Beginning any new experience can be intimidating. Be it a new school, internship, job, volunteer position, or even leisure activity, taking on unfamiliar tasks in a foreign setting alongside people you don’t know and don’t know you can feel paralyzing. Am I going to fit in? Will people think I’m competent? Can I do what is expected of me? While the answers to those questions are likely a resounding “Yes!”, these anxiety-provoking new experiences are some of the most valuable learning opportunities we can ever have.
When we find ourselves in situations for which we don’t have a frame of reference regarding how to act, what is expected of us, how people treat one another––when we generally don’t know the status quo and culture of a place––we are forced to be present to what is going on around us on a moment-by-moment basis. We must listen carefully, attend to the body language and tone of others, and speak and act intentionally in order to avoid social blunders and misunderstandings. This combination of alertness and vulnerability provide a rare chance to observe our thoughts and actions with curiosity; we are able to ask ourselves questions like, “How should I respond to that statement?” or “Why did I say what I just said?” with a frequency we don’t normally experience when we are within our comfort zones. With careful consideration both in these immediate experiences, and in reflection afterward, we are able to gain valuable insight into ourselves and our patterns of behavior.
It is the very act of stepping outside of these comfort zones that gives us room to stretch and try on new ways of interacting with people around us. If we’re open enough and non-judgmental toward ourselves and others, unfamiliar experiences allow us to choose more consciously and mindfully how we engage with the world moving forward.
An interesting and concise description of the effects of mindfulness on our everyday experiences by Dr. David Rock appears in the June 2011 Psychology Today. While the ideas described in the article weren’t new to me, the way that they were tied to one another made it a fascinating read.
In short, Rock explains that there are two modes your brain can be in at any time: narrative (or default) mode and direct experience mode. The former is the mode most people exist in most of the time, and it is when “you are thinking about your history and future and all the people you know, including yourself, and how this giant tapestry of information weaves together” while taking in information from your experience. The other mode, a.k.a. direct experience, is just as it sounds:
When the direct experience network is active, several
different brain regions become more active. This includes
the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily
sensations. The anterior cingulate cortex is also
activated, which is a region central to switching your
attention. When this direct experience network is
activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or
future, other people, or yourself, or considering much at
all. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into
your senses in real time.
Rock goes on to explain that recent studies have shown that the two modes of thinking/experiencing are inversely correlated, which makes sense. You can’t be processing experiences directly AND filtering them through your meaning-making circuitry simultaneously. The two ways of being are mutually exclusive. Anyway, the most exciting connection for me is the following:
…people who regularly practiced noticing the narrative and
direct experience paths, such as regular meditators, had
stronger differentiation between the two paths. They knew
which path they were on at any time, and could switch
between them more easily. Whereas people who had not
practiced noticing these paths were more likely to
automatically take the narrative path.
Now, I knew that we were finally beginning to scientifically show and measure how meditative practices physically change the brain, but I had not read or heard much about what this might mean for everyday living. Does meditation induce the relaxation response in the body and mind? Yep. Does it ameliorate the effects of stress on the body? Looks like it. But the idea that meditative practices might simply remind a person that he or she has a choice about how to experience their life is pretty radical to me. When you consciously (and eventually habitually) choose to take the time to be quiet and still your mental chatter (chita vritti in yogi-talk!), this practice truly becomes practice for every other experience you’ll have that day.
I will never hear the phrase “meditative practice” the same way again.
Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it.
I have just recently begun to realize that being good at something does not mean I must do this thing regularly if it does not bring me joy. To cease a certain activity or type of work in which I am naturally skilled had in the past felt like looking a gift horse in the mouth: was it not a waste of a God-given ability to choose not to use that part of who I am?
In a word: no.
Why? Because aptitude does not equal passion. I have given myself permission to do only the things that bring me joy. Some of these things require more work, more practice, and more time than it would take just to employ the skills I’ve naturally acquired throughout my lifetime. What is interesting is that the work, practice, and time it takes to refine the new skills––the grunt work that should feel tedious and mundane––feels more joyful and gets me more excited than even the best parts of the work I should have loved ever did. I should have been tipped off by that language in the first place: work I “should” love to do, skills that “ought” to bring me happiness. Shoulds and oughts are dangerous thoughts.
The realization that our natural gifts and skills might not always align with the things about which we feel the most passion has rocked my world. Give yourself permission to chase after the things you love. I promise the work is worth it.
“‘Everything will be alright’ is not the same as
‘everything will stay the same’.”
Things change allthetime. As scary as this may be to many people, and hard as we may try to fight it, life simply does not and cannot stay the same. The very nature of existing on this planet means we are fragile, finite, limited beings and the blessings, mistakes, births, deaths, illnesses, healings, relationships, break-ups, and all the in-between of our experiences are unavoidable.
I was raised in a household that really rolled with the punches, and into my early 20s I thought I was going to carry that brightly burning torch proudly into my adulthood and never look back. I was not going to be one of those people who worried about 401Ks and disability insurance; who fretted about food poisoning on exotic vacations and always had a back up plan for her back up plan. Life was just too unpredictable to even begin to try to prepare for all of the things that could go wrong––so why try at all?
A combination of factors led to my slight (well, moderate) modification of this approach over the last couple of years, but the biggest influence was the shift in my understanding of the control I had over my own life. As my worldview changed, and I began to recognize the responsibility I had to other people and to the environment around me, I also recognized that the consequences of my life choices could impact a family, a community, and potentially a whole globe full of people. My desire to live a spontaneous, exciting, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of life was transformed into something a little more calculated and a little more controlled, but I believe also a little more compassionate.
