Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Time Spent Waiting

This week, Marshall Cook, author of Slow Down. . . and Get More Done, takes us to one of my favorite places--the waiting room.  As a kid, I did more than my share of time in waiting rooms.  My dad, being a doctor, had his own waiting room, where my siblings and I spent many hours cooling our heels while he finished up with patients.  We were also denizens of hospital waiting rooms, "lounges" and solariums, where we entertained ourselves and patients and their families while Dad made rounds.  And we waited in our car, and in patients' living rooms as well, while Dad made house calls.  I don't think we ever got really good at it.  Not like dogs, who Cook describes as waiting royalty.  
[N]o creature on earth waits better than a dog.
Cook differentiates our waits as optional--like the wait he endures because he chooses to save 20% on a book by attending a wildly popular, and very crowded sale; semi-optional, like waiting for the end of an unpleasant season, or for a doctor's appointment; and enforced, like that of a long-term hostage, or a bed-ridden patient waiting for recovery.  About all these kinds of waiting, Cook says
Waiting can make you angry and impatient.  It can make you stressed and even sick.  Or waiting can be an opportunity, an interlude, a bit of found time in an otherwise hectic, overscheduled life.  Your attitude makes the difference.  You can't change the wait.  You can change the waiting.
He offers five ways to do so:
  • Accept the wait as inevitable
  • Figure the wait into your schedule
  • Give the wait a new name
  • Prepare for the wait
  • Welcome the wait
And now that I've grown past the Saf-T-Pops my dad and other physicians of his era stocked their waiting rooms with--you know, the flat round disks with the loop handles imbedded in the candy--I am grateful for Cook's suggestions for "transforming the doctor's waiting room from torture chamber to oasis:"
  • Bring a friend.
  • Bring a book and read your way through the wait.
  • Read one of those well-thumbed waiting room magazines.
  • Bring a notepad or sketchbook.  Write brief descriptions or draw pictures of your fellow waiters.
  • Brainstorm potential solutions to the day's problems.
  • Plan your dinner menus for the week.
  • Work a crossword puzzle.
  • Knit.
  • Pick a subject and write a haiku about it.
  • Practice your golf swing or tennis stroke.  [By visualizing, not by wielding clubs or rackets and whacking balls in close quarters.]
  • Pick a person--anyone in the world, living or dead--whom you would like to talk to.  Which questions would you ask?  Imagine that person sitting across from you in the waiting room.  Ask your questions.  Then imagine the person answering you.
Cook makes waiting sound like such a pleasant respite, I can't wait to wait!  Now all I need to do is get ready with my own, specific list.  Like reading Proust.  I wonder how many appointments and grocery store lines and plane delays that would take?  Or finishing that embroidered Christmas tree skirt I started in the '80s.  Or using my iPod to learn Japanese.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Done for the Week: And Now, for My Next Trick. . .

This was a week  largely devoted to R & R--as much as could be managed with a family, a messy house, and two part-time jobs.  The "body-markings" of my triathlon race number--71--have almost completely faded, and the muscle soreness and fatigue are gone as well.  I have stopped wearing my medal everywhere, though it lives for now on my bedside table, where I can see it first and last thing each day.  

Here's the low-down on what I got done:

Done List--Week of Aug. 23-29

  1. Rested
  2. Recovered from triathlon, and resumed training--looking for 5K to sign up for
  3. Made significant progress on repairing sleep
  4. Finished Shannon, by Frank Delaney
  5. Continued significant support to transitioning nonprofit organization
  6. Worked my two part-time jobs
  7. Published 5 blog posts
  8. Meditated 3 times
  9. Saw my therapist
  10. Wrote 1 Gratitude Journal entry
  11. Cleaned and reorganized pantry 
  12. Attended 1 yoga class
  13. Attended 2 prayer vigils for homicide victims
  14. Took my grandson paddleboating with family for his 3rd birthday present
  15. Went out with my husband for Happy Hour; continued reading aloud Elizabeth George's In the Presence of the Enemywatched Treme episode
  16. Had budgeting talk with my husband, on a bench overlooking the lake, with Starbuck's coffees in hand
  17. Walked my patient dog
  18. Spent a week "off-list"--no to-do list 
  19. Began planning my next move

