Thursday, October 28, 2010

Busy, Thinking and Judgmental

I like to keep busy, to the point of even being unable to slow down and truly relax a lot of the time.  Sure, I'd like to curl up with a good book, cocoa and a blanket and spend the morning into the afternoon reading.  But rather than do this, I get an anxious feeling in my chest to think of doing so.

There's so much to do!  I have a list that is quite full of daunting tasks, and until I get all of them done, I don't feel like I should just sit around and relax.  I feel guilty for taking time to do nothing when there is so much to be done.  Nobody else will do all these things but me, so how can I relax?

As I think into this situation that I so frequently find myself in the middle of, I wonder why I believe that I have to do so much all the time?  I would not expect my friends to keep up my own frantic pace.  I find that I do want my friends to think of me as somebody who gets things done, though.  So in order for me to think that my friends will see me that way, I pile more and more things on my plate to accomplish and do and plan.

What does this do for me?  Yes, I do get a lot done.  Much of it is not really that important though.  I am not saving lives.  I am mostly moving objects from one area of life into another, then back; reorganizing, shuffling and occasionally doing an effective endeavor in amongst all the ineffective ones.

I do think a lot.  I do feel guilty a lot, and nobody really knows it but me.  Even at the end of a day when I have managed to update three websites, write and distribute a news article, do three loads of laundry, fold them and put them away, clean out a closet, scrub down the bathroom, draw three work drawings, read a chapter of a book, cook lunch and dinner, make it to an appointment and even play an hour of Civilization - I still feel like I haven't really applied myself and I could have done better.  What was I doing playing a game on the computer when I still have to scrape paint off of the front window and wash them all?  My office is still a mess, how can I think of relaxing until that is cleaned up?  And anyway, I have s many painting and drawing ideas I wanted to work on, but I won't until my room is cleaned up.  Argh!

It is pretty crazy making.  My mind likes to come up with all sorts of things that have to be done in order before any of the important projects can begin.  I also flop around a lot about which is the more important project.  Is getting the house ready to move out of more important than getting a drawing done for my own personal work?  Will setting up a painting in my studio be a detriment to showing the place?  Does it even matter, in all reality, when we haven't even put the place on the market yet?  All of this worry and guilt over choices when it truly does not matter either way right now.

So I suppose I spend a lot of my thinking in the future and not in the present.  The problem with this is that there are so many possible futures that I often get lost and confused about where I am going, and so I can't do much right now to make anything happen later.  If I start the painting but then have to show the house, where will I put the painting?  If I don't clean this room up, I can't think of showing the house since it is a disaster and nobody would want to buy it looking this way.  Taking the time to feel quite upset and frustrated about both situations, I can see that in either case, cleaning my office would be a good idea, since I can neither paint nor show the house with the room in its current state.

Yesterday I noticed that I procrastinate a lot.  In fact, writing this very article is a form of procrastination for me.  I could be drawing, or cleaning, or reading - all of which would be productive for me - but I choose to do this because I feel too anxious about allowing myself to read.  I am not sure what to do if I actually got all of my work drawings done.  (There would not be any more looming projects for me to do and then I might be useless!)  If I read, that seems to me to be way too personally rewarding and not something that could potentially benefit others.  Drawings could benefit others.  Maybe writing this will benefit someone.

And so now I see that I want always to be benefiting somebody outside of myself, and I am unwilling to benefit myself alone if I see it as such.  A little voice in my head says, "It's not nice to be selfish."  Though, in trying not to be selfish I do plenty of selfish things, masking it in helping others so that I won't feel too bad about doing what I want to do anyway.  Can I accept that?  Eventually I will have to.

I also seem to only count a productive action if I am in the midst of it.  Even if a project takes me ten hours, if I finish it, then I am no longer being productive and all of that hard work suddenly doesn't register as having happened at all in my head.  But this means that even the good work I have done, the projects that have made others happy or helped them, are being considered meaningless in my head now that they have passed.  I don't like that very much.  I wouldn't want another person to degrade in their thinking an action they did that helped me very much.  Perhaps I need to show that same degree of tenderness to myself.

I am chuckling a little bit as I type this because I see how this is somehow so difficult for me.  Being kind to myself is really hard for me!  I have so for been a lot more comfortable telling myself I am not good enough and need to work harder than telling myself kudos on jobs well done.  Even when I consider telling myself that I have accomplished a lot in my thirty-two years, I have a voice that tells me, "Don't get too full of yourself.  If you really feel happy about it you run the risk of being content with never pushing yourself to work harder ever again."  As if by enjoying accomplishments I will somehow stop ever moving forward in my life again.  It's silly.  Still though, it is what I do.  I will think that I did a good job and I am proud of myself, but I won't surrender into a feeling of joy about it because there is a wall of reserve and judgment staring down the part of me that is proud or satisfied.

