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Happiness Project

It seems like one of latest cultural trends is toward “happiness.”  In the past year I’ve seen (and read some) countless books on happiness.  I have watched the documentary called Happy and have also seen one on Bhutan — the happiest place on earth (although I’ve heard the same thing said of Iceland, which has one of the lowest rates of depression anywhere in the world).

For my own part, I decided to start a “Happiness Project” group (as I mentioned in a previous post) as part of setting and attaining my 2013 resolutions.  There are now many different takes on this same idea — such as Christine Carter’s “Cracking the Habit Code” (which also looks really cool.  I would consider doing this in the future) and Gabrielle Bertstein’s May Cause Miracles.  The thing that appeals to me about The Happiness Project is the amount that one can accomplish by working on things in monthly “micro-steps.”  That is, rather than starting out the year setting five resolutions and trying to keep them all year, you can set a few resolutions each month, focus on those resolutions, and keep building on them.  By the end of the year, you might have started thirty-six (maybe more, maybe less) new habits that contribute to happiness.

Each month has a kind of overarching theme that the individual sets for him/herself.  For example, my focus for January is workSo for this month I want to focus on being more productive, becoming a better (more attentive, more involved, more organized) teacher, and just generally feeling more confident in my position on the tenure track (something that I’ve really struggled with and is at the root of much of my anxiety).  In support of this, I have set the following resolutions for the month of January (which, I know, is now almost over):

  • Write more:  this involves blogging and/or using 750 words.com for 15 minutes, five days/week.  I also want to keep a teaching journal that I write for another 10-15 minutes on Monday and Wednesday afternoons after I teach.
  • Update: I have been doing great with the blogging. I think I’ve only missed two weekdays this month (maybe three if we count MLK day, which was a day off). I haven’t yet started the teaching journal. I’m a bit disappointed in myself about that.
  • Update #2:  Began the teaching journal on tumblr., so I’m also learning to use that blogging platform, which so many of my students use and rave about!
  • Make bed every day: this one might seem unrelated to work, but, in addition to the happiness project, I am also working through a book called One Year to a More Organized Work Life by Regina Leeds. In it she suggests one home resolution and one work resolution each month. This month’s home resolution is to make the bed every day because doing so gives an overall sense of ease and calm. And it’s so true. This is the resolution I am doing best with.
  • Work an 8-24-8 schedule: this essentially means that I will attempt to stick to a 40 hour work week, while also attending to all three parts of my work life — teaching (24 hours), research and writing (8 hours), and committee work and meetings (8 hours). Invariably, teaching takes over and ends up accounting for about 30-40 hours all on its own, but it’s still a goal (it’s also one that I set last year and did not stick to).
  • Reduce social media intake: Earlier in the month I did a week long Facebook fast. It was surprisingly easy and actually enjoyable. I didn’t feel this incessant need to “keep up” the way that I sometimes do when I read what friends of mine are up to. Since then I have tried to reserve one day per week (either Saturday or Sunday) as a social media free day. I don’t count Flipboard, as I try to focus on reading the news on those days, since it is hard for me to keep up on current issues with any depth during the week. I fluctuate over whether or not Words with Friends “counts” as social media, but since it has the word friends right in the name, this seems kind of like a no-brainer.
  • Update: Between the week long fast and the reduced time on social media on the weekends, I feel that I have greatly reduced the amount of time I spend on social media. While my weekend SM free day hasn’t always been perfect (yesterday, for example, I posted a picture to FB in the morning and then checked it again last night before bed. I did stay off of all social media during the day), I am also trying to stay off FB as much as possible during the mornings and during the day. I have been successful with this for the most part.
  • Get a writing project:   This one has been nagging at me.  Each day I do some personal writing and blogging but get nowhere in terms of a professional research project.  For the moment, however, I have come to the realization that my presentation for CCCC needs to become my current writing project.  Also, fingers crossed, maybe I’ll get a revise and resubmit on a recent journal article, and that will also become a writing project for this semester.  I also have ideas for a research project beyond the conference in March that involves studying the digital composing practices of students, so I can begin some of the reading that I made note of last night while prepping for my grad class.  Also on the horizon:  the thought of running a writing workshop at my old job, and who knows where that might lead in terms of my own writing life.  For now, I am just glad that I’ve prioritized writing in my life.

So now…here we are two days from the first of February, and I’ve finally completed my month of January post.

