Mindfulness

A student in my Social Psych class recently asked if she and some classmates could interview me for their Contemplative Spirituality class. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded like fun so I agreed. I didn’t really know what to expect- maybe a conversation about religion and its role in my life?

I loved this experience. The class and content of the interview focused on mindfulness and spending time thinking about what your life means and how you are living it. It sounds like an incredible class- one I wish I had taken as a college student! The students really loved it too. I especially enjoyed having this kind of deep conversation with them. Topics came up that I wouldn’t necessarily choose to talk with my students about- like alcoholism and my ex-boyfriend, but it felt like the right context to discuss them in. The students were positive and supportive in response, and one even shared a similar experience that she had with an abusive ex.

I found the content really interesting, so I asked if I could write down the title of the book that they used. Instead, one of the students gave me her copy. She said she didn’t need it for class anymore and wouldn’t be able to sell it for much, so I could read and keep it. I felt amazingly touched by this. It’s the kind of thing I would hope happens with this kind of book- you read them and then want to pass them on to others so they, too, can benefit from the message. Maybe when I’m finished with it, I will also pass it along to someone else.

Even though I wrote a blog post yesterday, I felt like I wasn’t really in the mood for it. I was feeling a little down in general about life. I wrote because I hadn’t written in awhile and thought that I should. This conversation and the gift of the book rejuvenated me. It reminded me of the goals I have for my own life about being mindful and authentic and inspired me to jump back into them.

I love my job, because I love to inspire others. I’ve found though that often, my students inspire me, too.

 

Take a Moment to Be Grateful

I never thought I would move back to the Cleveland area, where I grew up. Being a college professor meant I didn’t have the luxury of picking the city where I wanted to live and then finding a job there. When people asked me where I wanted to live, I told them this, but I also knew that if I could pick, I’d stay in the Chicago area- where I went to college. A lot of my college friends still live there (at the time and now), I have a lot of favorite local spots, and I loved the convenience of public transit.

I recently returned from visiting my friends in Chicago. I had an amazing time on my visit, but it also made me realize some things about my life. I love where I live now. I love living in the suburbs- it’s so convenient to have the certainty of driving yourself, knowing you’ll find parking, and not having to deal with crazy city traffic. Plus, I can afford a pretty big condo, I have a yard, and I always feel safe in my neighborhood.

A few years back when I was first on the job market, there was a job I applied for in Naperville (a Chicago suburb) and was absolutely crushed that I didn’t get it. Now, I am grateful that I didn’t, because it meant I ended up back in Cleveland. I love living close to family and my high school friends. When I went away for college I looked down on the people who stayed local, but now I’m so happy to be back near people and places that I love.

My job is another one of the best parts of moving back. I absolutely love my colleagues and have made good friends among them already. I didn’t realize how rare this was until recently, in a conversation with a friend of mine. He mentioned how he takes about an hour to craft emails. After expressing my surprise, I said it might take me awhile (though closer to 30 rather than 60 minutes) to write a difficult email to a student. He clarified: not every email, but emails to his colleagues. There were a few nods as other friends of mine agreed that those emails took the longest for them to write too.

I laughed because those were probably the ones that took me the shortest. I have the kind of relationship with my coworkers where they tell me only to send pictures of the inside when I’m at a conference in a tropical location, so I send them photos of the palm trees and river out the window. A recent email I got from my department chair (kind of like your boss in academia) asking me for the title of a journal article I recently published had only this content: “Pls send so I do not have to look up and instead can just sit here looking out window…” The conversation with my friends made me appreciate how lucky I am to have such amazing coworkers at my job.

It’s so easy to focus on what you don’t have. I’m a very goal-oriented person, so I think about goals- necessarily things I don’t currently have- even more often than usual. Recently, after my breakup, I’ve spent a lot of time obsessing about how I don’t have a romantic relationship. It’s the kind of obsessing, of course, that doesn’t consider what I do have. I have an amazing home, job, coworkers, family, friends, and more. Take a moment to be grateful for the things in your life that you love. Be sure to spend at least as much time appreciating what you have as you do pining for what you don’t.

 

Be You, Find Your Community

I was teased and bullied a lot as a kid, so for most of my life, I got the message that I wasn’t good enough. I withdrew into myself and became extremely nervous to share with anyone what I really liked to do (because, let’s be honest, reading fantasy books and playing board games and D&D are not the most socially accepted hobbies).

It has been a long-standing battle for me to be okay with telling others my real interests. Graduate school was the first time I ever shared my hobbies with a colleague/coworker. Even then, I made them swear to secrecy that they wouldn’t tell anyone else. I didn’t tell any of my fellow faculty at my last job (though I did tell a few students which led to my brief time as an advisor for a college fraternity, but that’s a story for another day).

Telling my coworkers at my new job has been like a breath of fresh air. Sure, they tease me for it, but it’s in a very loving way. It’s the same way I tease them when I’m at a conference in Florida, texting them pictures of palm trees and sunsets over the ocean while they’re stuck in the Ohio snow.

