As I write this, I’m fighting off the feeling of being overwhelmed. My wife and I came back from an exciting trip to Ireland and rejoined life at full pace. What a great opportunity to put my mindfulness practice to good use! Here’s a quick idea of the irons we have in the fire:
- My wife is going to have an unplanned surgery today and she’ll need my help getting to and from the medical center and help getting around at home
- Like her, I have my normal full time job where I need to dig out of my inbox and keep my projects going
- I also have a special work project that’s due in 30 days, where I’m coordinating the activities of 20+ people and we will deliver our content to more than 100 people around the globe – oh, and we’re not as far along as I’d planned
- I am captaining a 10-person running team that will run 150 miles over 24 hours; race day is 30 days away and I need to replace two injured runners with a surprisingly administrative process to do so
- Our daughter is being honored at a special school conference event for her outstanding achievements
- Our oldest son is celebrating a birthday
- Our car needs repaired because we were rear-ended the day after coming back from vacation
- Our car also needs its routine maintenance, which is done by a different business than the one that will repair the damaged bumper
- We need to get back into routine with normal household duties: cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking healthy food, laundry, and driving the younger kids to their after-school activities
I could go on, but I don’t want to be a bore. I also want to be clear, I’m not complaining. My wife and I consider ourselves very lucky to have four happy and healthy kids and to lead busy, fulfilling lives. But at this juncture, I’m feeling very much at full capacity. As I go through this list, I can feel the pressure in my chest. I notice that my breathing is shallow and I’m feeling “on alert.” With each new email that comes in, I’m scanning it for the next fire drill as I try to dig out of this hefty pile. Historically speaking, in times like this I would be tense with other people as well. People might stop by and ask about my vacation or ask me about the special project I’m leading, and it’s difficult to not be short with them. But that doesn’t really get me anywhere – especially when I need to work with other people to accomplish these goals.
An Opportunity to Practice Mindfulness
I’ve been studying this process for about two years. I have pulled from multiple sources, but my favorite is Zen Habits. While I think Leo Babauta does a masterful job of explaining his process, I’m going to use my own words to describe my personal experience and the process that I’ve learned.
Step 1: Sit with the discomfort*. I described how I was feeling above. I noticed that I was breathing in a shallow fashion. I noticed that I was feeling anxious and on alert for “what’s next.” In years past, I might look for a distraction. Maybe I’d grab my phone and scroll through social media or get a salty snack – anything to make me feel immediately better while not really addressing the discomfort of the long and urgent to do list. Or maybe in the case I’ve described above, old Troy would break into action; choosing one very simple thing from the list and dive right in. In this case, I’m looking for the satisfaction of completing anything. I might decide to take out the trash and run the dishwasher. Important? Meh. Urgent? Not compared to what else is on the list. Again, this jump-into-action is a form of turning away from the discomfort.
Step 2: Breathe. This is really more like step 1.a. Finding my breath is the way to sit with the discomfort. This is going to sound silly, but I really like this metaphor. Taking deep breaths allows me to disconnect from the discomfort and examine it with detachment. I envision being able to reach into the pit of my stomach where the discomfort is stirring, remove it, and then look at it in my hand. Now in my hand, I can examine it like a child does a feather or an earthworm for the first time. Being able to mentally detach from the feeling and view it with childlike curiosity allows me to see this discomfort with perspective. This little thing is not the end of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite of the end of the world. It’s an opportunity to practice overcoming discomfort. But first, it needs a name!
Step 3: Name the discomfort. I’ve somewhat completed this one with the list above. Honestly, this takes practice. In years past, I might resist this step and just be irritable and quiet. I tended to go into a “problem-solving cave,” where I would shut out other people and roll up my sleeves to slog through the work in front of me. This often had the effect of introducing additional stress because my loved ones, who care deeply about me, would want to know what’s going on and how they can help. Already tense, I might give a short answer about being overwhelmed, which would eventually lead to a longer conversation and – most likely – an argument. By taking a few minutes to name or list the issue(s), it will help me disarm its hold over me. Then I’m free to move on to resolving it.
Step 4: Resolve it. In this case, I’ve got a lot of work in front of me. But I’ve broken through the discomfort and I’ve accepted the situation for what it is. Now that I have the list, I can…
- Rationalize the list – assess whether I need to do this right now or push it out until I have more time,
- Communicate what is in front of me to my loved ones so they can understand my stress,
- Identify where others can lend a helping hand (if possible), and
- Ask for help
I find that after completing this process, I’m in a much better mental state to accept the next curve ball that might be thrown my way. Another way of saying that last sentence is that my Emotional Intelligence has gotten a boost. And in the ever-changing and fast paced world that we live in, I can scarcely think of a more valuable skill.
Do you have a mindfulness practice? Do you have a different process or a different take on what I’ve described above? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*NOTE: I am using “discomfort” in an emotional sense. If you are having medical discomfort, please seek the help of a medical professional.