In red above is what seems to me the most important accomplishment of the week. After enduring a month of subnormal sleep--averaging somewhat less than four hours a night--I have become a bit of a sleep-Nazi.  I am refraining from my usual glass of red wine before bed; taking time-release Melatonin along with Celestial Seasoning's Sleepytime Extra tea a half hour before lying down; sleeping to "Rain on the Roof" from my grandson's Happiest Baby on the Block CD; and using a timer with a countdown feature that shuts off the light after a set time, so that I can read myself to sleep and spend most of the night in a serotonin-friendly darkened room.  I am getting between 6 and 7 hours of sleep each night, though still waking up in the middle of the night.  YouTube episodes of Becker can be counted on to lull me back to sleep, though having a laptop screen in my face is not ideal.  My sleep is a work in progress.  I look forward to the time when I can sleep through the night, sans Ted Danson and crew.

In green is the work I did figuring out how to harness the energy and lessons from the triathlon to achieving something else I care about, and identifying what that something else will be--last week's focus goal.  I am not surprised to learn that my post-tri challenges are pretty much the same as my pre-tri ones.  I still have to work on believing that I can do what seems daunting.  I still have to avoid getting sucked into other people's dramas and agendas.  And I still have to blast my way out of the torpor default that descends if I sit too long in pajamas.  

But I have decided that the next step is to establish a new schedule around my jobs' new hours, leaving time for exercise, meditation, maintenance of me and my surroundings, relationships, and writing.  It is perhaps telling that the activity at the end of that list--writing--is the one I most want to tackle, and am most afraid of.  So this week's focus goal is to develop a training plan for writing, and to spend at least 6 hours on my novel.

Maybe I should keep wearing the medal. . .

Friday, August 27, 2010

The gods envy us. They envy us because we're mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.
~ Achilles

Today, I am thinking about mortality.  The organization I belong to, and work for, conducts prayer vigils at the sites of homicides in our city.  I attended two this morning.  In all, four people's passings were recognized.   Their stories were all sad, as such stories are.
Returning from this somber work to the blogosphere, I struggle with the feeling that my writing is small in the face of life's big and terrible events.  And with the thought that my existence itself is infinitesimal in the context of the cosmos and its universe of fragile souls.  But I come back to the belief that my life is large and significant to me because it is mine.  And that it is as big as I make it.  
Which, again, is not to say that I need to be great and important, or to do earth-shattering things.  (And why would I want to shatter the earth, anyway?) 
Rather, it seems to me, my moments and days, however many there will be, will matter if I am present for them.  While it is regrettable that I will probably not discover a cure for cancer--especially because I am not working on that project, and have no skills or training to bring to it anyway--I can give my full attention and best effort to what I am doing.  Some of that attention and effort will be spent doing my small part to make change (not at a cash register, but in my community); some will go toward listening to birds, marking the blush of a sunset sky, finding ease in my body and warmth in my relationships.  And, for the time being, a regular portion will be directed to the communication that is this blog.
So even though I am "doomed" to the same end as those mourned in our prayer vigils this morning--and, really, because I am doomed--it is important to be here for my life.   Which isn't over until it's over. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Now What?

Part of a group of 10 young Nepalese women who scaled Mt. Everest in 2008

Finishing the triathlon I first dreamed of entering 11 months ago brings me once again to the challenge of coming down from a personal Mt. Everest.  My intention is to handle this descent with more grace and aplomb than I have previously mustered on such occasions.

Earlier feats that have involved elements of fatigue, let-down, the need to rest without resting too long on one's laurels, a sudden shift in a rather stringent routine, and the question of  what new focus might arise, have included giving birth; completing a stint as a special ed para working one-on-one with a severely autistic child; finishing grueling semesters as a graduate student; turning in my master's thesis; passing doctoral prelims; coming to the end of semesters teaching college; helping care for my father through a long terminal illness; transporting my frail elderly parents back to their Louisiana home after Katrina brought them to live with me; and ending a number of demanding temporary jobs.  In each instance, I recall the inability to relax, to remember what I did for fun before being sucked into the vortex of this latest absorption.  