Going on the JoCo cruise this past March (basically a nerd cruise: https://www.jococruise.com/) was one of the best things I ever did. The entire boat was full of fellow nerds who accepted me and liked me for my hobbies and interests rather than despite them. It was an amazing experience and deserves an entire blog post of its own. The bottom line though is that it taught me how amazing the nerd community is. It felt like being home.

I had never been very involved in the nerd community, because it’s hard to find other like-minded people when you are not willing to tell others what it is you like to do. Coming home from the JoCo cruise made me realize that I want so much to be a part of that community- one full of like-minded people, for me: nerds. I was the only one standing in my way.

I recently solicited my friend to teach me how to play a game called Magic: The Gathering (what prompted me to do this was actually someone I met on the JoCo cruise!) The Magic community seemed really friendly and I wanted to find ways to meet fellow nerds near me.

When my friend came over, he not only taught me how to play, but gave me an entire deck, a couple booster packs, a mat, and some dice (translation: Magic stuff). I thought it was extremely nice of him and was really excited to have my own Magic stuff.

Last night, I went to my local game store for a Magic event. It was a more advanced event, so I just watched. But the players were really nice- they let me interrupt their game to ask questions, let me look through their decks, and in general gave me advice as to how to get into the game. I talked to the store owner, too. I let him know I was new to Magic and asked him what to buy to get started. He gave me some recommendations and 5 free mini decks designed for new players. I was really grateful. I bought a few booster packs and some purple card protectors (translation: Magic stuff) and on the way out, he told me there were two stacks of Magic cards by the door and I could take all of them.

“All of them, are you sure?” I hadn’t seen the stacks, but I felt bad taking everything.

“Yes, all of them.” They were cards left behind by advanced players who didn’t want them. Not the best or most exciting cards, but perfect for a new player trying to start out.

There were about 500.

I went home with a big grin on my face. I couldn’t believe how amazingly nice everyone in this community had been to me. I felt like I had finally found what I was looking for. I was home again.

Temptations

This weekend I spent some time at my parents’ house and not long after I walked through the door, my mom showed me a camisole she bought for me at the store. It was really pretty- white with a flower design at the bottom. I really wanted it. Technically, this wouldn’t count as me buying clothes, right? It was a lot harder than I thought to say no to her. It was a really nice camisole that I could convince myself I needed! I felt guilty saying no, too. It’s nice of my mom to think of me and buy stuff for me. But also, she knew about my yearly goal. The night after that, I had a dream that I was shopping for clothes. Wish fulfillment, anyone?

The harder resolution though, has been my focus on being healthy instead of on my weight and appearance. As a part of that resolution, I decided that I would weigh myself once a week (instead of the daily weighing I was forcing myself to do). I still wanted to have an idea of how much I weighed, but I didn’t want to obsess over it. Monday mornings are my weigh-in day, so this morning I was faced with the disappointing realization that I had gained 3 pounds this week, since I had started this new resolution.

3 pounds. Wow. I immediately was angry at myself for trying out this resolution. I kept thinking- I knew it! I knew this was a bad idea and that I would just gain a lot of weight. I took my dog for his morning walk and thought a little more rationally about this. I had the sense that I wasn’t exactly doing this right. I don’t think there’s one right way to be healthy, but there are certainly some wrong ways and I felt I had just replaced one wrong way with another.

I spent the week thinking that not focusing on my weight meant I could eat whatever I wanted and not have to worry about it. This meant I ate a lot of deserts. I snacked on them all day. Whenever I was hungry, I would grab a cookie or some chocolate first, telling myself that I didn’t have to worry about losing weight any more. I used my quest for health and better body image as an excuse to eat poorly. I took it to the other extreme- instead of focusing on what I was eating, I didn’t pay attention to it at all.

I think the point (at least for me) is to focus on health over appearance, not to not think about what you’re putting in your body altogether. When I reach for that second (or third) cookie, I shouldn’t tell myself not to because I’m going to gain weight, but I should tell myself to think about what I’m putting in my body and why. Am I eating because I’m bored? Because I’m hungry? Because I’m upset?

Mindful eating is what I’d like to my goal to be. Not to obsess about weight loss or what I’m eating, but to be aware of why I’m eating and to eat what my body needs, not just what I want.

Stop Feeling Guilty for Being Idle

For the first time in months, I voluntarily went to the gym today. I went because I felt like it. I didn’t force myself to. Importantly, I worked out for as long as I felt comfortable and felt good- I didn’t shame or guilt my way into staying for longer (even though I only spent about half the time there I had planned to). Working out wasn’t a punishment- it was something I was doing because I enjoyed it.

Karma was on my side today, too. I absolutely love art fairs, and there was an art fair today from 10-5 at the recc center where I work out. I probably would have missed it if I hadn’t gone to work out this morning. It won’t be there every time I work out, but it was nice to have the extra bonus of browsing it after my workout.

