As anyone who has been in a relationship for any length of time knows, there is a big difference between hearing and listening. In the early days of any relationship, romantic or otherwise, we listen very carefully to the other person when they speak. As we become more familiar with people we may hear them but not with the same attention. I can recall with incredible clarity what Colin and I talked about on our first date, despite the eagle-sized butterflies in my stomach. I was as present and aware of every detail of the day as I have ever been. If you asked me the details of a conversation from this past weekend I would have a harder time. It is not for lack of interest. I still think that at any given moment Colin is the most interesting person in the room, it’s just that familiarity makes it easy to confuse hearing and listening.
Hearing is what happens when I ask my children to empty the dishwasher and they don’t move. They have heard me…but they aren’t listening. Listening is what happens when you calmly tell them several hours later that ignoring my requests makes me feel rotten, and emptying the dishwasher and making beds is just being a part of the team. Listening makes change, but in our family for people to listen to each other, voices can’t be raised and eye contact is necessary. Yelling, snipping, or coming from a place of exasperation pretty much assures that no one in my house will listen to you.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a well known contemporary Buddhist scholar, talks about “listening deeply” or “listening skillfully.” These are practices that one develops through meditation. By learning to listen to the rhythms of our own mind we are better able to listen to other people. We learn how to listen by being quiet and practicing non-judgmental awareness of what comes up in our own minds. It is the same when we are talking to a friend, a stranger, a family member, we have to see that person as they are, not as we wish they were, not rush them through to express our opinion, or in the case of loved ones, without the layers of history between us.
Skillful listening is something we can all develop. At one time or another it has come naturally to us: a friend in crisis, a new love, a child’s first words, but then we relax back into hearing rather than listening. These days I am working on really listening deeply, giving those around me my total attention. When I listen with my whole heart I am a better wife, mother, or friend. Like any practice it starts by noticing when you aren’t doing it, and gently drawing yourself back into the present moment. Eventually it becomes easier, replacing the old habit of hearing, with a new habit of listening.
The conventional wisdom is that it takes 21 days to change or create a habit, although new research suggests that it can take much longer. I have always been really interested in the relationship between routines and habits. Routines are based on habitual behaviors while habits themselves can exist outside of routine. For example, I have a habit of biting my lip. I do this regardless of the time of day or whether or not I am driving or watching tv; it’s just something I do. It is a habit that is not influenced by the rhythm of my day.
One of the things about moving to a new house and a new place is that so many of our routines were changed. I have written extensively over the last few months about how moving or transition can be an opportunity to integrate new habits or cut out things that don’t serve you. Lately, I have been thinking about reward systems for new habits. An example of this would be a meditation practice. Students always want to know how they will be able to tell that this habit of meditation is “working.” In any workshop or class this is always a tricky question. How do we encourage a habit or create a routine when there is no clear timeline or obvious payoff?
I used to tell students that the reward would be that they would be more available to the present moment, more awake to the nuances and habits of their own minds. I still believe that this is true, but it is the kind of answer that implies that without a formal meditation practice you are sleepwalking through life. This is not at all true. Meditation, yoga or a routine quiet activity or period of reflection is an important habit to introduce into every day simply because time moves extremely fast. I find that my days are a blur of activity, much of it shaped by routine. Every morning our house bustles until the last door has slammed and then it is completely quiet. Then every afternoon it again swells with movement and noise until everyone has eaten, fulfilled their last commitments of the day, brushed their teeth and then fallen asleep — only to do it all again the next day.
If we don’t build time into every day to reflect or slow down we are simply riding a wave of routine, which will happily carry us day after day, week after week. By taking time each day to stop moving, or to walk, run, swim, with total attention to the present moment, we are actually stepping outside of the rhythm of routine for just a moment. Taking that time is the closest thing that I have ever found to a reset button, taking a chance to step back and make sure that we are really experiencing things rather than just orchestrating them. A routine is an orchestrated set of habits that keeps your life running smoothly, but if you don’t examine it you can very easily lose touch with the fulfilling and exciting parts of an ordinary day.
I encourage everyone to add in something new for 21 days, some new challenge that shakes things up a little. It can be a meditation practice, or a change to your exercise routine. It can be learning a new skill that requires concentration, just something out of the ordinary. Twenty one days may not be the magic number but it is certainly a start. If our routines are running the show, it’s only because we let them. Introducing new habits, challenging ourselves to shake things up a little bit will bring a freshness and a vitality to everything we do.