(Incidentally, my wetsuit model was Xterra's Vortex 3--an upgrade when the Volt I'd ordered was on back order.  And I experienced wearing this rubber deathgrip, especially at first, as though I'd been "sucked into" it.)

This time, in my latest venture, I tried to balance my effort throughout with yoga and meditation and mindful self-care, along with continued interest in other parts of my life.  It remains to be seen what the aftermath of the triathlon will bring.  But I suspect that, despite the unaccustomed high of the last few days--after a long difficult onslaught of challenging life events and circumstances, I am not used any longer to success, and to elation--I am going to have an easier time "coming down."  

For one thing, I don't intend to abandon the exercise that has become an important part of my life.  As the post-race soreness and tiredness recede, I am slowly resuming physical activity.  And I mean to adopt, and keep to, an "off-season" training routine that will maintain a base of the endurance and strength I worked so hard for.  

For another, I am enjoying a new calm, which I imagine is a product of having faced some pretty intense fears.  Other things that have intimidated me now seem more doable.  The lesson is fresh that "doing the thing I think I cannot do" brings amazing benefits.  And there are a lot more "things I think I cannot do" where that one came from.

For starters, there is the novel I started this summer, and put on the back burner in order to concentrate on the triathlon.  The feeling that "If I can do this, I can do anything" is waiting to be harnessed.  

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Declaring War on Distractors

[Wrested from the jaws of Jaws, yesterday's intended post.]

Marshall Cook’s book, Slow Down. . .and Get More Done, was written over 17 years ago.  For the most part, his observations and advice are still as relevant to our problems with productivity as when they were written, if not more so.

Chapter 5, “How to say ‘No’ to the great distractors,” however, is a considerable understatement of present-day challenges with focus.  Here, those seventeen years encompass a sea change in the way we live.  For example, in just the six year span between 2002 and 2008, the number of cell phones in use quadrupled, from 1 billion to over 4 billion!  For iPhone users like my husband, the ubiquity of connectivity means never having to say you’re unavailable.

And then there’s the computer.  NPR’s Fresh Air presented a program yesterday entitled “Digital Overload:  Your Brain on Gadgets.”   Smartphones and other gizmos are implicated along with the computer, where it all began.  Along with host Terry Gross, listeners learned that we are presently consuming “three times the information we consumed in 1960;” that we “check something like 40 websites a day”  and “switch programs sitting at a desk something like 36 times an hour”—amounting to “an onslaught of information.”

Terry's guest, New York Times technology writer Matt Richtel, contributed to a recent Times series on “Your Brain on Computers.”  Articles in the series include:

Five neuroscientists spent a week on a hiking and rafting trip to understand how heavy use of technology changes how we think and behave.
Parents’ use of smartphones and laptops — and its effect on their children — is becoming a source of concern to researchers.
June 10, 2010GARDENNEWS
Scientists say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information from e-mail and other interruptions.
“We’re paying a price in terms of our cognitive life because of this virtual lifestyle,” one expert says.
Polls show that a number of Americans, particularly younger ones, are feeling negative effects from heavy computer and smartphone use.

Richtel's most recent piece, "Outdoors and Out of Reach:  Studying the Brain," documents a week-long trip taken by five neuroscientists into a technology-free wilderness, in an effort to learn more about how are brains are being affected by all the whizz-bang at our fingertips-- "what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected."  “Attention is the holy grail,” says Mr. Strayer University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, the trip’s organizer.

Two of the five scientists who set out on the trip were already persuaded of the downside of the effects of technology on our brains; the three others, not so much.  But by day three--Strayer calls it the "third-day syndrome"--all were more relaxed.  And 
even the more skeptical of the scientists say something is happening to their brains that reinforces their scientific discussions — something that could be important to helping people cope in a world of constant electronic noise.
In a related effort, the Times issued an "unplugged challenge," asking readers to design their own trials of technological disengagement.  At this Times website, you can see for yourself how several "unpluggers" fared, and what they learned.  Most reflected that they intended to change their relationship to their gadgets somewhat as a result.

