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My first theme for the year is health and energy. I decided on this one because it was already my highest priority and I’ve been focused on it, so that made it easy to segue into this new structure.

Inspiration

I could say that what inspires me about this area of my life is the thought of being able to breathe freely, or my hair growing back, but I don’t want my inspiration to be about something that may or may not happen in the future. I want what I’m inspired by to be about the present. So what inspires me about this topic?

  • Having energy to get through the day and be able to be excited about things. It’s hard to be excited when exhausted.
  • Taking care of myself. If actions speak volumes, it’s a way of showing myself love.
  • To feel good in my body, to feel strong, so I can dance my way through life.
  • Noticing what the process of healing, regardless of outcomes, does in terms of growth and learning.
  • Seeing what small daily actions I can take to positively affect my health and energy.

The practices for January have been:

  • Stop what I’m doing by 9:30 and go to bed
  • Deal with my food issues
  • 5-10 minutes a day of exercise
  • Decluttering/organizing my space and computer
  • One-sentence journal entry
  • Spend time simply accepting what is

The only one of these that doesn’t directly relate to health is the one sentence journal. That idea came from the book The Happiness Project, and I liked it, perhaps because it’s just so easy (and couldn’t we all use a little more ease in our lives?), and gives me a definite thing I can always check on my tracking sheet at the end of the day!

I wasn’t specific enough on “deal with my food issues” because I couldn’t figure out what exactly to do for that. I was thinking that when I’m frustrated about the diet I’m on to inquire into it, which I have done, it’s just a little hard to track.

Otherwise, I’ve done pretty well with these. One thing I’ve noticed is how decluttering and organizing is a self-perpetuating activity for me. Even if I just take a couple of minutes (one minute even!) to organize some part of my room or desk, throw some papers away, or file something, I get an immediate hit of satisfaction, not to mention a cleaner space. I finally got my email inbox back down to 0 emails, and though that feels like a never-ending challenge, it is a relief to leave it that way at the end of the day. The benefit of these practices so far encourages me to keep them going.

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Photo: David Lin

Much is made at the new year of making goals or resolutions, thinking back on the year before and the year ahead. I’ve even written about that in the past. In previous years, however, I didn’t have a very structured way of going about that reflection, and my progress (or lack thereof) during the rest of the year towards my goals exposed that deficiency.

This time, at the cusp of 2013 (once we made it safely past the whole 2012 end-of-the-world thing), I reflected on the year just finished and the one ahead in a much more conscious way. I compiled a number of questions from different people’s lists, and reflected and wrote on many of them. That’s not what I want to focus on, however; I also created a plan that will keep me focused throughout the year on what it is I’m working on in my life. That’s what I’d like to share with you, in the hopes that it sparks some ideas for you about how you can move through the year more consciously attuned to your own path of growth.

I pulled ideas for my structure from too many places to mention them all, but two key ones were my research in the past year on habits and how to be successful at change, and Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project.

So here’s the basics of my plan.

  • My theme for the year is Inspiration, as that’s one of the things I would like to experience more of this year.
  • Each month, I will choose a different area of my life to focus my habit change efforts.
  • Within that area, I’ll choose a small number of practices (preferably daily ones) that will move me ahead in the ways I would like to improve in that area.
  • I created a simple tracking system for these practices. The idea is for those daily efforts to get established as habits during that month and continue on.
  • I am also linking my main theme of Inspiration to my monthly themes.
  • I’ve already scheduled time into my calendar for the end of each month to choose the theme and practices (from my habit waiting list) for the coming month.
  • I will keep all the tracking sheets for my end-of-the-year reflection time, which is also already scheduled into my calendar.

And that’s it! So far, it’s going well, even just three weeks into the new year. I plan to write each month about the theme and practices for that month (which will keep me accountable) so stay tuned!

What’s your plan for staying on track this year?

Forging Presence

In focusing lately on practicing presence in my daily life, I’ve been reflecting on the paradoxes of my experience.

Paying attention to my body is one way to focus myself on being present, and at the same time, my body is what makes it difficult to be present. Each morning I sit down to meditate, being with whatever arises in my body, and I notice that I feel like I have about three inches in which to breathe. I find it difficult to be with the level of discomfort that my body is at times. Of course, calling it discomfort is a subtle judgment itself, and is another layer of experience to be present with.

