Photo of Nan and Don McCulloch, my mother-in-law and my father-in-law. Photographer– Maya Dehlin.
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Attention is the most basic form of love; through it we bless and are blessed.
One of the challenges and thrills of modern life is that life tends to move with a certain speed and momentum. I do think it is important to realize when we are paddling too vigorously against the current of life. We may feel stressed out, overwhelmed, chronically exhausted, or disconnected from ourselves and those we love. During these times, it can feel especially relieving to simplify what we can or to create more space in our lives so that we are able to be more present. We can strip away the nonessential to focus on the things that really give to us.
A little over a year ago, my dad passed away after over a decade of living with Alzheimer’s disease. Death has a way of allowing us to connect deeply with how finite our time here is. My dad was calm. Grounded. Wise. Full of grace. And a royal goofball. He was a psychiatrist by way of employment but he was also a classically trained pianist, a lover of poetry and fiction, a graduate of Yale Medical School, and a devoted father and husband. One thing I will always remember about my dad was how I felt when his eyes met mine. He had a way of being so present and aware. Most often, his warm eyes would sparkle as he exclaimed, “Hi beautiful!” This way of acknowledging and being with others really was a gift to all who knew him. The ability to truly see another human being is no small thing. I have found myself wanting to remember and embody my dad in this way. It is a way that I am able to keep a part of him in the world.
There is a Buddhist quote–“What moment matters most? This one. What place matters most? Wherever you are presently. Who on this planet matters most? Whoever is before you right now.”
Believe me, I have my own anxious tendencies. I get swept up each day with a current of life that is all too real. My days are full. They include all manner of activities and obligations. And yes, at times, the pace begin to feel unsustainable. Many days, I will try to pound out a list of errands or tasks with the intention of rushing through to the other side so I can be “done.” The irony is that most of the time, I feel my most productive days are the least gratifying. What I have accomplished in the process of checking off the boxes on my ever-growing “to do” list can not bring back the lost moments where my heart was literally hijacked by my brain. Did I eat lunch? Did I even really see John when he was speaking to me this morning? I am more likely to respond reactively to my children on such days as they morph into this existence where they are not real to me. All I see is the structure of the day and what must be done.
We are all there from time to time, right? And there is no shame in that. Or guilt. It is the dance of life. But when we want a change, it is important to feel empowered to feel like we can.
I have found a few strategies that help me counteract this tendency to be overtaken by the current of life. They aren’t anything incredibly mind blowing or revolutionary, but they do provide a bit of space for awareness amidst a full life.
- Participate in a daily awareness activity as it can be tremendously helpful. Meditation works for many people. I meditate for ten minutes each morning as part of my morning routine. I do think it helps to create a particular time of day to “routinize” meditation. Habits begin this way! Yoga has also helped me come back to myself. The movement combined with breath works magically to clear out my anxious energy. It leaves me feeling fully embodied. I have started attending a weekly yoga class for an hour at a local community center. If meditation and yoga aren’t a great fit, consider a mindful walk outside. Move through your senses as you take each step. Don’t feel pressure to walk a certain distance. Focus on the attention you are able to give the walk and go for quality. Eckhart Tolle recommends an awareness of breath as a way to come back to one’s self. I love this idea as I can do this anytime and anywhere. Is there a mindful activity you currently enjoy or would love to try?
- Participate in daily rituals as they can help slow time down a bit and create a space for connection. Many of my cherished moments of the day involve nurturing those I love in some way. This is hallowed space for me. When I engage in a bedtime routine with my children, I know very well that they can go to sleep by themselves. But as we read together from a cherished story or I tickle or rub their backs, I am able to truly share time and listen to them. To feel who they are in the moment. Occasionally, they will ask me to sing to them. This feels especially astounding as my singing voice is…genuinely lacking. So when I do sing, I must pay extra attention! I listen to my own voice. The tone and quality. I am present. The close of day holds less of the emotional walls of the day, and thus, it becomes the perfect nesting for intimacy with those we love. Vulnerability is more often to be shared here in this space than any other time of day in our home. Meals are a wonderful time to slow down too (though this can feel tough). I try to add music. Cloth napkins. Maybe a candle. This is not every night but I do try to make space for it where I can. Look for moments of your day where a ritual might enhance the quality of attention you give. Be creative and intentional with it! And don’t make it complicated. Simple is best.
- Simplify activities that are not necessary. When our children were younger, I loved the idea of exposing them to different activities they connected with and loved. Playdates. Music lessons. Sports. Art. I also felt it was equally important to allow for open spaces where their young minds could create, read, engage in imaginary play, and enjoy time outside. These times are a gift too. I am a strong believer in a simple and deliberate calendar for all. Now that our youngest children are teenagers, their schedules are largely their own. Both Clara and Winston engage in a sport for most of the year. Clara has a job. They are both committed to school. They have full lives too. As a result, we encourage down time. Simplifying where it makes sense. And regularly checking in to make sure their interests and pace of life are bringing them joy. Consider your calendar. Are there activities or obligations that are not essential or joy giving that you can let go of?
- Prioritize unscheduled time weekly as a family. This allows for a time to connect and share in a more relaxed structure. Often times, Monday through Friday can feel like an automatic pilot program. There are so many scheduled times throughout a day that it can be difficult to truly relax and have those opportunities for connecting or sharing together. Weekends can provide more of an open space to work with. Many Sundays, we are able to wake up in a more relaxed way. Go on a hike. Watch a movie or play a game together. Enjoy a meal more at leisure. These days provide a wonderful release from the pressure that can build amidst the week. What activities are relaxing or enjoyable for you or your family? Is there a time of day or part of your week that you could protect and set aside for that purpose?
- Create small moments of pleasure each day. I will be writing more about pairing pleasure with the daily tasks of life in an upcoming post but it is worthwhile to think about simple rejuvenating moments you can create in your day. Try to be present in the shower. Smell your soap. Feel the water. Listen to a podcast on the way to the grocery store or on your way to work. Enjoy a wind-down bath at night. Head out for a walk in the morning. Listen to the birds. Breathe deeply. Read for a bit during the baby’s nap or before you go to bed. Savor a favorite show on the couch with a blanket at the close of day. Sip on a hot drink on your way into work or while you work on your finances. Whatever it may be, small moments of pleasure connect us to ourselves and create a window of appreciation that can make our days feel more meaningful and personal to us. What are some pleasures that you might include in your every day?
I am curious about your thoughts on this post. Is this an issue for you at all? What is your experience? I would love to hear what has helped you to slow down and connect more deeply with your life. Please feel free to leave a comment. With love.