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I’ve spent my whole life asking the wrong question…

I have an uncomfortable confession to make. You see, I was born with a question on my lips and I’ve spent pretty much entire life trying to answer it. Which is why it’s been uncomfortable for me to realize in the past month or two that I’m pretty sure I’ve been asking exactly the wrong question all my life.

That question, by the way, is “why?”.

Since I was first old enough to formulate this question it has plagued me — amounting to a total span of time far greater than the normal four-year old fixation.

One of the lovely women I coach with has dubbed me “the one with a hypothesis for everything” — and it’s so true.

Every mystery, every puzzle, every question — I am fixated, transfixed, addicted. I chew them over and over in my mind, obsessed with figuring out the why of things until I happen upon a plausible explanation. Only they is my curiosity sated.

But.

As I’ve been thinking about 2016 and what I want to do in the coming year(s) of my life, I’m starting to realize that the question “why?” is ultimately a trap.

“Why” leads invariably to a line of questioning in which the world becomes an murky, impossible place and every decision is weighed down by 10,000 confounding variables.

Under the burden of “why?”, even the simplest decision becomes impossible.

In deciding what to have to dinner one must know why chicken might be better than beef, why Indian food might be better than Chinese, why it might be important to buy organic, etc.

Under the burden of “why” a decision cannot be decided under the auspices of reasons such as “because I want to” (why?) or “because it sounds good” (why?).

Instead, a decision must be infinitely logical and well defended. Under the burden of “why?”, all possible reasons must be vindicated and validated and living your life rapidly begins to feel impossible.

Which is why I’ve decided to start asking a new question: “Why not?”

It’s possible that I find this magical just because I’m going through a phase of some sort… but bear with me for a second if you’re feeling skeptical.

“I feel like having chicken for dinner.” Why not?
“I think I’ll meditate this evening before bed.” Why not?
“Should I skip class tonight and go to bed early?” Why not!

“Why not?” is almost always immediate permission to move in the direction you wanted to go anyways.

As a coach, this is probably something I should have figured out a long time ago — because I ask my clients why-questions a lot in order to help me understand how they see their world.

But I don’t ask “why?” or “why do you think that?” or “why is that?” very often.

Instead, I usually ask questions like “why would that be bad?” or “why would that be a problem?” or “so what?” or “who cares?” (or “why *not*?”!).

When we ask ourselves these “why not?” questions we can see immediately to the heart of the matter.

Because the answers that come up are always are excuses.

“I might fail.” “It’ll never work.” “I’m not qualified.” “I ate chicken last night.”

And our excuses are almost always… well, pretty darn lame.

But sometimes they’re also not lame and that’s fine too.

If doing something really is a bad idea then you’ll figure that out when you ask “why not?”.

That’s the brilliance of the question, really. It’s just waiting for you to look your choices in the eye. It doesn’t have any sort of an agenda.

Now it’s your turn! I dare you to pick a dream for 2016 and ask yourself “why not?” Let me know what comes up for you in the comments!

 

Settling into the stillness

While I was a student at MIT I forgot how to be still.

I was so madly busy, so go-go-go that every time I came up for breath, I twitched restlessly, sure I must be missing or forgetting something.

I would go home for Christmas, and in the days that followed my arrival I was relentless. I fidgeted. I poked and prodded. I asked “What’s up?” over and over, helplessly, of anyone afflicted with my presence.

One year, in a fit of desperation I sat down to my mother’s piano (an instrument I do not play) and proceeded to teach myself Bach, one agonized note at a time. I played the same piece over and over and over for hours, for days until my fingers flew almost gracefully over the keys.

I played until every nerve in the house was frayed just like mine were and — in the moment when my sister finally yelled at me to stop — I thought that in their annoyance my family at last shared a trace of my pain.

This affliction was usually (thankfully) short-lived. Within a handful of days my anxiety dimmed from a pitched fervor to a disquieting buzz that settled in my bones and could be mistaken for “normal”. I could come to accept that for a few short weeks there might be nothing I needed to do — no imminent crisis that needed thwarting, no pending deadline I had somehow forgotten.