Around the new year, there is always the discussion of resolutions and change. People set intentions and try, at least for a brief period of time, to be the best version of themselves possible. I took a class recently with Nina Wise, a local meditation teacher, who said that she doesn’t bother with resolutions anymore because she felt like they had a built-in element of self loathing. The idea that we need to change something doesn’t seem inherently like self loathing to me, but I understand how, for some people, making and breaking the same resolutions year after year might contribute to a lack of trust in themselves.
She suggested choosing a theme for the year, things like health, honesty, work or family. Rather than setting goals that include specific elements, having a theme for the year just makes you more conscious of one aspect of your life. For example, choosing family as a theme may mean that you are more inclined to arrange gatherings, are kinder to your relatives, or more mindful of the small gestures that matter like phone calls and notes to check in. If your theme is health maybe it is more yoga and meditation, but also more time with friends who make you laugh, more massages and sleep. Health doesn’t have to mean that you are in the gym three times a week for the month of January and never again. Health as a theme means taking care of yourself as a whole person, and over a year that could be life changing.
She also spoke about honesty as a theme which I loved. She suggested developing the habit of asking yourself whether or not your actions support your theme. In the case of honesty, the questions look something like this:
Is this not true and not helpful? Don’t say it….
Is this not true but helpful? Don’t say it..
Is this true but not helpful? Don’t say it…
Is this true and helpful? Wait for the right time, and say it
The idea of being this mindful of speech is exciting to me. I know that I often speak out of habit, or boredom, or nervousness. It is a discipline for me to hold a space in loving silence, a discipline that I have worked hard to develop. My nature leans more toward giggly chattiness rather than thoughtful silence. I hope that this year I will learn how to wait for the right time to offer advice, or to collude with a friend. I hope that my words will have more power if they are chosen with greater care. Mostly, I just hope that I am helpful.
It is almost the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. More and more I find I have to make deals with myself to get out of bed in the morning, to get out the door to exercise. I’m feeling tremendously lazy, and am unusually interested in carbs.
Thinking of my summer self bounding up into the hills and coming home for a farmers market salad is like listening to a story of someone I knew in grade school. I can hardly remember who the girl was who had run, and meditated and done yoga all before 10 am.
My first instinct as the days have become shorter and darker, after the farmers market closed for the season, was to ignore those changes and continue on with my routines. Getting out of bed in the pitch dark, sitting for meditation and a short yoga practice when every ounce of me longed for bed. Forcing myself out the door and up the hill for a run, despite the grey sky and my heavy legs. I have been buying expensive out of season produce; I will never forget how scandalized my mother was the first time she saw tangerines and cherries next to each other at the grocery store. The literal definition of too much of a good thing. After a few weeks of denying both the clear messages my body was sending and those outside I had a radical idea: what if I slowed down a bit? What if I actually stayed in bed? What if I did everything less…
For the last few weeks I have been doing less, much less. I have been running barely at all, my yoga practice has been very slow and quiet. I have extended my meditation practice because sitting feels good right now. I am eating all the starchy foods that appear this time of year, the squashes, potatoes, and apples. When it first dawned on me that my body was really telling me it wanted a bit of a break, I thought back on the last few winters when I have not adjusted my program at all. I have gone at 110% regardless of what the weather suggested or my internal clock required. Both this spring and last, I started the season nursing injuries of overuse…..It’s stunning to think I needed to learn this lesson twice. Actually more like 39 times.
None of the things that I fear about letting up on my routines have happened. My jeans all fit. My sleep is just as deep if not deeper. I am calmer. I have focused my yoga practice on forward bends and hip-openers. No jumping, nothing fancy. It is more a practice of hibernation than acceleration. I am hoping that when spring comes that I will feel refreshed and renewed by this period of slowing down. By actually paying attention to what my body wants, by curling up with a book in front of the fire, and sleeping in, I feel like I am taking care of myself. It’s easy to get confused, to think that going full speed all the time is actually what we need. It isn’t. It is what we become used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s what we always need. Sometimes we need to pull back, to go inward and slow down. The world will continue to turn. In fact we may find it turns with fewer creaks and compaints right into spring……
This weekend, after our new kitchen rose to the occasion in a huge way, churning out meals and snacks for our whole family, I felt so full (literally and figuratively) and happy. Being all gathered together in our new house felt exactly as I had hoped it would. The sweet spot that lies between abundance and excess. On Saturday after the festivities wound down, I headed to a daylong yoga and meditation retreat. The day itself was grey and rainy and it felt so good to know that I would spend it quietly on my mat with no greater task than to listen.
