Taking a Zero Day

In hiking parlance, taking a zero day means taking a day off. It isn’t often that I take a day off of running, especially with a long race coming up. I am preparing for a 50k trail race, which is the first time I’ll officially run longer than a marathon. To support the extra ups and downs of a trail race, I recently added 3 mile stair workouts with a weight vest and the change in training strained some muscles in my arches. I did my best to run through it, but the pain kept increasing as I put in miles on my other runs. So… time to take a break.

Taking a break from 6-days-per-week running after eight months should be easy in theory. As in, I could simply not run. But breaking a habit, even a habit that takes effort, is leaving me feeling adrift at the moment. This weekend, I found myself feeling stuck – almost paralyzed – and quite unproductive. It was like I had a computer program in my brain that said, “run” and when the “run” program didn’t execute, I struggled to figure out what was next. Instead of just skipping it and moving on to the rest of my chores, I sat stewing on the fact that I couldn’t run. I’d flex my feet and wince at the pain instead of simply moving on. What a wonderful opportunity to use a bit of mindfulness practice to overcome my faulty program!

First, sit with it. Instead of fighting reality, I took the opportunity to sit with the discomfort of the break in routine. I sat in meditation and worked on settling my brain. I found that I was stuck on repeat. “I just want to run. But I can’t. Stupid foot. Why did I have to overtrain? Maybe if I flex it, it will feel better.” Rinse and repeat. I thought through my attachment to the task of running. Really, I was attached to the expectation of being pain-free. I wanted things to be different than what they were right now. Instead of repeatedly berating myself to accept what was, I decided to focus on what I could do. Perhaps an anti-inflammatory or some ice or a bit of massage therapy? So after breaking the mental cycle of wanting to run pain-free, I decided to make a to do list. First, I’ll use a tennis ball to put pressure on the affected areas. Then I’ll follow that up with some ice. Finally, I’ll take some ibuprofen at bed time to calm the angry muscles. Satisfied with a plan, I was starting to let go of the attachment.

Second, take action on what I can do. I put my plan into action. I grabbed the tennis ball and put as much pressure as I could stand on the affected area. Rolling it over and over for about 5 minutes. The logic here was that I probably made the small muscles in my arch area “angry” with all the stair work and needed something to break up the knotted tissue. After some rather intense moments, I got an ice pack and applied 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off cold therapy for a half an hour. Nearing bed time, I took some ibuprofen and called it a night. The next morning, my foot was feeling significantly better.

Finally, accept the progress and use it as motivation to continue on the path to recovery. This morning, I decided to take another zero day. Two in a row? Yep. My wife and I took the kids skiing this morning for our second-youngest child’s birthday, so it served as a nice distraction. After we got home, I resisted the urge to attempt a run and – even better – resisted the urge to go back to stewing about not being able to run. Instead, I folded laundry, I tidied up the kitchen, I wrote my first blog post in a month, I caught up on televised soccer matches from the day, and this evening I’m going to watch a movie with my lovely wife.

Who knew a zero day could be so much fun?

From Middle America to Zen Buddhism

In an earlier post I offered to explain how a middle-class kid from conservative and deeply Christian Southern Ohio wound up nosing around a Japanese “non-religious” tradition and how Zen might help you be a little happier. Since I’m all about truth in advertising, here goes.

Seeds planted:

As I look back, Zen and meditation piqued my interest waaaaay back.

Kung Fu, Grasshopper

Perhaps like most Western boys in the 70’s, I developed a fascination with martial arts. I loved Bruce Lee and I loved the show Kung Fu with David Carradine. I saw “the Grasshopper” working on his skills and learning from his master. The show Kung Fu helped me realize that the martial art was about more than just kicking butt. There was a mental discipline that was needed to be a “master” and mediation and mindfulness was a big part of it. And then you kick butt.

Phil Jackson

I was also big fan of the Michael Jordan era Chicago Bulls. When Phil Jackson came on board as head coach, the team went from great to legendary. Sports-casting was entering the hyper-journalism cycle at that time. I gobbled up the program that talked about Phil’s Zen practice and how it influenced him and the early 90’s Bulls’ success. I was further intrigued.