Thank you, Jodie Foster

I am taking a brief detour from my scheduled writing for this morning (to put the finishing touches on a journal article) to respond to and think about Jodie Foster’s acceptance speech for the Cecile B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at last night’s [I began drafting this the day after the] Golden Globes.

The debate over whether or not celebrities or those in power should come out publicly has many angles.  As a lesbian, I truly see both sides.  I do firmly believe that the more we (the GLBTQ community) get represented in the day-to-day lives of the majority, then more likely we are to be accepted by those who might initially shun us.  I do believe that being in the public eye comes with some social responsibility as well.  On the other hand, I see the many problems with the ways in which all of our lives are increasingly lived in public, and I feel badly that those in Hollywood, Washington, etc. are so often put under the microscope and frequently chastised and ridiculed for living the kind of flawed lives that most of us take for granted.  And, after all, straight celebrities and politicians aren’t required to go public with their sexuality.  Coming out is a deeply personal act, and I don’t ever think a person should be required (or even feel obligated) to do so.

As for acceptance speeches at awards shows — well, I don’t think I’ve ever continued to think so carefully about one until Foster delivered hers last night.  Sure, throughout the years, there have been speeches that have made us laugh and cry, moving speeches, speeches that have had historical value and relevance, but I don’t think there has been a speech whose brilliance doesn’t actually emerge until the next day.  And that is what I feel Foster’s speech has accomplished.

The skill it must have taken to deliver a speech that created dozens of interpretations that filled up the social media stratosphere.  Folks who are privacy advocates and GLBTQ folks alike are thanking Foster for what she did last night.  It’s tough to please such a wide range of audience members.  One tweet did stand out to me, however.  I don’t have a link, so I’m paraphrasing, but the tweeter referenced the cutaway to Jane Lynch during Foster’s speech and analyzed her as “angry” — arguing that being “out and proud” is different than “reality TV” (which was a kind of comparison that Foster made her speech).  I can truly understand where this writer is coming from.  I’m not sure that Jane Lynch was “angry” (her demeanor appeared neutral.  I just found it entertaining that the camera had to pan to a “token lesbian); however, I can understand if she were.  After all, her advocacy is important work.  Speaking out on behalf of rights for the GLBTQ community is not “trashy” and “vulgar” reality TV as Foster might have implied.  I say “might have been” because that was/is part of the beauty of Foster’s speech — it was ambiguous enough to hold up to multiple readings.  Her defense of privacy and condemnation of reality TV were clear, but beyond that, there is enough textual evidence to say both that she “came out” and that she “didn’t.”

In was thinking about Foster’s speech, I admit to feeling a little let down.  In thinking about my own struggles coming out, I thought about the ways in which my own mother might have been receptive to the “kind of” (and here I am using my mother’s words, not my own) Foster is.  The confirmed “existence” of a feminine, successful, mothering lesbian is one that could have been reassuring both to me and my mother when fewer out folks were public figures.  Again though, this is not Foster’s responsibility to shoulder (I don’t believe).  I feel strongly in the importance and effectiveness of activism, yes, but I also feel that Foster’s speech was a kind of activism.  It might not have been GLBTQ activism but it was an act on behalf of the importance of privacy and the downfalls of a life lived too much in public.

Meditation Brainstorm

I just finished my morning meditation.  Because my recent resolutions involve both regular meditation and regular morning writing (15 minutes, 5 days/week), I seem to have developed a new form of “monkey mind”:  I call it the “write this” category of “thinking.”  As I meditate, my mind keeps jumping to plans for what I can write about.  As any writer knows, writer’s block is a particularly invasive, pervasive, and paralyzing occurrence.  And since fears commonly rise to the surface during meditation, it makes complete sense that my mind attempts to spend my meditation time trying to deal with this particular fear — especially since I have been writing after I meditate each morning.

To change this, I thought to try to write first; however, my morning goals need be accomplished while also accommodating my partner’s morning schedule.  Then there is my need for my morning cup of coffee (as a side note, I am rereading Sylvia Boorstein’s It’s Easier than You Think, and her opening section is about our conceptions of spirituality and how this doesn’t always jive for people with her own love of morning coffee.  I’ve tried to quit coffee in the past, thinking that it’s bad for my anxiety, but my shiatsu practitioner once described coffee as her “joy,” and I thought, “It’s my damn joy too!”  And joy goes a long way in helping to prevent anxiety).  Dorthea Brande, author of Becoming a Writer,  actually recommends the first thing in the morning approach:  get out of bed, stumble to computer, write.  First thing.  Before coffee.  Before yoga.  Before shower.  But this subconscious writing isn’t really the writing that I’m trying to do.  I don’t have time to continue to write throughout the day, so my morning writing time needs to be rather conscious.