At the series' main page, you can also make use of interactive and multimedia features to "test your focus;" learn about the "first steps to digital detox;" and assess yourself for the "warning signs of digital overload."  Of course, some astute readers pointed out that these resources themselves were presented in a highly technical format, on a website!  Marshall Cook would be horrified!

Cook was concerned all those light-years ago, in what seems from our "noise"-saturated standpoint like a galaxy far, far away, with the distraction-potential of the phone (predominantly land lines); television; junk mail; and people who function in our lives as "time-suckers."  At the conclusion of his 17-year-old chapter, Cook provides a dodge of sorts for all us distracted folk, even the techno-junkies among us.  He holds that
[j]ust as "I don't want to" is a valid and sufficient reason not to do something, "I like to" is a valid reason to keep doing something that has no practical worth. . . .
He instructs us to make a list of our 
time-wasters that have no socially recognized practical value but which you nevertheless choose to do. 
His own list?
  • Reading fiction
  • Writing a novel about minor league baseball
  • Writing personal letters
  • Walking or riding the bike to work instead of taking the bus or driving
  • Taking the long way
  • Going to movies
  • Shooting baskets with Jeremiah [probably not the bullfrog]
  • Talking long walks with Ellen and Rosie [probably not the talk-show hosts]
  • Petting Ralph and Norton [probably not of The Honeymooners fame]

And only 
if any items on your list have no practical value and have no emotional or psychological value for you [should you] strongly consider getting rid of them.  Simplify.  Unclutter.  Unplug. . . .Use your standards, your feelings, your intuitions.  Only you can define "waste of time" for you.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Blogger's Autosave Ate My Blog Draft. . .

. . . when I hit "Publish," after two hours of writing.  And my post-triathlon brain fog prohibits rewriting tonight.  Procrastinating 101 tomorrow.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Done for the Week: My Heart's Desire

A big week.  One I have been building toward for the last few months.  The road has been long, and twisting, and--like the bike portion of the triathlon, had a pretty steep hill toward the end.  But I reached the goal I have been working to believe in since last fall.  The rest of the stuff on this list is pretty much gravy.

Done List--Week of Aug. 16-22

  1. Finished Week 14 of revised 14-week Sprint Triathlon training plan--0 weeks to go!
  2. Attended last Open Water Swim Clinic
  3. Completed gear assembly and preparation
  4. Finished Sprint Triathlon
  5. Finished Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, by Pablo Neruda
  6. Continued significant support to transitioning nonprofit organization
  7. Attended fund-raiser for same
  8. Worked my two part-time jobs
  9. Published 5 blog posts
  10. Meditated 4 times
  11. Wrote 5 Gratitude Journal entries
  12. Wrote 3 Morning Pages
  13. Continued cleaning campaign
  14. Attended 1 yoga class
  15. Went out with my husband for Happy Hour; continued reading aloud Elizabeth George's In the Presence of the Enemy; saw Eat, Pray, Love together in my post-race stupor
  16. Called my Mom
  17. Paid some overdue health bills

So, did I mention I finished the triathlon?  You may recall that preparing for and completing the triathlon has been my focus goal for the last several weeks--thus highlighted in green above.  And because finishing the race is also my most important accomplishment of the last week, item #4 on the list above also appears in red, with apologies for the Christmasy colors in conjunction with the fireworks graphic, resulting in a bit of a holiday discord.

Before the triathlon, on Saturday, I wrote the following list of goals for the race:

Making it to the first swim platform
Enjoying some part of each segment
Being good to myself
Positive self-talk
Noticing the beautiful day
Feeling good about and for all the participants
Giving myself credit for the effort
Managing my fear compassionately

My life doesn't usually go this way--at least not of late--but I graced with reaching all of them--and with exceeding them beyond my wildest dreams.  That is not to say that I set any land speed records.  In fact, I came in 1351st in a field of 1500, 17th of 25 in my age group.  But I had expected the 1/2 mile swim, 12 mile bike, and 3 mile run to take me around 2 hours and 45 minutes, including "transitions,"--the periods between the swim and the bike, and the bike and the run.  My "stretch" goal was to finish under 2-1/2 hours.  My actual time was 2:08!