Non-Western Religions and Philosophies

When I got my Bachelor’s degree as an adult learner at Otterbein College (now University), I was introduced into the liberal arts. My original degree in college is a technical degree, so we spent very little time on literature and philosophy. Its a good thing too, as I had just about zero interest in the liberal arts when I was just out of high school. If it isn’t going to help me make money immediately, you can keep it. As an adult learner with a family, I was much more open to the experience. My time at Otterbein changed my life for the better, but I’ll trim this point down to one class.

As an elective, I took Non-Western Religions and Philosophies. I learned two important concepts. First, I learned about monism – which is essentially the concept that God flows through – or IS – everything rather than the Western theistic notion that God is separate but interested in our world. Think “The Force” in Star Wars, because let’s be honest, the Eastern philosophies are where George Lucas got the concept. Second, I learned that in the Far East, people don’t generally think about “religions” or philosophies as exclusive. One could subscribe to Shinto and Confucianism and Buddhism all at the same time with no problem. These concepts opened new possibilities to me. I felt that I could investigate without stepping on the toes of my deeply conservative, Protestant upbringing.

Time of turmoil:

My career was taking off

I definitely started my career with humble beginnings. But at about the 10 year mark in 2007, it was starting to take off. I had gone back to college as a working professional and the experience expanded my horizons. I was taking on growth roles at work and my salary was growing at the same time. In ~2010 I landed a corporate leadership role that put me in the running for an executive position. I was completely out of my comfort zone. I was trying to get things done while not making a misstep. I was hyper-aware of my new surroundings at the executive leadership level and was hyper-sensitive to any and all feedback. Each day was a roller-coaster ride of emotion. In 2012, I landed my first executive role, but the turmoil in my head didn’t stop. I had finally “made it;” but now more than ever, I walked on egg shells because I felt that any mistake would set me back and betray the firm’s faith in me.

My marriage was falling apart

My success at work was making my wife at the time more and more uncomfortable. She and I had come from very humble beginnings in the blue collar heartland of America. The more I grew professionally, the more she put pressure on me to reaffirm my love for her. From about 2007 to 2010, we fell into this terrible pattern where she would find or invent and offense and then put the burden of proof on me to resolve her complaint. It was obsessive. It went on week in and week out. She was satisfied with the argument and apology cycle, but on the whole something else was deeply wrong and I was at my wit’s end.

I asked for more permanent solutions over the years: couples therapy, individual therapy, classes, books, whatever; all to no avail. Her standing position was, “No one is ever going to look into my head.” In June 2010, I had had enough and I told her I was separating. In separation, we did some couples and individual therapy, but it was too far gone.

I want to be very clear here. I genuinely believe that my wife at the time felt completely cornered by her emotions. I genuinely believe that she was doing what she thought was right to “save our marriage,” even though the jeopardy was in her head. The bitter irony is that for me, the cycle of chaos ruined our marriage. I also want to be clear that I take responsibility for my part in the downfall of the marriage. I simply did not have the tools to overcome the problem at the time.

Panic Attacks

Over the course of my promotion and simultaneous separation and divorce, I was under immense pressure. In 2010, my kids were 14 (son) and 10 (daughter). The 14-year-old had seen enough to know what was going on, but the 10-year-old was not ready for the change at home. At 10, kids see the world as categorically right or wrong. I had made the decision to separate the family and that, along with some encouragement from my estranged wife, made me dead wrong. Additionally, my estranged wife had enlisted the help of friends and family in the case against me, the family destroyer. Financially, I was operating at a $100 per month loss in order to keep the kids in their home and keep them in their sports activities. At the same time, I believed I needed to walk a tight-rope at work and I perceived winds gusting when they were probably at most a light breeze. Oh and then let’s further complicate things. While going through the divorce, I started dating – and that is absolutely another story.

All of this turmoil culminated into what I thought at the time was a heart attack. I was sitting in my office at work and I got this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It raised up through my chest in through my esophagus and into my teeth. My chest hurt. My head hurt. It hurt to breath deeply and even worse to swallow. But like a good hillbilly, I didn’t go to the hospital. Instead, I took to the internet and realized I was having a panic attack. It was the first of many. I needed to do something about the stress in my life or I was in for some real trouble.