Alas, I don’t seem to have a perfect solution.  “Monkey mind” is an inevitable part of meditation, and I think that being aware of this new category “counts” for something.  That is, part of the practice is about noticing our thoughts and coming back to present/breath.

But before I forget — some upcoming writing ideas (freshly hatched during this morning’s practice!):  my happiness project goals and update, difficulty with “natural breath,” posting about sugar addiction to healthy lifestyle group google page.

Space Matters

Today was the first day of my new “back to school” schedule, which involves getting up at 5:30 in order to fit in some yoga and meditation before my day starts — only today I didn’t quite make it out of bed at 5:30.  This left my practice feeling kind of rushed, but I got in ten minutes of yoga and five minutes of meditation.  I am trying to heartily embrace the concept of “some is better than none.”  Having long been an “all or nothing” person, this can be a challenge, but I did it.

This was also the first day I’ve meditated since we moved in early October — more than three months without meditation in my life!  During this time period I had all the typical excuses:  no time, new schedule (and therefore no set rituals), no space.  The plan was to have the basement as a kind of workout/yoga/meditation space, but, as is typical, it became the overflow space instead.  The space where boxes that had yet to be unpacked were scattered throughout in no organized fashion.  Despite being finished, it also felt like a basement:  cold, damp, smelly.

Trying to embrace the “some is better than none” mentality, I knew that I could have simply thrown my yoga mat meditation bench down on the floor between the living room and dining room on the main floor.  I even brought them upstairs as a reminder to do so.  I just never did.  I’ve taken enough meditation classes to know that I should be able to sit on the toilet and meditate, if that is what it takes to fit meditation into my day; however, this morning, as I set up my now finished (cleared out and decorated) basement space — lighting candles, turning on the little fire/heater, choosing the “right” lights, rolling out my yoga mat on a clean floor — I realized that space does matter.  This is, after all, why people set up shrines and decorate meditation spaces in vibrant colors — even if the decor is sparse and simple.  While I agree that part of the point of a meditation practice is developing the ability to return to self, to center, to breath — to be mindful — regardless of where one is, there is also something valid in the idea of creating and having a sacred space.  After all, there exist ancient practices like feng shui that are dedicated to the idea of how and why space matters.

The basement still isn’t perfect.  It’s a “rec” (aka “wreck”) room and so it has all those elements to it as well.  I’m sure that no feng shui expert would approve, but it works for me.  I can make it warm.  I have space to move.  I have the gentle light of candles.  I can close the door to the upstairs and rest of the world for a little bit.  It’s not perfect, but it’s a space dedicated to my practice and (hopefully) it will continue to motivate me to get up the morning and descend the stairs to spend a bit of time centering before the very imperfect and very de-centering day begins.

New Year, Same Me

So it appears that I am drawn to blogging at the start of the year, and then, like many new year’s resolutions, my writing dies off.  I am going to set yet another writing goal this year:  to write every day for at least 15 minutes — a combination of creative/nonfiction/blogging and researched based, academic writing — as well as keep a teaching journal on Monday and Wednesday afternoons before my meetings.

It is interesting to read last year’s posts.  While the difficulty of that deep depression is still vivid in my mind, I am also aware of and thrilled about how far I’ve come.  2011 may have been the year of medication, but 2012 was definitely the year of being med-free with meditation strongly contributing to that.  I worked hard on maintaining my meditation practice (though I fell off the proverbial “wagon” often — and am currently not regularly meditating — another resolution) and working through things by using my breath.  I have become more confident at my job based on a fair amount of positive feedback, though teaching evaluations still fill me with extreme dread.  I have also found a number of other things that help “save” me — always exercise — and some other less profound and perhaps more problematic modes of “feeling better”:  TV and staying busy.  I am not a huge fan of TV as mode of escape, but sometimes it does help.  I have a few favorite shows that just take me away from everything for an hour or two and it’s kind of like rebooting.  In the end, I resigned myself to the fact that a TV show each evening is less toxic to my body than the meds I was previously on.