I will try to befriend this judge within my heart and mind.  Since it is going to be a part of me and has been for such a long time, trying to hide from it, or kill it is not a good solution.  In accepting this voice, it may be possible to actually feel better, or at least feel better more often.  I'll see what happens.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Paramita of Patience

Much of the meditation practice we did last night and the discussion afterward was about cultivating patience.  I don't find myself to be particularly patient in many regards.  I always want to rush ahead to the completion of a project, to get the most done possible, to be on to the next task. 

The discussion talked about how by following our impulses to get so much done, we are bucking the flow of nature.  If we chose what to do and then flowed with it in a more steady or relaxed way, things might go a lot better for us.  For example, when we rush we miss many small details that can lead to more interruptions, sparking more impatience, and ultimately we experience it as painful because our expectations about the event are not met or are disrupted.

I find it hard to live outside of expectations.  I prefer to imagine amazing possibilities and treat them as though they are real.  I like to think that the outcomes I have decided I want are good and perfect, and that I am going to get them.  Something that I am learning from having done this for years is that it may be true that anything I imagine can come to be, but often what I want is not necessarily what is best overall.  I still end up rather tired, discouraged, hurt or sad even after getting what I thought I wanted.

The secret to all this must lie in becoming more present and less caught up in outcomes, less attached to a future that hasn't yet unfolded.  What I wonder then, though, is how can you plan ahead if you aren't attached to what happens at all?  I think I must be missing something about the teaching.

Why would you continue to plan ahead and put forth effort into the future if you truly didn't care which way the future went?  Put another way, if you are completely content right now all the time, why would you bother to do anything at all?  I must be stuck believing that the result of non-attachment is some kind of fatalism in which the person ceases to care about actions at all.  I am pretty sure that this is not the case, and that instead the person cares a lot about actions and does them somehow without thinking that it guarantees a certain outcome.  I sometimes understand this with my own actions and sometimes do not.  It is so easy to become angry and frustrated when the result I wanted doesn't happen or is even completely opposite to what I was hoping for.  I can see why Buddhists say that desire is the cause of all suffering.

Currently I am caught up in the idea that moving to a certain location is what I really want and will be the best thing possible for me and Derek.  I then have a simultaneous fear that if we do move there, it will actually be a burden or not as good as I thought, and cause us turmoil.  There is desire for something sweet and convenient and big and bright and shiny.  There is fear that it isn't actually as sweet as I think it is and that maybe there is something rotten underneath the shiny veneer.  My mind wants to understand if it is the specific place itself that might be excellent or horrible, or if it is intrinsic in all things.  There is a fear of choosing wrong somehow, of perhaps picking a home arbitrarily that I am attached to as being "good", and it turning out to be a loud and scary place, too expensive or full of broken parts that need repairing. 

Ah!  The attachment is to having only good come out of moving and only good to come out of picking a specific home in general.  But, how is that possible?  It is unreasonable to expect that one's home will always be a source of comfort and joy.  Just as often it is a source of discontent as projects crop up that need to be done, events happen to the home or nearby that cause stress, and people and money and the elements at large flow in and out of the place.  Being attached to only the "good" parts of a home - nice lighting, comfortable furniture, space to cook and clean and play, being in a nice central location - means that I will be really very disappointed when it is hard to move the furniture in, when I have to ask help to get everything painted and set up nicely, when I have to work harder to afford new curtains or replace the deck, or when my drive to places I want to go is inconvenient.  These are things that are annoying me now about my current home, and it is best if I understand that these things will happen no matter where I go.

In this specific case, the decision to move at all or to pick a particular house will have to do with some logical and practical considerations.  And, because I am human, also with that passionate joy that comes from picking out something that I actually like and want.  Second-guessing decisions that haven't even been made yet is a waste of my energy. (Such as worrying that I am attached to a house I haven't even walked inside of yet and what that means - when it is as simple as deciding on a different house if it turns out we don't like the one I currently have in mind!)

Patience for my work will also be good to cultivate.  I cannot force clients to come in or to spend more money at my studio, even if I want or think I need more money.  It would be a better use of my energy to relax and be present for each tattoo that I am able to work on, and to relax and be present for each drawing I work on until more and more of them start happening.  Pushing toward future work that isn't even happening yet is very wasteful and only makes me feel bad.  Doing what I can right now and doing it with my full attention will be far more effective and will yield better results that I can be happy with as they unfold.  Stressing about lack when I actually could attend to something real and right now is pretty ridiculous, anyway, even though I find myself doing that a lot of the time.