But I could not settle into stillness.

The first time I tried in earnest to meditate was the winter after I graduated with my Master’s degree.

I settled down on a cushion and dutifully crossed my legs. I set my timer for the recommended 20 minutes. I closed my eyes and focused my attention on my breathing. I pressed “start” on my cell phone timer.

I think I lasted all of 30 seconds before I was shifting again — my hand reaching instinctively to kill the timer as I rose to my feet and settled myself back at the computer.

Sitting in stillness with my thoughts was unbearable.

I tried again in the following days — setting my timer. I never made it the full 20 minutes, but sometimes I counted myself lucky to endure five as my thoughts raced in tight, anxious circles and I struggled to remember my breath.

I gave up eventually. I quit.

I decided meditation wasn’t for me; the way I’d decided it wasn’t at age 10 when I’d read about it in a book, sat down to try it out, and remained still for a (very patient) three minutes before deciding I must not be doing it right.

I guess I’d expected some kind of a mystical experience, but all I got was me — concentrated and intensified and uncomfortably near as I struggled to follow, not dictate, the rhythm of my breath.

But as we enter this particular winter — as we enter into the liminal space between winter’s first chill and the snowy onset of winter’s depths — I’ve noticed something in me has shifted.

No longer am I the girl who can’t sit still.

No longer am I the girl who found a 20 minute meditation stretched out like an infinite, bridgeless crevasse I was unable to cross.

No.

These days I find myself sitting in stillness more often than not, in vast stretches of empty hours spent on the bus to and from work or on airplanes as I criss-cross the country with the alacrity of a hockey puck.

I used to fill these spaces with noise, with words, with pages and pages of the books I voraciously consumed — stuffing my head to the brim with thoughts and ideas. But these days, more and more, I find I’d rather just sit down where I am and watch and breathe and contemplate the world as it slips silently by out my window.

On the eve of this particular winter I’m finding myself settling into a new and yet familiar stillness, settling into the moments of soft introspection as my attention draws inward even as the trees draw in their sap.

I find myself welcoming, not dreading, the impending cold that will keep me hunkered down. No longer does the threat of this seem anything other than delicious as I settle myself down for a kind of inward-turning hibernation.

I find myself feeling, for perhaps the first time since I arrived at MIT, like I’m incubating the seeds of something entirely new.

I find myself returning to the oft-quoted passage from T.S. Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

I’m sinking myself into the stillness now, I’m waiting into the winter.

Because I do not yet feel ready for thought as I settle, ever more deeply, into the person I find I’m busy becoming.

What about you — who might you be becoming? Let me know in the comments.

 

When the most productive thing you can do is rest

I have a troubled relationship with rest.

I’m not sure when the trouble first crept in — perhaps when I was a child and staying up too late would cause sharp agonies to ache in my legs, or perhaps it was later, in high school, when not-resting was its own kind of numbing that left me less capable of feeling the sharp ache of my own loneliness.

And if it wasn’t any of those things, then my troubled relationship with rest began at MIT, when my physical body became nothing more than a burden that stood between me and the monumental workload I struggled to manage each semester.

As a student at MIT, I often worked until the point when I was no longer capable of coherent thought. Only then collapsing into my bed to snatch 30 minutes or an hour of desperately needed rest only to wake, sleep-logged and disoriented, to crawl back out of my bed and work another hour or two until coherent thought once more deserted me.

I passed whole nights, sometimes many consecutive nights, in this fragmented and sleep-fogged state.

The ultimate consequence of this was that much of my time at MIT has vanished from the grip of memory — the human brain writes experience to long-term memory during sleep — and without sleep those experiences slip from short-term memory and are often gone forever.

At MIT it seemed to me that my need to rest stood directly between me and my own survival. My body seemed a burden that limited rather than supported the performance of my mind.

But ultimately, this was always an illusion.

The research is clear that people who are chronically sleep deprived underperform those who are well rested (even though the chronically sleep deprived start to feel they are “adequately rested” — the body normalizes the experience of chronic sleep deprivation after a week or two, but performance is still affected).