Ultimately, I have reached a state of happiness.  Happiness in the form of contentment.  Things aren’t blissfully perfect and the spectre of depression still looms strong behind me.  But my consciousness of this fact helps motivate me to stay committed to exercise, yoga, meditation, and a range of other activities.  It also motivates me to work harder, since so much of my fear and anxiety stems from my job.  Work-wise I’ve decided to dive in fully rather than cower in the corner.

I saw an ad the other day for the book, A Whole New You by Brett Blumenthal.  Normally I would be immediately drawn to purchasing this book, and I will admit, I initially got excited at the prospect, but then I changed my mind.  It’s not that I have a problem with the concept of the book — the idea of changing something in your life that isn’t working for you.  But that “thing” doesn’t define a person, and changing it (or even a series of “things”) doesn’t create whole new person.  I am sure that this book is essentially similar to the kinds of books that I am interested in like The Happiness Project or May Cause Happiness (on my Good Reads “to read” list.  I just really don’t like the title.  This year I want to continue to work on myself, sure, but overall I think I am pretty okay and staying pretty much the same (true to myself) could be an important goal for 2013.

Checking in

First off, Johnson & Johnson (or Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. a subsidiary of J&J) has recently been entangled in a number of lawsuits over the drug that I was taking, Risperdal. The claim is that J&J exaggerated the drug’s effectiveness, while downplaying it’s harmful side-effects–specifically, the risk of developing diabetes. None of this surprises me. I’m sure the majority of pharmaceutical companies do the same thing. And the way that med makes you crave carbs and sugar, it’s no wonder people develop diabetes while on it. All of this just makes me more determined to find a way to manage my anxiety without medication. And so far, I seem to be doing just that. It’s not perfect by any means, but it seems to be getting better.

Meditation: I’ve been pretty good with the meditation resolution. I don’t get to meditate on the weekends, and, caught up in my nerves about teaching, I forgot to meditate on Monday. Right now my meditations are very short, but I’ve also been trying to work Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique into my days (twice a day if I remember).

Schedule (maintaining work/life balance): I’m nearing the end of week two, and this seems to be going okay, but I am already running up against not having enough time (a common lament, I’m sure). Week one without student papers to respond to and with prepping only introductory material is easy. Now comes the hard part: lots of reading, students papers, and intense prep. What I am trying to become better at though is compartmentalizing. When I decide my work day is over (and I’m trying to keep this kind of standard 8-4, 9-5, 7-3), then I try to really shut work out and focus on the things I enjoy: currently working on a puzzle that I got for Christmas, crocheting, and my guilty pleasures: American Idol and Biggest Loser.

Last week, I didn’t have time for an hour of organizing and didn’t even finish cleaning the house this weekend. These things kind of aggravate me, but I’m trying not to let them get me down. I did, however, spend about 20 minutes organizing some paperwork, and I spent about the same amount of time with my Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. I think that focusing on the things that I have accomplished is probably a better approach than cataloging those that I haven’t.

I also scheduled a massage for my first Thursday afternoon “hooky” session which is coming up next month.

The next couple of days and upcoming weekend are feeling pretty unmanageable to me at this point. There is just not enough time to get everything done that I want and need to do. This is why life is all about prioritizing. I am determined to cook some healthy food on Sunday, because I haven’t been doing so well with the dietary improvements.

So nearing the end of the first month of 2012, and I’m still getting along and focused on these goals and resolutions. Let’s see what February has to offer.

On being uncomfortable

Today is President’s Day–the kickoff to the new semester.  I have dull sense of dread in my body.  During therapy last week, D suggested I think about my fear as something that can be with me but that I don’t have to be attached to.  She created this image of my fear as a separate person that I can kind of have sitting next to me while I do my work, move forward with my days, etc.  As in, okay fear, I know you’re here, but I’m working anyways.  I think it’s a helpful thought. 

In addition, I’ve been reading the book Comfort:  An Atlas for the Body and SoulIt’s written by a Catholic priest.  Probably the first book I’ve ever read written by a priest, but it’s really working for me.  Brett Hoover describes comfort as the thing we are all seeking, and yet he reminds us that discomfort is an integral part of life and something we can all learn and grow from.  It might seem kind of obvious, but it’s a lovely reminder.  My desire to leave academia was/is driven so heavily by this idea of seeking comfort–of wanting to be somewhere that I feel safe and within my comfort zone.  But this isn’t necessarily the best kind of drive, and I’m comforted by this articulation of the issue. 

This reminds me of the fortune that I got on New Year’s Eve:  “A solid challenge will bring forth your finest abilities.”  Let this be my new mantra for 2012!