Photo: Frédéric Bisson

Photo: Frédéric Bisson

There have also been times in my life when every ounce of energy I had was directed towards getting enough air. Asthma would force presence; I couldn’t do anything else, not even read or watch tv. It was all I could do to breath, and breath is all there was. People have occasionally told me that I have a strong and solid presence, and I wonder sometimes if that’s why; it’s as if those times were forging presence in the fire of dis-ease.

It’s one thing to have circumstance require me to be present, another to choose to be present with the lesser but ongoing feelings of constriction, tension, and limitation. I cultivated mind, after all, because I preferred “being” there to being with the general low level of unease in my body. Choosing, moment by moment to be with whatever is happening, particularly in discomfort, is another kind of forge, a lesser heat, perhaps, but no less important for that.

Thus there’s an effort that’s required, and yet at the same time it’s also an allowing. The effort comes in keeping myself here or bringing myself back when all I want to do is leave. Then there’s dropping in to whatever is happening, and allowing it all to be there, unhindered, witnessed, felt deeply, and even, when I can manage it, surrendered to and accepted.

How do you walk the line between the effort and effortlessness of presence? What is your version of forging presence?

Fog over San Francisco Bay

Photo: Julie Stiles

In my previous article, I talked about bridging the gap between where we are and where we want to be. We create that gap when we have an idea—a vision—for where we want to be or how we want our lives to look. We are told that visioning is an important part of manifesting the life of our dreams and reaching our goals. Yet there’s another side to this story.

In my experience, visioning can also lead to burnout, overwhelm, and feeling hopeless about ever attaining our ideal life. Have you ever had a vision of yourself—perhaps one that sparked a New Year’s Resolution—that you failed to reach? Maybe you saw yourself at a perfect weight, or feeling just the way you would like, or envisioned yourself in your ideal career. Perhaps you even created a plan and took some steps in that direction. Then, you began to feel overwhelmed or experienced a setback, and you lost direction. What happened as a result to your belief in your ability to reach your vision?

Many of us, in response to dreams we had when we were young that did not come true, decide that it’s better not to dream at all. Instead, I suggest that when we look at how we have been visioning that hasn’t worked for us, particularly when we have felt discouraged and overwhelmed, we can find a new way to vision that does work.

Here are some of the ways we vision that, if we aren’t careful, can lead us straight to burnout and feeling hopeless:

Too Big or Far Away

Visions are supposed to be big, aren’t they? When we think vision, we often think in terms of the ideal picture, which might look very different than what we see around us. This is true whether we are visioning for the world, a particular cause we would like to make a difference in, or for our own lives. Joan Borysenko points out that the first stage of burnout is being driven by an ideal. The bigger the difference between our ideal and where we are, the more likely we will be to fall into the gap between them. It’s more difficult to maintain connection with the vision, and easier to feel despair about being able to reach it.

Photo: mind_scratch

“Impossible” Dreams

When we have that big dream, even as we envision it, we might simultaneously believe it is impossible. With a large vision we are unlikely to be able to see the whole path from where we are to the vision, which contributes to feeling like there’s in fact no way to get there. It might feel too big for us to accomplish alone, or it might seem unlikely to happen in the time frame we would like. As Henry David Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Product Oriented

When we focus only on the product we want, we can easily become attached to that outcome, creating additional stress for ourselves. We decide our relationship must look a certain way for us to be happy, or our business must make X amount through channels we have carefully delineated in order for us to feel fulfilled. If things begin to deviate from that result (which they will), we might redouble our efforts in an attempt to force reality to match the outcome we want.

Unchanging

When we decide what we want, how often do we then go back and reassess it, and shift it based on our current situation? We will keep growing as we begin to grow toward our vision, and if we hold on to an old vision simply out of habit, we may find that it is out of alignment with who we have become. Our vision must grow with us.

When we become aware of how we vision that doesn’t work, we can shift to a new kind of vision that will provide the motivation and inspiration to keep us energized in moving our life closer to what we would like to experience.

How have you tried to vision in the past, and what result did it have? Is how you’ve been visioning working for you?