Meditation:

Journaling

This being the age of internet problem-solving, I spent a lot of time researching stress-relief techniques. I started journaling, which I would argue is a form of meditation. I found it was extremely helpful in getting my thoughts and concerns – whether they were work, family, or otherwise – out of the swirl in my head. I wrote and wrote. I wrote during lunch. I wrote in the evening. I got it all out. I weighed my relationship and whether or not I wanted to remain part of it. I wrote about my new environment at work and what I thought the perceived the issues were. The more I wrote, the more it helped. I never shared the writing with anyone, but the process helped me put everything into context. As I settled my mind with the journaling process, I began to look for what was next. I kept reading books and doing research. I came across various meditation techniques and eventually settled on Zazen.

Zazen

Zazen is an extremely simple meditation practice. Sit down, shut up, and stare at the wall for a period of time. Yep, that’s about it. Nothing special. And yet it is. I actually learned Zazen from reading several different books and doing a lot of online research. Most notably, I was influenced by Brad Warner and his fantastic little book titled Hardcore Zen. I’ve always been a “pull yourself up by your own boot-straps” kind of a person. I’ve also never been afraid to chart my own course. Brad’s brand of punk rocker Zen Buddhism really speaks to me. Through this simple practice of sitting, I have continued my personal development in profound ways.

Zazen in Action

Fast forward to 2016. About 6 months into my practice of sitting Zazen for 10-20 minutes a day, I was going through a bumpy patch in my new job. On of my coworkers was creating some challenges for me by making some half-truth negative claims about my work. I was really upset about it. I was about 2 years into my new job and I was enjoying some great success. I was being talked about by senior management as a contender for another executive position at this new company and in the midst of it, I was having to defend my integrity because of this person’s comments.

While this was going on, I was doing one of my routine Zazen sessions. I put on the timer, put the pillow down, and had a seat with an erect spine. I breathed normally and stared at a blank 3 foot section of my bedroom wall. A few minutes into my session, the wall in front of me started to “swirl.” For the simple fact that I’m trying to wrap up this post, I won’t get into everything that I “saw.” But the most important thing that I did “see” was that my coworker and I were the same person. It was a lot like watching a child gain awareness that the image in the mirror is hers and that she can control it. But my experience was like being the child and seeing it from a third person’s perspective at the same time. I was watching myself look into the mirror and seeing my coworker. When I talked, she talked. When I put my hand on my face, hers followed suit. It was in that moment that I will tell you rightfully and honestly that all the baggage I had been carrying about this situation melted away on the spot.

I realized that I had been in this person’s exact same spot a few years before and I had acted almost identically to how she was acting now. I instantly understood my coworker. I also knew that in the long run, my performance would stand up to the scrutiny because I honestly was doing the work that was being recognized. From that point on, I handled the coworker and similar situations with more poise. The beauty of that development is that it essentially sealed the deal for my promotion, which I’m happy to report happened about 6 months later.

In Closing:

I hope this post has intrigued you. I hope this post has explained briefly but clearly my background with Zen Buddhism and some of the benefits that I’ve experienced. However, I’m always happy to answer any questions you might have. Please post in the comments section or email me directly at quixotegoes@gmail.com if I can be of service in any way.

Ulysses: Proteus

Episode 3 of Ulysses takes place almost entirely in Stephen Daedalus’ head. In the first two episodes, the bulk of the “action” is in the dialogue between characters. In this episode, we join Stephen as he walks along Sandymount strand and has more than a moment with his thoughts. The episode name is Proteus, the shape-shifting Greek god of the sea. In my opinion, Proteus presents the first major challenge of following the book. Joyce gives us the insights into what Stephen is thinking and, closer to reality than any other book that I’ve read, the thoughts flow from moment to moment with loose association from one to the next.

Early in the episode, he considers going to his aunt Sarah’s house. Then he plays out either a memory or a projection of what the visit will entail along with dialogue from his disapproving father. From here, things start to jump around a good bit.

This episode is particularly interesting to me as someone who is interested in Zen Buddhism. When practicing Zen meditation, called Zazen, the idea is to sit erect and stare blankly at the wall for a period of time. What usually happens is before finding any form of quiet is that thoughts just bounce around. What do I need to do after this? Yes – change the light bulb outside the garage door. Oh but I needed lightbulbs from the store. Darn! How did I forget that? Make sure to add it to the shopping list as soon as this is done. Then in my mind’s eye, I walk into the pantry where bulbs are stored and I look down at the couch, where my daughter routinely leaves partially consumed water bottles. Why can’t she take them with her? Maybe I should just stop buying water bottles. But no, we need them for the sports activities. And so on… The first step to practicing Zazen is to just sit with it. Over time, we become more aware of our thoughts as they’re happening and we can start to limit the damage that our runaway thoughts inflict on us. Eventually, we even begin to find glimpses of quiet.