There is nothing I love more than gathering with family and friends but I have learned that to do it well, I need to build in some quiet time on the back end. I can be completely present to those I love if I can practice that silently on my own. Too much silence and I get a little wacky; not enough, and I get even wackier. Like anything else, I need balance between external merriment and a quiet internal landscape.
The workshop was great, a duet between two smart teachers. They skillfully wove yoga, meditation and dharma talks in such a way that at the end of the day, I was ready to go home because I was satisfied, neither stuffed or restless. Like a well-made meal, a workshop should be a good blend of spices and portions; too much and it’s like drinking from a fire hose, too little and you are left feeling empty.
During one of the meditations, our teacher Wes Nisker suggested that we view self-criticism as a misguided form of self-care; the idea that the internal voice that releases a steady stream of worries, critique and doubts is actually trying to help you. I thought this was a brilliant shift in perspective on that particular characteristic we all share. My favorite writer, Annie Lamott, calls the self criticism station in her head “k-fucked” radio. It’s the voice that makes it hard to try new things, or is convinced that at any moment everyone is going to find out you are a fraud and it’s curtains. We all have it, and for some people it’s louder than others. Learning to see it as a form of self care seems to make it easier to reconcile it. Rather than resent it, or try and control it, I love the idea of seeing it as a misguided form of self preservation. By thinking of it this way, it seems easier to shake it off. When some familiar worry or self doubt pops up it seems easier to smile and ignore it rather than feel like, “seriously, you again? Get lost..” Instead it becomes a worried, well meaning friend who can’t help themselves. You smile at their efforts and don’t listen to their advice.
We do ourselves no favors worrying about what could go wrong. Instead, we should be focusing our energies and attention on what is actually happening. Like so many things, it’s way harder than it sounds. But, maybe learning to see “k-fucked radio” as just one of our many channels, we will see that we can always change the station.
“Sanity comes from a sense of being synchronized within ourselves.”
I came across this sentence and felt like it really captured everything that I have come to believe about finding balance in life. I think everyone has had the experience of being out of sync with ourselves. Sometimes it is as simple as agreeing to lunch with someone when you don’t really want to, or endorsing an idea you have misgivings about. Other times it is more complicated: it can be time to change jobs, or end a relationship but inertia keeps you stuck in place.
There are millions of suggestions and avenues for creating synchronicity between our internal and external lives. For me it is a combination of yoga, meditation, and running that provide the space to make sure I am not moving too far from the center. For someone else, it may be swimming, walking their dog or writing. We all need something, some sort of barometer of our own wellness. Without a quiet center built into our lives we can find ourselves distracted by every shiny object or tragedy that life has to offer.
When I look at my daughter I am so aware that so many of her issues arise from the fact that it is almost impossible for her to be in sync with the world around her. This morning she woke up and came running out to the kitchen table where I was sitting quietly, lights dimmed, listening to classical music and having coffee, she let out a growl of delight at the sight of me and jumped up on the bench where I was sitting and started clapping and laughing….it was 6 am. Mae is clinically not aware of the cues around her; being quiet in a library, joyous on her birthday, or patient in a long line, are all possible only if she is in the mood. What the world wants, is not her concern, but for her that’s normal. It also doesn’t bother her especially if she has bounded into my quiet morning like a freight train. She doesn’t do guilt. She is autistic.
For most of us though, we are aware when we are out of sync with ourselves or our world but not always sure how to fix it. We can acknowledge it; we can say “I am working too much” or “I am working too little,” or “I am tired, sad or depressed.” Being aware of it is an important step. The next step is to define what feeling in sync is for yourself. We must be clear on what we think balance is, before we can head in that direction. No matter what avenue you take this requires honest, and loving self reflection. I say honest because sometimes we get confused by what we think sanity looks like, and what it really looks like for each of us. That serene woman in front of me in a yoga class may be sane, but I can’t be her, so I have to think about what serenity would look like in my life not my fantasy version of hers.
I am always interested in how to make things a practice, so I made a list of the areas in my life where I feel out of sync. Some are big; am I professionally fulfilled and does it matter? And some are small: it bothers me that there is a cord hanging out of the family room ceiling. Obviously, one of these things has an easy answer and the other doesn’t. The point is not to have all the answers. It is more to identify the questions, and then create some sort of framework to bring things back into alignment with each other. The first part of the practice is creating the questions and the second part is moving to address them in practical ways. Just engaging in the thinking process about balance seems to make me more balanced. Almost always it is the effort not the outcome that has value.