I talk about how to vision in a way that supports us in the final module of The Balance Blueprint, my program on dealing with overwhelm and creating a life where you are moving powerfully in the direction of the life you want to live.

Artwork: Julie Stiles

Many times in my life I have seen a new possibility for myself in the distance, yet felt the gap between that possibility and where I was at the time. When we are going after something that we have never done before, the chasm between who we are now and who we will be once we have accomplished our goal can seem vast and deep, perhaps even uncrossable.

I felt that chasm when went to college, and again when I returned to graduate school after many years out of school. I felt it when I was faced with the knowledge I had developed an autoimmune disease. I felt it when I began traveling abroad, when I left Massachusetts without any definite plan, and when I decided to relocate temporarily to St. John. I feel it again now, starting my own business.

It can feel like standing on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, looking across at the north rim, longing to get there. The only way across seems long and difficult—a hike to the bottom, fording the river, and a torturous climb up the other side.

We need a bridge.

A bridge crosses a gap that otherwise seems impossible, or at least difficult, to cross. There’s a scene in the movie Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, when he comes to the chasm he has to cross to get to the Holy Grail. There’s no bridge, the chasm looks bottomless, and it’s too far to jump. The one clue Indiana Jones has to meet this challenge is that it’s a leap of faith. So, with his hand on his heart, he takes a deep breath, sticks his foot out over the emptiness, and steps….right onto a bridge that appears under his feet.

I love this as a metaphor for what we can do when we face the chasm between who we are and who we will need to be to achieve our big goals. We can always choose to do it the difficult way—our own version of hiking down the south rim, fording the river, and up the north rim of the Grand Canyon. We can fight against our uncertainty, resist the challenges to our sense of our self and the world, and keep fighting to hold on to what we know.

Photo: Alex McLeod

But what if we can be like Indiana? With our hand on our heart, can we take a deep breath and a big first step, even if it looks like that step might send us plunging into the chasm?

I’ll be exploring how to do this in later posts, but it all comes down to trust. Can you trust that even though you are hanging out in the uncertainty of who you are and who you will be, that you are in the right place and the process is unfolding as it should be? Can you take that step and trust that something will appear under your feet?

Are you facing the chasm in some area of your life? Stay tuned for a new program I’ll be announcing soon, designed to support you to not only take those first steps out into the unknown, but to cross the chasm to reach the other side. To find out if this program might be for you, schedule a complimentary Clarity Consultation.

One Monday morning at 5:00 am in the fall of 1999, I was taking a catnap underneath my desk at work. I had worked since Sunday morning through the night, and would go on to work until 6 pm that day. Other than my hour-long nap under the desk, it was a 34-hour workday, which came at the end of three weeks of 100+ hour weeks.

With a schedule like that, balance was a dream.

When I left that job, I went to the opposite extreme; I never wanted to work a full-time job again in my life! Things shifted, but just became imbalanced in a different way; I had plenty of time to pursue my interests, but financially I was struggling and had no career.

Slowly, instead of going to the extremes of imbalance, I am finding a way to design my life consciously to incorporate all of what is important to me. In the process, I’ve realized that how I think about balance affects the actions I take. Below, I de-bunk three myths of balance, and in the reality find more useful metaphors that result in being able to take more effective action.

Myth: Balance is External

We have control over both our internal state and some aspects of our external environment, so when we think about designing our life for more balance, we will have greater impact by taking both into account. What would “balance” feel like as an internal state? For me, it brings a sense of calmness, equanimity, and harmony. Every moment we decide to, we have an opportunity to check in and see what tiny adjustments we can make to shift our internal sense of harmony. Something as small as taking a sip of water, adjusting our position in our chair, or taking a deep breath can work wonders.

Externally, we might look at where we are spending our time and how much energy we give to various areas of our lives. Are we paying attention to what is most important to us, both short and long-term? Do we notice when something begins to slip through the cracks—like our self-care, or a key relationship—and make changes immediately? As we work with both internal and external aspects we can notice how they interact with each other; how is the internal sense of harmony impacted by the various choices we make about what we are doing?

Myth: Balance Means Equality

If we think of balance as being equal scales, we come up with concepts like “work-life balance” that give us a false dichotomy. We think that we need to equally balance our life between our career and everything else, and create artificial separations between our work and the rest of our life, lumping a lot of who we are into an amorphous concept (“life”) that covers facets that are important to us, such as relationships, creativity, spirituality, and our health.