I decided to walk on the treadmill- something that I enjoy doing because I can read at the same time (which is basically my favorite activity). I brought a book to start and began walking. I noticed that I kept checking the time. I wasn’t enjoying the book (it’s not very good) and it was difficult to focus on it while walking. I had a moment of panic- what would I do if I stopped reading? How could I entertain myself for the next 40 minutes or so that I planned to keep walking? I turned to the activity screen on the treadmill, which boasted TV, Youtube, Games, and more. I tried a few TV channels, but they weren’t very interesting to watch without sound or closed captions. I was excited about the games, but the label really should have been Game, because there was only one: Angry Birds. I looked up at the TV that was placed in front of my set of treadmills: weight loss infomercials. My panic increased- wasn’t the point of this workout to read?

It took me a few moments to just relax and enjoy the workout. Part of what I love about exercising (and there isn’t very much honestly), is that it clears your mind. Maybe one reason why I hated workouts so much is that I tried so hard to multitask, which stressed me more than it relaxed me.

One of my biggest and most dangerous obsessions is with time. I can’t stop thinking about how much time an activity will take or whether or not an errand or book or activity will be a waste of time. I feel frustrated when I’m driving because I can’t do anything. I’ve tried audiobooks and podcasts, which I enjoy, but they sometimes stress me out even more.

Recently, I’ve started just listening to music while I drive and I’ve found that somehow, this is a lot more relaxing. I turn on Pandora, clear my mind and let it wander. I reaped the benefits of this last night when driving back from dinner with my parents. I was listening to a song I particularly liked when inspiration struck me for the novel project I’ve been stuck on for weeks. Suddenly, I knew exactly where I wanted to take it.

Would I have had that inspiration if I forced myself to always be doing something? Probably not. Would I have enjoyed my workout more if I forced myself to read the book or play Angry Birds? Probably not.

I am slowly learning that it’s okay to be idle. Every second of my time doesn’t have to be spent on self-improvement. I don’t have to always be working toward my goals. Idle time should be valued not squandered.

If you are someone who, like me, has a problem with being idle, I encourage you to take some time for yourself. Relax. Workout without reading or watching a show. Drive without listening to a podcast. Don’t force yourself to always be planning your next move. Just let yourself be. Enjoy your idle time- don’t feel guilty for it!

Change Your Mind, Change Your Life

I recently read a book that my undergraduate mentor Renee Engeln wrote (https://www.amazon.com/Beauty-Sick-Cultural-Obsession-Appearance/dp/0062469770). I expected it to be good, because Renee does cool research and she’s just overall an amazing person. But I didn’t expect it to teach me so much about how I think about my body or for it to inspire me to make more positive changes in my life.

One entire chapter focused on shame and how our culture teaches us to use shame as a motivational strategy. We think it works, but it doesn’t. It just makes us feel worse about ourselves and typically has the opposite effect (e.g. shaming ourselves into losing weight makes us gain it). This chapter blew me away. I found myself crying as I read it because I related to it so strongly. I didn’t realize how much my strategies in improving myself- especially my body- involved shame. I shame myself into dieting, exercising more, and even into doing the hobbies I wish I were better at. I’ve been forcing myself to track my weight every day, to count calories, and to work on a noveling project that I’m not really interested in. What’s changed? Well, I’ve been eating worse, exercising less, and having less fun doing things I used to love. I feel worse about myself, and I haven’t changed any of my habits.

I have heard advice from so many different sources about how the best way to change yourself is to love yourself and accept yourself unconditionally. But I’ve always wondered- how do you do that? If you want to change, doesn’t that mean there’s something about yourself you don’t accept?

The book also spent a good deal of time on how it is that we improve our self-image and feelings about our body. Focusing on what your body can do, rather than how it looks, can help your self-image a lot. This was another shocking finding to me. Forcing yourself to exercise so you can look better makes you feel worse. I’ve been wondering why I hate exercising so much and I think this is the reason. Exercising makes me feel bad because it reminds me that my motivation is to change my appearance. It suggests that who I am isn’t enough. Somehow, I never thought of changing this strategy. Thinking about what skills I might want to gain or what I might be able to do if I work out. Changing my mindset made me excited about exercising in a way I never was before. I thought about how much I love swimming and how I really wanted to see what martial arts classes were taught near my home. Just changing my mindset from forcing myself to exercise to wanting to learn something new completely reversed my feelings about it.

So. Another resolution. I am resolving to no longer force myself to diet and exercise to lose weight. I am resolving to no longer weigh myself every day. Instead, I’m going to listen to what my body needs- to eat when I’m hungry and eat what I want to eat (even when that means eating desert!) I’m going to explore my town and see what it has to offer- to meet new people and try new activities. For fun. Because I want to. Not because I need to look good or fit into my college clothes.

I encourage you to try and change your mindsets too! It will be hard and I don’t think I will always succeed, but I think it will make me a happier and healthier person overall.