To be a thoughtful person also means often being a careful and discerning person. And, this, much to my surprise, means planning something every once in awhile. Because to act on my every whim, to make choices without consideration for how they impact others, might be fun, but also has the potential to be destructive––now or in the later down the line. I recognized that in order to make decisions that best align with my values and beliefs means I first need to know what those values and beliefs are and then determine which choices will best bring those things into my life. And this requires some forethought––a bit of “planning”, if you will.
Conceptualizing of planning as a path to living more mindfully, I am able to more consciously choose the future I want for myself and the world around me.
I have always loved mosaics, and have recently been contemplating the “life as a mosaic” metaphor. It’s similar in concept to life as a tapestry, quilt, puzzle, etc., with each experience a thread or patch or piece coming together to make a beautiful whole. What I like best about the mosaic metaphor is how it changes the parameters for the individual pieces. When working with glass or ceramic, rarely will you get a clean, smooth break––and when making a mosaic, this is exactly what you want sometimes: there is an awkward space to fill where one side needs to curve and the other needs to form a right angle, or you need a piece with a jagged edge to fit in next to another zigzaging piece. The final product would not be as interesting or unique if it was not composed of pieces with sharp borders and chipped corners, broken and rough scraps assembled with great attention and intention.
This feels true to my experience of life. Sometimes you have to work a little harder to make the pieces fit, and sometimes you have a shattered and razor-edged fragment to try and reconcile with the others… and then it turns out to be the very piece you needed to fill that one space, in that one section with all the watercolor blues and greens. And, damn, is it ever breathtaking.
Yes, sometimes you need to slap on a little extra grout to make it all fit together, but, really, who’s keeping track?
Imagine the next 24 hours were yours to fill with whatever your heart desires. No logistical constraints (travel, money, scheduling, etc.) need be taken into account. Where would you be? Who would be there with you? What would you be doing? How would you feel?
Now, consider what it is that you love about those particular places, people, and activities––what makes this your dream day? Is it spending time with your family? Perhaps it is solitude? Is it finally getting time to work on your favorite side project? Is it good food, good friends, and good energy? Is it feeling rested and relaxed?
How can you bring just a piece of this dream into your life on a regular basis? How might even 15 minutes each day give you a taste of your “dream day”? The stuff of our dreams is sometimes not as impossible or far off as it seems. Make room in your life each day for the people, experiences, and activities that matter to you.
I have (finally!) reached the point in my graduate counseling studies where we are practicing actual counseling skills in semi-realistic settings with semi-realistic people and problems. This is exciting. What can be less-than-exciting is the realization that the strengths and weaknesses in our personalities and behavior patterns that we grapple with in daily life are magnified significantly in a therapeutic setting. Yikes. It turns out my tendency to jump in to agree with what someone else is saying––and connect it to my own experience––is actually called “interrupting” to most people! All kidding aside, being forced to examine my own personal strengths and weaknesses as a counselor has truly felt like an examination of my strengths and weaknesses as a human being. Making note of things like: What are my tendencies when someone comes to me with a problem that hits really close to home? How do I treat someone whose communication style differs wildly from my own? It’s fascinating to act as an observer to your own thoughts and behaviors, and has been a learning experience beyond what I expected.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve come away with from this stage of my education is that for every strength there is an accompanying weakness––a two sides of the same coin kind of deal. The clearest example I have of this playing out in my own life is my perception of people. I believe one of my strengths is in my ability to read people; I can pick up on tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and really hear what people are meaning even if it’s not exactly what they are saying. When these powers are used for good, I believe they can help me be a compassionate, empathetic, and intuitive helper. On the flip side, this gift has immense power to be destructive. If I know what someone is feeling, if I can imagine what to say to make someone feel relieved or supported, this means I also have a good idea of what to say to make them feel the opposite. I can tear people down with one carefully selected string of words. And this is a scary, scary truth.
An idea that helped me both discover the above truth about myself and also helped me manage the instant fear that came with that lesson is: approach yourself and others with genuine curiosity. This means asking a lot of questions (“Why did I just say what I did?” “I wonder if he feels angry about that?”) instead of making judgments that are not ours to make (“That was a really stupid thing to say.” “She needs to quit letting people walk all over her.” ).
Remaining open to possibilities in ourselves and in others makes us more open to recognizing what is true… and makes the difficult truths just a bit easier to palate.
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is
translated through you into action, and there is only one
of you in all time. This expression is unique, and if you
block it, it will never exist through any other medium;
and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your
business to determine how good it is, not how it compares
with other expression. It is your business to keep it
yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
In the second week’s lesson in my Noimetic Psychology course through En*Theos Academy, Dr. Eric Maisel explained that the very act of taking an action with the intention that it will be a meaningful experience can lessen the likelihood that a meaningful experience will result. For example, if we plan a vacation with our families with the hope that every day is going to build lasting memories and strengthen familial bonds, the pressure of this expectation necessarily interferes with the natural outcome and potential for meaning to be made. Instead, Dr. Maisel suggests, we should choose to engage in activities we value simply because we value them, without attachment to the outcome. If we say to ourselves, “I choose to engage in X behavior because I value Y.” and then remain open to whatever results, we do not interfere with the possibility for meaning to ensue. Naturally, choosing activities based on things we value increases the chance for meaningful psychological experiences, but reduces the likelihood that we will get in our own way.
This seems simultaneously an impossibly difficult and critically important life lesson.
Needless to say, I am thoroughly impressed with my first experience with En*Theos Academy, and have found my experience to be meaningful already. And, heck, I was not attached to any sort of outcome going into it––looks like it’s already working! :)