I started reading Ulysses before I started approaching Zen with any real discipline. Now having practiced for a couple of years, I’ve come to appreciate Proteus more than ever. It is still difficult to follow. But it should be. We’re in the head following the thoughts of a well-educated human being who is thinking of events current to him at the turn of the 20th century.

Themes

In addition to the constant flow from thought to thought, Daedalus shifts from English to French and back again with a smattering of other languages. I will readily admit that I don’t follow all of the references yet; and this is my fourth read. Other lengthy tomes have been written on the content, so I’m touching on some key themes that stick out to me.

  • Mother: Stephen continues to be haunted by the death of his mother. He sees two midwives and thinks of umbilical cords and Eve’s navel-free stomach, which makes him think about his own conception by “the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghost woman with ashes on her breath.” He thinks of the telegram from his father that called him home from medical study in Paris to his mother’s deathbed and Mulligan’s earlier comment, “The aunt thinks you killed your mother.”
  • Irish / Ireland: Stephen thinks of Patrice Egan whom he knew in Paris. He thinks of Kevin Egan, Patrice’s father and exiled Irish nationalist, and the conversations about nationalism they had in a French cafe.
  • Money: “Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a’.” “By the way go easy with that money like a good young imbecile.” Stephen thinks about the money that he’s recently gotten, his historically bad handling of money, and the savings advice from Mr. Deasy.
  • Hamlet: There were major references to Hamlet in Telemachus, the first episode, and a few in Nestor, the last episode. In Proteus, there is a small call out of Elsinore, which is the castle where the play is set; and Hamlet is again referenced with, “nipping and eager airs.”
  • Father: There is much talk about father and son with reference to Hamlet earlier in the book, but in this episode Stephen’s relationship to his father begins to materialize for the reader. When Stephen considers going to his aunt Sarah’s house at the beginning of the episode, it gives way to a vision that involves his condescending father providing disproving overtones. He thinks about his and other “houses of decay,” which we’ll learn later is a marker for his father’s inability to maintain a consistent family home.

As mentioned earlier, Proteus is the shape-shifting god of the sea. The episode Proteus takes on the shape-shifting characteristics as the topics and language shift like the tendrils of an anemone in the surf. I marvel at Joyce’s writing. To be able to interlace shifting thought and theme in a way that is relatable nearly 100 years after publication is simply awe-inspiring. 

What Bad Habits Would You Like to Stop?

I’m blessed to have a great team at work who entertains my introverted need to connect on a more-than-small-talk level. I’ve explained in a previous post that my work team has “huddles” to bring each other up to speed on our work and that Friday’s are dedicated to a philosophical discussion prompt. This Friday’s prompt was: “What bad habits would you like to stop?”

Open the kimono

There’s a vulnerability with this prompt and I didn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable. So I kicked us off with a bad habit that I would very much like to cut out. Since my last marathon in December, I decided to take a short break from running and working out. I was burnt out. After taking a three week break, I have struggled since January to get back into any groove. It has essentially become a bad habit for me to sabotage my own routine. I explained to my team that after a few days in a row of the behavior I want, I’d come home from work and procrastinate getting changed for my run because of “paying the bills” or some other thing that could be done later. This would effectively destroy my 3 or 5 day streak and then disrupt the whole process of getting back into a fitness routine. I have had some success with using the scorecard I wrote about in a recent post, but I don’t consider myself out of the woods just yet.

Having “opened my own kimono,” my team felt more at ease with sharing. As we progressed around the table one person even said, “I’m so relieved to hear that I’m not the only one who struggles like this.” I’ve put the team members’ intentions in the following numbered list. Note that these are college educated professionals who range in age from 24 to 60+ and have their lives together. Here’s how it went around the table. Obviously, I’ve left out names.