The biggest surprise was the swim.  I had been dreading the open water swim ever since learning how many triathletes experience panic attacks during the swim.  I am a veteran of panic attacks, and try assiduously to avoid them, and, as I learned to say as a Catholic child, "the occasion of. . ." not sin, but panic attacks.  I had decided to rely on a swim angel, provided in this beginner-friendly race venue, specifically for women who are nervous about the open water.  So when my wave entered the water, I was paired with a woman who pledged to see me across the lake--along with another nervous swimmer.  Two nail-biters to each angel.

The woman who shared my angel got into trouble early on.  As she struggled, becoming more and more panicky, I treaded water, and even reversed course, to stay with her and our angel.  Part of the time, I was providing moral support to my fellow triathlete.  Finally, as the minutes ticked by and I made no progress across the lake, which was my only access to the rest of the race, I decided to swim on my own.  I learned later that the other woman was eventually transported out of the water by boat, and could not complete the race.  I was the lucky one.  I made it to the other side of the lake, even with the lost time, in less time than I had been able to swim the distance in a pool.  I stopped at none of the six platforms, though I did nearly swim into one.

I am sore and tired today, but crossing that finish line was everything I had imagined it to be when I first thought of trying to do it--one year ago, when watching my daughter complete her first triathlon.  There are few things in my life that have been as satisfying as doing that race.  And so I'll wear the numbers that were body-marked on my arms until they wear off, and the medal that all finishers receive until I'm ready to take it off.  

Next week's focus goal?  Figure out how to use the energy from this achievement.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The New Age Adventures of a Triathlete Newbie-in-Waiting

I came dangerously close to not blogging at all today.  (Wow!  We dodged that bullet, hey?)  

The day began at 2:30 a.m., and then again at 4:30, when I finally gave up and left my bed.  I had been invited by a Facebook friend to attend a Shamanic Healing Ceremony at dawn, but had decided not to set the alarm for it--not really thinking of myself as the Shamanic Healing Ceremony type.   But when I was up anyway, I thought, what the heck?  In keeping with my new "curiosity" theme, and having plenty of aspects of my life in need of healing--not the least of which is my continuing propensity to awaken several times a night with visions of, no, not sugarplums, but open water swim race starts "dancing" in my head, and in my nervous system--it seemed like the thing to do at that hour.

And as it turned out, it was actually a pretty cool experience.  For one, I got to be on this beautiful stretch of secluded beach, with the waves pounding in my tired ears, while a deep coral sun appeared through partial fog.  It's been too long since I've seen the sun come up.

For another, I had the privilege of being "smudged" with sage--a ritual to purify and cleanse one of negative influences.  The man leading the ceremony--a real, actual shaman--performed this rite for each of those present, with some variations apparently dictated by the kind of energy projected by each.  In my case, and only mine, he knelt before me in the sand for some time before continuing the smoke blessing.  When I asked him later what prompted him to do that, he took some time in answering that he "felt a sadness" coming from me.  Now, I could think of this as the kind of generic thing a bogus medium says at a seance to "prove" that she/he is in legitimate contact with one's dearly departed.  Who would be getting up pre-dawn and trekking out to a deserted beach with a bunch of strangers if they didn't have "a sadness?"  But in fact, though at best I was suspending disbelief, I did feel something as this man knelt at my feet.  Kind of like he was recognizing me as some kind of high priestess of suffering, at least at the moment.  And I felt as though I were being truly seen.  

Other parts of the observance included lying with our heads toward the fire at the center of a circle drawn in the sand, like spokes of a wheel, and meditating on the surf, the sky, the sand beneath us and the trees around us; using yogic breathing to build positive energy, and to center ourselves between the earth and the sun; being led in gentle self-massage (of a type acceptable in a public area); and offering prayers for our own healing and that of a significant other.  Not so strange as I might have imagined.  All of it, in fact, within the realm of my previous experience with meditation, yoga, and women's rituals as practiced by the midwives I've known.  