All of which means that, even if you don’t feel like you need it, often the most productive thing you can do is rest.

I know this, and I still struggle with rest.

I feel like I have too much going on and not enough hours and so I shave off 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there and pretty soon it’s 11 pm and I still haven’t crawled into my bed even though I know the my alarm clock will go off at 6:30 and (for me at least) 6.5 hours (though sadly almost-average) is not even close to being enough rest.

And still I comfort myself with the knowledge that 6.5 hours “isn’t too bad” because my standards were set at MIT where I went whole semesters without sleeping more than 4-5 hours a night.

I struggle because it’s hard for me to believe that if I really rested I would still get things done.

But I’m so, so tired of coping with inadequate rest (pun intended, of course).

I’m tired of the cult of “hardcore” people who seem to run on redbull and fumes and are lauded for their super-human efforts.

Maybe there are people out there for whom this actually works, but I am not one of them.

And yet I feel held to this unattainable standard, like everyone will judge me if I’m not sleep-resistant and bulletproof.

But what I’ve learned this year is that when we fear judgement from others it’s usually because we’re secretly busy judging ourselves.

I’m not entirely sure what my judgement is — likely it’s some variation on “sleep is for the weak” or “i’m too cool to rest” or “I shouldn’t need more rest than other people”.

I expect my judgement is wound up in a panic that I’ll never get far enough, fast enough if I choose to let myself rest.

But the real truth, the one that resonates in my body when I sit with it, is that I create only my own misery when I sacrifice my rest.

Which is why I’m choosing to forge a new relationship to rest.

I’m reclaiming my right to “tread gently” on my physical body and see my needs met.

Or, at least, I’m declaring my intention to start working on it.

Because it’s been years now since I graduated from MIT and more days than not I still feel like I’m carrying around the burden of those unslept hours and some days those hours feel heavier than anything I know.

Which is why today I’m choosing to rest.

 

What about you? How do you relate to rest? If you’re the average American it’s likely that you, too, have a troubled relationship with rest. Let me know in the comments below!

 

I forgot I needed a plan

It’s been a while (months, I’m afraid) since I’ve mentioned the book I’m writing. Or rather, I suppose I should say “the book I was writing” because if we’re being honest I haven’t worked on it much since July.

There’s plenty of excuses for why I haven’t been writing — my book notes and thoughts were never properly unpacked after I moved in early July, I became busy with another major project at the end of July that’s been eating up a lot of my free time, etc.

Excuses are cheap and easy to come by.

But the truth is that all of those pretty excuses are just excuses.

It’s not that I don’t have the time to work on my book.

In fact, I’ve had “spend 20 mins writing” on my To Do list every week since July and there’s only been a handful of times I’ve actually crossed that item off.

For weeks now I’ve been trying to figure out why I wasn’t writing.

I tried most of the tricks I know — I used to set the goal of writing for an hour but when that didn’t work I made the goal smaller, just 20 minutes. Surely I could find 20 minutes?

But no.

I started to work on other intangibles, trying to sleep more and working to tidy up my physical space — both of which are important but neither of which helped me.

And then I started to toy with the idea of doing just five measly minutes minutes of writing.

If I didn’t have 20 minutes then I absolutely had five. I’ve had great luck in using five minutes to re-build flagging habits (an idea I heard first from the lovely Anna Kunnecke).

What if I wrote for just five minutes?

It was a question that haunted me for weeks. Surely 5 minutes wasn’t enough to produce anything meaningful?

Usually when I write I need at least 20 minutes to get into the swing of things, remember what I was doing, and produce something useful.

But 20 minutes wasn’t working and I kept wondering about the tantalizing possibility of five.

Which was, naturally, when I figured the whole thing out.

Because five minutes might totally be enough time to write something useful — but only if you sit down at the beginning of those five minutes knowing exactly what it is you plan to write.

Five minutes wasn’t working for me because I didn’t have a plan.

[Photo of index cards on wall]
The “Wall of Book” that now exists in my bedroom.
This not-having-a-plan thing is the problem I’ve run into every time I’ve declared I was writing a book — from my first attempt at age 11 to my most recent failure during NaNoWriMo 2012. And it nearly got me again, this time around.