  1. I want to crowd out (more on this later) things that I want to stop with reading more books.
  2. I need to stop procrastinating cleaning out my garage. I haven’t been able to park my car in there for years.
  3. I want to stop wasting time on my phone. I can lose up to an hour in the morning before work and up to an hour before bed. Some of the practices are good – like I’m working on foreign language skills, but some of it is just flat out, unproductive scrolling.
  4. I want to stop looking forward so much. While looking forward has helped me achieve a lot of goals, I find it hard to just live in the moment and appreciate what I have.
  5. I want to stop trying to form new habits “cold turkey.” Late last year, I tried to cut out caffeine and go vegan at the same time. I lasted four days. I think I was hallucinating.
  6. I want to stop wearing myself out at work so that I have no energy for family time. I sit on the couch and get lost in TV or something and then realize hours have gone by and I’ve missed out on time with my preschool daughter.
  7. I have made strides in this area over the years, but I find that I still get pulled in trying to help people who don’t want to help themselves.
  8. I want to do a better job of finishing off personal projects. I get excited about things and go full on for the first 90% and then I just can’t seem to get to the finish line with the last 10%.

Crowding out the bad with the good

Assuming you’re at least marginally interested in habits if you’ve read this far, there are a couple of concepts I’d like to highlight. First, the first Team Member shared the idea of crowding out undesirable behaviors with desirable behaviors. This is all the rage in wellness habits. Nutritionists are now routinely telling their clients to crowd out processed or deep fried foods and red meat with more fresh vegetables and fruits. It works because of positive psychology. We funny monkeys (thanks Nick Offerman) respond better to the affirmative “eat more of this” than we do the restrictive “cut out that.”

In this case, Team Member 1 wants to crowd out time lost going down internet rabbit holes with more time reading books – a noble endeavor indeed. This crowding out concept would also help Team Member 5 who has seen the abrupt “cold turkey” method fall flat, as well as Team Member 3 who wants to reduce wasted screen time. Speaking of screen time, I recently decided to delete a vacuous app that was sucking me into the never-ending scroll. I didn’t delete my account so I still get notified if someone connects directly with me, but the web browser version is much less satisfying than the app. So, I’ve crowded out senseless scrolling with book time.

Be in the present

The second concept is being present. I’m absolutely fascinated by Buddhism. The more I learn about it, the more I am blown away that these 2,500 year old concepts align so completely with modern psychology. For a deeper dig into this space, check out Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism is True. Team Member 4 mentioned a desire to enjoy the present in lieu of always looking to what’s next. This concept of being present is very much a part of Buddhist tradition. As His Holiness the Dalia Lama has been quoted, “There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called Yesterday and the other is called Tomorrow. Today is the right day to Love, Believe, Do and mostly Live.” Team Member 4 is almost 15 years younger than me, so in my book, he’s well ahead of the wellness game by recognizing this habit.

As I started down the path of my mindfulness journey a couple of years ago, I became aware of how much time I was mentally spending not in the present. I describe it this like this: Most of my mental time was either ruminating over past losses or in anxious anticipation of future losses. I don’t think that Team Member 4 is in loss mode like I was. I think he’s more in planning mode to achieve his next goal. But it can be equally detrimental to look forward to “one day.” As one achieves goal after goal, he or she often finds that the destination wasn’t quite as sweet as anticipated. Then what? The trick I’ve learned is to start on a mindfulness path and try to achieve quiet satisfaction with right now. If you’re interested, I highly recommend subscribing to Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits for a simple, free and unbelievably rich resource.

A nerd and his team

I’m a self-proclaimed wellness habit nerd so I had a blast with this conversation. I have somewhat expected these Friday philosophical discussions to become trite after a couple of months. But they haven’t. In my 40+ years, this is the first time I have found a group of people who keeps striving for self-development for any length of time. Every Friday, I count my lucky stars that I get to work with this amazing group of like-minded individuals.

Vacation is Over: A Mindfulness Opportunity

To do list

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…

  1. Rationalize the list – assess whether I need to do this right now or push it out until I have more time,
  2. Communicate what is in front of me to my loved ones so they can understand my stress,
  3. Identify where others can lend a helping hand (if possible), and
  4. 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 quixotegoes@gmail.com.


*NOTE: I am using “discomfort” in an emotional sense. If you are having medical discomfort, please seek the help of a medical professional.

Five Benefits from Five Years of Journaling

I first started journaling when I was going through a divorce several years ago. The stresses of separating from my spouse, figuring out finances, and helping the children adjust all while maintaining my focus at work was getting to me. I almost started journaling on a whim. I’m a bit of an introvert and I’m not prone to sharing details with others. So journaling was my way out; my way to organize my thoughts and to “say” the things that I didn’t want to actually verbalize to anyone else. I wrote somewhere around 200 pages over 18 months. When my divorce was complete, I purged the file and later started a new one. My second journal turned 5 years old two weeks ago. I’ve decided to start a new one. The file size was getting unwieldy and five years seems like a good cutover point. Starting anew, I reflected on the journaling process and realized how much I’ve learned from it. While there’s probably more, here are my top five benefits from five years of journaling.