Instead of thinking of two scales, a different metaphor for the experience of being an active participant in life with a lot going on is a wheel. If you imagine a wheel that’s spinning, we’re often living life on the outside rim. There’s a lot happening but we don’t feel in control, we might even be jumping from one spoke to another trying to manage it all (and wondering how long we can keep from slipping). If we can move to the center of the wheel, where it’s the most still, we can have that sense of internal stability but still have a lot happening in our lives. We have more control, yet can still have a lot of movement.

Balance is also a concept in the design world, and its use there applies well to thinking about balance in our lives. As writer and artist John Ruskin said, “In all perfectly beautiful objects there is found the opposition of one part to another and a reciprocal balance.” Balance is not achieved through having some set form of equality, it comes from the relationship of all elements and dimensions of your life within the whole. Just like in a great photograph or painting, or the beauty of a story well-told, it’s more about the harmonious arrangement of the elements and the rhythm between them.

Myth: Balance is a Steady State

When I think about how I want my life to be, I tend to go to some ideal, where I create a life of balance and can be done with it. I think I can “reach” balance and that will be it, I can then focus on something else and forever more my life will be in balance.

Yet balance can only be a steady state when there is no movement. Since there is always movement in our lives, balance is dynamic, something that we are always adjusting. Applying our physical experience of balance to how we design our lives allows us to see a new way to be.

Most of us don’t remember learning how to walk, but you might remember learning to ride a bike or skateboard, surf, ski, skate, or move around on a sailboat that is heeling. At the beginning, it’s difficult. You fall a lot. You overcorrect and use a lot of muscles that aren’t necessary as your body adjusts and learns what it takes to be in balance in this new orientation to the world. Eventually, you do all of that less and less, and find balance becomes more embodied. As you become proficient, you make subtle corrections so quickly that eventually you no longer think about it, and can barely remember a time when it was any other way. When you are walking, you are constantly out of balance, but with your automatic adjustments it becomes a fluid movement and you are not even aware of making corrections. When we reach this level of proficiency, balance looks like a steady state, even though it is not.

We can achieve this proficiency in how we live our life. When I was ping-ponging between the extremes of working too much to hardly working, I was in that early stage of overcorrecting. Now, my corrections are a bit more subtle; I pay closer attention to the small signs and try to make adjustments more quickly, and see how those adjustments affect me. I’m still not where I’d like to be; my goal is to notice so quickly that I’m out of the center of the wheel, and both know what adjustment to make and be able to make it, that I look like I’m living in that steady state.

When we bring all of these metaphors and realities together, a powerful picture emerges of how to design our life for balance.

We can simultaneously cultivate the inner state of harmony while we consciously choose what to spend our time and energy on. As we make these choices, we constantly assess, just as we do when learning to ride a bike, how they affect our internal state. Over time, we continue to fine tune both our internal sense of when we are getting out of balance as well as what it takes to recover, to the point where eventually we correct so quickly that other people admire us for our poise. Living in that center of the wheel, with our life constantly moving around us, we can get a lot done on the things that are important to us and, most importantly, enjoy ourselves in the process.

I could be the poster child for workaholism. In my first job out of college—teaching American Government to high school seniors on Guam—I spent most of the day teaching, and nearly all my time outside of teaching on preparing for class or grading papers. I was a teacher 24/7. In probably the most telling workaholic move I made, I actually worked a second, part-time job taking pictures for dinner-cruise companies during my second year teaching, because somehow I thought that taking on more work would relieve me of being a workaholic! It did increase my income slightly, but people at my second job got used to seeing me grading tests or papers while I was waiting for the busses to arrive or the boats to return to dock.

I learned then, and in pretty much every job since, that if there’s work to do, I will do it. When I determine that work, as I did in teaching and I do in being self-employed, it becomes especially tricky to make sure I do not overdo things. Thus, I’ve come up with a 5-stage model for how to shift out of being overwhelmed and overworked, so we can stop feeling like we are reacting and always putting out fires and begin making more conscious choices, from a place of power, about how we spend our energy and time.

Read the rest at Ripe Paradigm Women.