A week ago, I would not have imagined that this ceremony would be a stop on along my way to Sunday's triathlon.  This evening, tired as I am, I cannot imagine having missed it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Putting Off the Bad Stuff

In Tuesday's Procrastinating 101 post, I related the thoughts of Marshall Cook about worrying and how it relates to procrastination.  Worrying is something I excel at.  (We all need to be good at something, right?)  My therapist recently advised me to set aside a certain time for worrying, and when random anxious thoughts arise, to redirect them to the appointed hour.  (Easy for her to say!)

But that got me thinking about why I don't seem to procrastinate about worrying.  Why don't I arrange to put off until tomorrow what I could worry about today?  And what other negative emotions and behaviors do I exempt from my tendency to postpone?  What if I just didn't get around to getting irritated about other people's table manners?  What if I couldn't make time for self-critical remarks?  Maybe I could harness the power of procrastination for good. . . .

Maybe I could even procrastinate about procrastinating, as in this quote from Gerald Vaughan:  "Procrastination is something best put off until tomorrow."  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Who to Be

A good friend of mine has always measured his life against the yardstick of Alexander the Great.  He was surprised, and not altogether pleasantly, when he didn't die at the age of 32.  And his feats, amazing as they are from where I sit, have thus far been a disappointment to him, in Alex (as I like to call his role model) terms.  Nevertheless, he lives his life large, attempting to make a big mark.  His eventual passing will probably not go unremarked in the public arena.  

I, on the other hand, occupy a much smaller stage, in my own mind and in reality.  Sure, I had dreams as a young person of being a female Albert Schweitzer, and later of making it into the ranks of lesser-known female novelists.  But life, and motherhood--very complicated, drawn-out motherhood--intervened, and brought me and my dreams "down to size."  Like most of the teeming masses of humanity, I aspire to love well, live well, and make whatever contribution I can to alleviate suffering in the world.  I am not, perhaps, as disappointed with how things have turned out as if I had reached higher.  But then I may not have exerted as much effort, scaled as many mountains, or "realized my potential" as completely either.

At this stage of my "life project," I am looking back and looking forward, and deciding again who to be, or who to try to be.  My husband's academic work emphasizes the importance in all of our lives of "multiple conflicting identities."  Thus a crooked cop may also be a father, a poet, an avid gardener, and an active church member.  And I am, among other things, a mother, a writer, a triathlete, a social justice activist, a special education advocate, a messy housekeeper and an erstwhile pianist.  On any given day, my hours are allotted between these competing, and sometimes contradictory roles.  And in the wee hours, when my waning hormones and insufficient stress management skills conspire to keep me awake, I sometimes contemplate the confusing signals I send to myself and people around me about who I am, who I mean to be.

I don't think we can really answer this question, or are meant to, by penning an essay in a "blue book,"--that dreaded accoutrement of college exams.  It is something we discover as we live, and reflect on, and live again.  From the evidence to date, it seems pretty clear that I'm not Alexander the Great, or Albert Schweitzer, or a lesser-known female novelist--not yet anyway.   But I am aware of energy gathering--most of it in the form of disquiet or, less neutrally, my old friend anxiety--for some shifts in who I am, and how I experience my life.  I don't imagine that the scale of my enterprises and engagements will change radically.  I don't really see a New York Times obituary in my "future."  But something new is brewing.  And I am curious about what it will be.  And who I will be in its presence.

Much of the mindfulness literature I have been reading speaks of curiosity, and recommends it, as an attitude toward the future.  Since my knee-jerk response to the unknown and uncertainty is almost always fear--sometimes stark terror--I am surprised to find that this part of my tomorrow doesn't frighten me.  Maybe curiosity is part of who I'm becoming.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Procrastinating 101: For the Worriers Among Us

Marshall Cook, author of Slow Down. . . and get More Done, entitles his fourth chapter "What, me worry?" quoting Alfred E. Newman of MAD Magazine fame.   What does this have to do with getting more done?  Cook opens with this diatribe on the subject.
Worry is a waste of time and energy, a real life-snatcher.  It hides in the shadows, disrupts your rest, damages your ability to make decisions, and steals the pleasure and satisfaction you should derive from work and play.
When you worry, you don't plan, work toward a goal, or engage in positive thinking.  You obsess on a problem, imagine the worst, fail to make decisions, avoid action.
Worry ignores the present to fuss over a future that never comes.  Worry rejects the sweet gift of today to chase the ever-receding horizon of tomorrow.  Worry is a substitute for do, an evasion of yes.  [p. 35]
And here's where slowing down comes in.  Worry has become automatic for us worry-warts; slowing down allows us to "challenge that automatic response." 