1.) Problem solving

I solve problems for a living. Of course, I could argue that everyone who has a job is essentially being paid to solve problems that customers aren’t willing or able to do themselves. But problem-solving is my specialty. I have an engineering background, several technical certifications, and 20+ years of experience solving fairly sizable problems across various industries. With these credentials, one might think that I could solve just about any problem in my sleep. That would be wrong. While it certainly is my forte, sometimes I get stuck. I find that journaling is my unlocking mechanism. The free form of journaling helps me describe a problem from multiple angles or to refine what it is and what it isn’t. I find that spending time writing about a problem not only helps me find breakthrough solutions, but it also stops the swirling in my head. I also use it for household problem-solving. For instance, there was a particularly nasty head and chest cold going through our house from season to season and journaling about it over time helped me figure out how to 1.) avoid getting it and 2.) speed the recovery time from more than 3 weeks to about 5 days. 

2.) Procrastination buster

I’m not one for procrastinating. I’ve always been internally motivated, so when I recognize that something needs to be done, I generally get going. Therefore when I am actually procrastinating on something, I know it’s a special cause. I might not like what needs to be done and I might be waiting on a better solution. Or, it might be that I have too much to do and – if I’m honest – I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself that I won’t pick a direction and move. Bring on journaling! Writing about these situations helps me to be honest with myself about my lack of movement. It really might be that I’m overwhelmed. I’ve often heard the quote, “Sometimes when you don’t know what to do, the best thing to do is nothing.” (Unknown attribution) I wouldn’t say that I do nothing. But I certainly have learned that sitting down to the keyboard, which was no where on the list of things to do, helps me prioritize the work in front of me. When I’m procrastinating out of a sense of being overwhelmed, journaling is exactly what I need. If I’m just hung up on the task at hand or feeling sorry for myself, sometimes I go ahead and have a good complaint session. I write down all the crap that’s annoying me at the time. The act of reading it after I’ve written it helps me see how petty I’m being. Recognizing my pettiness then causes me to shift into gratitude for everything that’s great in my life. And gratitude is extremely motivating. The point is that while I don’t procrastinate often, it can be caused by a number of different factors, and writing helps me get to the bottom of it and get moving.

3.) Better communicator

Have I mentioned that I’m an introvert? One of the key characteristics of an introvert is that we have far, far more thoughts than what comes out of our mouths. A lot of times, I’m just not ready to speak. I might have 4 thoughts on the same topic and if I start speaking without organizing them, I’ll probably confuse myself, never mind the poor listener. Journaling helps me get my thoughts out of my swirling mind. When a topic is particularly complex, the only way to sort it out is to pick up the journal and simply start writing. I may write in circles – making the same point repeatedly with only slightly different angles. But writing it down helps me sort out my thoughts so that I can communicate in a cogent manner. 

4.) Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and exercise control over your emotions, which in turn helps you connect with others. Journaling has helped me in strides on this front by following a simple guide that I learned in college. I took a course on Personal Transformation, which was amazing. Among other techniques, I learned to break down interpretations of an event. I’ll use an example to illustrate. Let’s say I’m running late to work and on the commute, someone cuts me off in traffic. My brain might jump to a conclusion like, “She cut me off just to be a jerk because she could see I’m in a hurry.” In this class, we learned to separate what happened from our interpretations. What actually happened? A lady merged into traffic in front of me, maybe cutting it a little too close given local standards for traffic spacing. When I interpreted what happened, I assigned meaning to the event. She meant harm. She meant to do what she did to prove a point. When I journal about this event, I might rant and rave about it for a few sentences, but then I use the “what happened and what did I interpret” method to break it down. After journaling, I might realize that I created the tight space with my rushed driving. She might have thought she had ample time to pull into traffic had I been going with the flow of normal traffic. Or, maybe she was also in a hurry because she was on the way to the hospital to spend time with an ill child. I really can’t know what was going on with her and I may have had some input in the event. Over time, this practice has become like a muscle that I flex through journaling so that I’m able to process faster in real time, thus giving me more Emotional Intelligence.