Every time I have a book idea, I jump right into the writing. I draft pages and pages of story (sometimes as much as 100) and inevitably, eventually I get stuck.

I get stuck because the story grows so large that I can’t keep it all in my head.

I get stuck because I have a million and one good ideas and none of them quite seem to fit.

I get stuck because I only kinda-sorta-maybe know where I’m going.

I get stuck because I don’t have a plan.

So this time I’ve brushed off my index cards and painter’s tape and I’m putting together my plan.

One scene, one idea, one paragraph at a time.

And you can bet that once I’ve got the plan worked out I’m going to write my way to the finish line — even if I have to do it five fucking minutes at a time.

 

What about you — do you have a big project you’ve been stalled out on? If so, what’s been holding you back? Let me know in the comments!

 

Making the shift from consumer to producer

I want to talk about a pattern in my life that’s been unfolding over the past several years — a pattern I’ve only recently become aware of. Slowly (so slowly I didn’t notice!) I’ve been making the shift from consumer to producer.

I started this blog more than a year ago and, at the time, I thought I would start writing again. I thought I would start writing regularly (I imagined myself writing poetry and stories, not essays) and publishing those stories and poems on my blog.

But it didn’t work out that way.

I do write regularly these days, but the blog post I publish each week are nothing like the creative pieces I had initially imagined.

Instead, my blog drifted from poetry and stories to essays and my creative writing practice (although it has experienced periods of productivity) has, more often than not, floundered.

Creativity and building a creative writing practice is a subject I’ve devoted any number of blog posts to, and yet it’s still not a code I feel I’ve cracked.

I feel like I know all the things to do creatively and yet I never actually do them.

In other words, I often feel like a creative failure.

And yet, there’s a thought that’s been percolating in the back of my head for the past couple of weeks — a thought about making the shift from consumer to producer.

What exactly do I mean when I say “the shift from consumer to producer”?

Increasingly I am convinced that creativity happens in the margins, in the pauses and the white space we build into our lives. And in today’s hyper-connected, always “on” culture — consciously cultivating white space is getting harder and harder.

And I’m not just talking about the seven TV shows you follow religiously (my number back in the day).

There’s actually two different kinds of consumption:

  1. There’s the physical, tangible stuff we consume — the news articles, the blog posts, the podcasts, the TV shows, the books, etc.
  2. But there’s also the intangible stuff — the stuff we don’t so much buy as buy in to. These things are the stories we tell about what people are supposed to do, who a person is supposed to be, what daily practices and habits a person is supposed to cultivate.

In my experience, it’s this second kind of consumption that’s most toxic to creativity.

For every bad habit of tangible consumption I’ve cut out (the food blogs with recipes I never cooked, the health blogs that left me feeling more anxious than I started, the writing blogs that reminded me daily that I wasn’t writing enough, the hours of TV I used to numb myself on weekends so that I didn’t have to feel my own discontent), I’ve bought into a half-dozen new stories about how TV is a waste of my time and how my writing practice should be a perfect expression of my creative soul and how my cooking is too utilitarian and my recipes should always be effortlessly delicious and look like art.

My inner perfectionist dive bombs into these stories about the perfect person I’m supposed to be — and the subsequent guilt of not living up to my own expectations entirely zaps my creative energy.

My white space is still filled… just not with physical clutter so much as clutter of a different, more poisonous kind.

And I believe that in order to develop a sustainable creative practice you have to throw out *all* the clutter, in all of it’s various forms.

Creative brilliance begins in the blank moments and the empty spaces when you’re caught adrift somewhere between existence and boredom.

Whether your clutter is physical or mental, the end result is always the same: you’re busy filling in the blank stretches of your mental space.

And without that empty space there’s never going to be room for something new and beautiful to grow.

 

I’d love for this to be a conversation and not a monologue! Are you interested in making the shift from consumer to producer? Which kind of consumption do you struggle with more, the tangible or the intangible? Let me know in the comments below.