Cook tells us that our worries tend to fall into one of three categories:  1) decisions we must make; 2) actions we must perform; and 3) events largely outside our own control.  When worrying provokes anxiety, he advises the following 6 steps to convert the stressful feelings into usable energy:

Step One: Don't resist or deny the fear.  Allow yourself to feel all of it, and it will subside. 
Step Two: Give the fear specific form and substance.  Figure out what's really troubling you. 
Step Three (optional): Push the fear to the ultimate.  Ask your fear "What's the worst you can do to me?" and then "What are the odds?" 
Step Four (definitely not optional): Figure out what, if anything, you can do.
Decide to

  • Do something now.
  • Do something later.
  • Do nothing.

Step Five: Live with your decision.  Make each decision only once. Whatever you do, do it wholeheartedly, and then get on with your life. 
Step Six: Act in spite of the fear.
Cook provides an example of "getting worry to work for [us]," using public speaking--"America's Number One Fear."  He identifies four "principles" that I can apply to "Mary's Number One Fear" at the moment--swimming across the lake for the first time in next Sunday's triathlon.  They are:

  • Let work replace worry [in my case training]
  • Visualize [swimming peacefully, rhythmically, with enjoyment and confidence, and reaching the shore triumphant]
  • Get out of the way --"This isn't about [my frightened ego-child]."  [Think of the other women swimming with me, of the courage of the breast cancer survivors, of the woman-strength we're showing the world.]
  • Imagine a sympathetic audience [in the case of the triathlon, spectators and other athletes]

    As Cook concludes this useful chapter, the reader is dazzled by more lists and tips and pronouncements--kind of like fireworks building to the finale.  To the preceding advice, Cook adds

    Five ways to stop worrying right now:
    1. For worry festering out of ignorance--Don't worry. Learn.
    2. For worry lurking in the future--Don't worry. Defer.
    3. For worry focused on the past--Don't worry. Release.
    4. For worry feeding on inertia--Don't worry. Act.
    5. For worry thriving on evasion--Don't worry. Pay.
    and the advice to "Protect [ourselves] from contagious worry," to "Get help if the fears get too big," and to "Be gentle with Little Mind."  And the "big bang" that the chapter goes out with is this:

    Exercises to "exorcize" our worry "demons:
    1. List 5 to 10 actions from your past that you truly regret.
    For each, ask "Is there anything I can do now to undo the damage?" If so, write it down and make plans to do it. If not, let the regret go.
    2. List 5 to 10 things you used to worry about. Ask yourself, for each:
    Am I still worried about this?
    How was the problem resolved?
    Did my worry help in any way?
    Which of my specific actions or decisions helped resolve the problem?
    Did it simply resolve itself?
    Did I just have to learn to live with it?
    3. List 5 to 10 things you're worried about right now.
    Ask yourself, for each:
    Will worry help in any way?
    Which actions can I take to help resolve the problem? (Write these down.)
    Will the problem resolve itself?
    Will I just have to learn to live with it?
    I don't know about you, but I'm worried I won't be able to hold all this in my "Little Mind," or figure out how to apply it.  But I intend to try.  That's my decision, and I plan to live with it.

    Monday, August 16, 2010

    Done for the Week: Harnessing My Chariot

    After many weeks of preparation, I am in the home stretch for Sunday's triathlon.  I am having a hard time thinking of anything else at this point.  But life goes on, before and after this significant athletic challenge.  I am grateful for the other things that require my attention and effort as I anticipate my post-tri life, and its inevitable let down.  Here is what I got done last week, including but not limited to getting ready for the race.