5.) Mindfulness Step 1

I didn’t realize it, but when I started journaling on and off about 8 years ago during my divorce, I took my first steps toward a path of mindfulness. dictionary.com defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” I originally started journaling to sort out my thoughts and feelings during my divorce. I needed to address my concerns about the kids and money and the car and the laundry and the bills and the… you get the point. Through journaling, I was able to feel like I was doing something about my concerns. I could write them out to their logical conclusion and see that things would somehow be okay. I was learning to be present. It was a form of meditation for me. Having logged 300 pages in the last five years, I can easily say that journaling was a HUGE first step in my mindfulness journey. 

Getting Started

If these five benefits sound pretty awesome, there’s not really too much to getting started. You might start with a pen and paper. I personally use Pages on Apple products and simply password protect the file to help ensure that it doesn’t get opened or edited by others with whom I share devices. You can do the same with Google Docs and Microsoft products. Whatever you do, stick with it. You might not see the benefits on your first entry, but over time you’ll have your own top five list of benefits.


Stressed? Try to Find the Long View

Situation

Let’s say I sell cars for a living (I don’t but the illustration will serve the purpose). Instead of selling a whole range of cars, I sell one car; a not-so-sexy little number that will safely and reliably get you from point A to point B. It also has a surprisingly low cost once we factor in maintenance and gas mileage. Now let’s say that another model that was clearly designed to compete with mine has popped up on the market. It has a lower initial cost, but overall cost of ownership makes it much more expensive after just a few months. Over the past two weeks, I’ve had two major buyers who were interested in buying my car for their fleet go the other way. I’m just coming off a strong growth year with my little car, so both times I entered the meeting with the buyer confident that I’d close the deal. Both times I was unceremoniously informed that the buyer was picking the other model. I was dejected.

Within a day of the second rejection, I attended a previously scheduled conference in which my national manager gave a business update. This update featured, among other things, the successes of my little car and me as the last year recently closed out. The content had been put together before these two recent rejections. While my car and I were being touted in the meeting, I was still licking my wounds from the two fresh rejections. During the business update, I felt like a fraud who would soon be discovered. My stomach turned, my blood pressure was noticeably up, and I slinked down in my chair. I didn’t want any of this good attention while I was falling flat. Most of all, I wanted my national manager to stop saying good things about me and my little car. I kept thinking, “If she only knew.” During the update meeting, we run a visible comment board and I started to become hyper-aware that the positive comments had dried up as the national manager was highlighting my results. “They know,” I thought.

Analysis

This is how our brains work. We go on a good run and we’re on top of the world. But, have a couple of set-backs in quick succession, and all of a sudden the world is collapsing around us. My wife is pursuing a Master’s degree in Psychology and she tells me that our brains have developed a somewhat-controlled paranoia over many thousands of years to keep us alive. For example, a rustling bush might not have meant a large predator was about to make a meal out of them, but if our ancestors had always calmly assumed the rustling was “just the wind,” our species probably wouldn’t have made it. In other words, we’re essentially pre-wired to jump to bad conclusions.

Reality

The reality of the situation is…

  • My little car and I did have a great year last year and I wasn’t a fraud
  • Yes, two potentially significant customers DID reject my little car for their needs, but the problem isn’t permanent
  • In fact, the clients may find that the cars they went with don’t meet their needs and they could change back to mine fairly quickly
  • Even if they don’t, there will be other buyers for my little car
  • These set backs do NOTmean the end of me or my little car
  • And finally, the kudos in the comment board had slowed up after the individual recognitions 10 minutes before my car was being presented – so it wasn’t because people were “on to me”

Using the long view to overcome a stressful moment

When I was young, if something bad would happen, my grandfather would say, “You’ll never know it in a hundred years” and then he’d have a chuckle. At the time I thought he was just old and insensitive. Of course I wouldn’t know it in a hundred years – I’ll be dead by then! But he was on to something. He was using the long view and a touch of humor to offer me an alternative perspective. This situation really isn’t that bad. When events we immediately perceive to be negative occur, our minds race to what this could mean. We then quickly begin grieving the situation and piling on “evidence” of further doom. But if we’re able to slow down for a mindful moment and consider the reality of the situation in context with the long view, many times we’ll see that things aren’t so bad. This in turn, frees up our mental resources to begin working on what we can do about the situation.