke as a delayed consequence of a nervous system running at peak-rev for way too long. As I shared in my first post, A stroke of luck, it was a close call and I’m heeding it as a reminder that I need to look after myself too.

The challenges of the past few years have been my journey but that journey is now an upward one. There’s a long way to go, but I’m on the way to again becoming that calm, optimistic, hopeful guy I once was.

I’m looking forward to sharing the upward journey with you over the course of this year.

For the first time in so long, both my wife and I are excited about what 2016 holds for us. We’re only going to get better.