    Done List--Week of Aug. 9-15

    1. Finished Week 13 of revised 14-week Sprint Triathlon training plan--1 week to go!
    2. Attended Open Water Swim Clinic
    3. Attended Race Simulation
    4. Made (more) final adjustments to gear, supplies
    5. Continued to work on improving sleep
    6. Finished 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith;
    7. Continued significant support to transitioning nonprofit organization
    8. Attended Board meeting
    9. Attended Issues Night meeting
    10. Worked my two part-time jobs
    11. Published 5 blog posts
    12. Meditated 4 times
    13. Wrote 5 Gratitude Journal entries
    14. Wrote 4 Morning Pages
    15. Continued cleaning campaign
    16. Attended 1 yoga class
    17. Went out with my husband for Happy Hour twice; continued reading aloud Elizabeth George's In the Presence of the Enemy
    18. Called my Mom
    19. Got dog bathed and his nails clipped
    Highlighted in green are the by now predictable triathlon-related tasks that I checked off over the previous seven days.  For one more week, the triathlon will remain my focus.  The test in the weeks to come will be how well I can incorporate some of the discipline and outlook, and just plain continued commitment to exercise, into my "life after tri."  

    In red is what I regard as last week's most important accomplishment--continuing to meditate in the face of the anxiety storms of the last few weeks, and the busy-ness of my work and volunteer schedule.  I hope to improve on this in the coming week, as my training schedule tapers in order to consolidate strength and energy.  I am convinced that an ongoing practice of meditation is key to living my life as I want it to be.  It is not always easy to make time for sitting, and to respect and defend that time against competing interests.  But it is worth doing so.  

    For now, it's T minus 6 days and counting. . . .  Wish me luck!

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    Stress Contests--Our Real National Pastime?

    Someone close to me, who shall remain nameless (though he/she knows who he/she is), is wont to begin the morning with a recitation of his/her "back-to-back" meetings scheduled for the day and the work with which he/she is "swamped," and descriptions of the thin wire on which he/she is balancing and how high off the ground it is.  And he/she is not the only one.  A significant portion of my Facebook friends show the same predilection.  Ditto many of those involved with the nonprofit community organization I work and volunteer with.  And I have to admit that I, too, am sometimes guilty of participating in this discourse of distress.  

    The individual who caused me to think about this this morning denies that he/she is up to any competitive busy-ness/indispensability comparison.  And maybe he/she is not.  But I know the response these kinds of rundowns provoke in me.  I experience them as one-upsmanship, as the bragging rights that go with high-powered, and stressful, overachieving.   As in, "I'm so busy/important/vital to the world, I don't even have time to eat/go to the bathroom/sleep/sit down/talk to you."

    Oh sure, it may start out as complaint, a little ventilating when we feel particularly squeezed.  But then we become aware, at some subliminal level, of all the brownie points accruing for our hard work, our value, and our basic goodness.  And then, instead of doing anything to prevent these crunch times from becoming habitual, we are off and running, piling on assignments and commitments, saying yes when we want to say no, with the perc of  being registered for this ongoing race of rats.  

    Why would we want to be crowned King or Queen of stress?  Do we expect others to feel sorry for us?  To let us off the hooks of everyday, humdrum chores, like dishes and picking up after ourselves?  Do we imagine that this is the path to sainthood?  

    I think this sort of dressing ourselves up in auras of overextension represents a dark side of our cultural preoccupation with productivity, excellence and achievement--and even with service, which is to my mind more socially valuable.  It is as if we require ourselves, and each other, to pay for success and accomplishment with self-immolation.  It is perhaps an aspect of what Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb were writing about all those years ago in The Hidden Injuries of Class, a penance required of the more fortunate.  And the behavior has percolated throughout our society, as teens speak of their hours of homework, manual laborers of their overtime, mothers of their sleepless nights.  

    We may give lip service to working smarter, but in truth, don't we secretly resent those who make it to the top of the charts without breaking a sweat?  

    Well, I, for one, am announcing my resignation from this fray.  I am going to try to catch myself before launching into a tiring, and tiresome account of all my difficulties and entanglements, and to see it for the martyrdom it is.  "Look at me!  I'm so self-less/knee-jerk/unimaginative/slavish/dumb, I can't say no and I therefore agree to spend my days in misery, without rest or pleasure."

    I challenge others to do the same.  But not to make an Olympic event of it.