It turns out patience is a difficult virtue and that I don't seem to understand it very well.  I will practice it more and see how I feel about patience in a week or a month.  Perhaps I will have changed a lot in that time.  I'll try not to expect too much though!  I'll even have to patient with myself (which I'll bet is the point of all of these practices, after all.)  For today, I will be patient towards my tendency to procrastinate about drawings.  If I can get even one drawing done well this afternoon, I will consider my day a success.  Off I go.  :)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

First Meditation

This evening was my first meditation class.  I managed to sit for 22 minutes!  I found the staying still to be fairly easy, as I am used to staying still for long hours being tattooed.  My thoughts wander all over the place, though, and I wasn't really sure what was meant by returning my mind into this center of energy below and behind the belly button.  Was I supposed to focus on the sensation there?  Was I supposed to think of my mind as coming from that space and not up in my head where I am used to it residing?  I thought a lot about that and caught myself in those thoughts, and eventually noticed that my posture was very tight in my hips.  I relaxed and everything settled lower.  I felt calmer.  I kept thinking about whether or not to open my eyes, but found that when they were open I seemed to think more, and found closing my eyes was easier for me to have quieter thoughts.  Maybe one day I will be able to practice with my eyes open and still be very calm, I don't know.

For a first experience, I thought it was good.  I can see how regular practice would be difficult and sometimes not as good.  But I think I would like to try it.  I am hungry for a practice that will help my life gain some clarity and focus.  For now, a biweekly class and setting aside some time each day for my own try at meditation feels like a nice start.  Let's see where it takes me.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Projects and Priorities

I have been thinking about how I often have so many projects going at once that I never really get everything done with any single project.  It occurs to me that I may be majorly wasting my time, and definitely a lot of my energy, by making so much to do all the time.

Where is my priority?  Have I chosen one, or two, or three?  I seem to sway between each project on a whim, getting a nice start on many ideas, but then letting them slide as my attention goes elsewhere.  Is there a way to become more focused? What would that mean?

I think it would be a good idea to decide what my overall goal is for my life and then take a look at all of the projects I have going on and see if there is a common thread.  Then, find the priorities within all the projects: what would logically happen first or lead into another, or even negate another.  Simplifying would be great.

I would like my life to be more simple.  I would like to have the ability to spend more time at home with my husband and have meals together.  I'd like to be able to study Kosho Shorei Ryu.  I'd like to have enough peace and stillness in my life to drawn and paint my own ideas as they are inspired.

Right now I am treading water a lot.  I am behind with work.  I have let my correspondences get far behind.  I have become overwhelmed and stopped encouraging new clients and return clients, which is now resulting in stress of not enough work!  The studio needs to be cleaned and straightened, and my home studio absolutely needs this.  Drawings have been done but I have neglected to follow up with clients who took breaks on their work.  A few days of catching up on paused projects would do me a lot of good.

With the idea that it will be good to move closer to work for both my husband and I, we have several projects at home that have been looming.  Replacing the dishwasher, cleaning up in general, re-dry-walling the sun room and replacing it's ceiling, many outdoor tree trimming projects and deck repainting. . . this list is large and often seems to stop me in my tracks.  I forget to breathe and that this doesn't have to happen overnight.  Just one step each day will get us there.  Still, this is the hardest one for me to calm down about and allow to happen.

Having so much furniture to move around and get out of the way is claustrophobic.  Thinking of needing to pack it all and move it is intimidating as well.  I feel weak trying to lift or even help lift furniture, and I am hoping that I can find stronger people to help move it all when the time comes.  Already we have had a lot of help with the yard, so I am thankful.  I find myself wishing I could do it all myself and spare friends and brothers the hassle of this stuff.  Asking for help is hard for me and I feel bad needing it.  I feel bad getting it as well.  I feel like an annoying child that has gotten what I wanted at others' expense.  I would like to find a way to reduce that feeling.

I suppose a good way to look at it is to keep in mind how much more of myself I will have to offer when all of this is done.  With the stress of moving and the long commute reduced, I would be able to put forth a much happier self to all I encounter.  I won't constantly feel the need to sequester myself in cramped rooms and plot and plan ways to get it all done - it will already be done!  And once I have the space to breathe and create again, I know I will be much more outgoing and smiley.  I am at my best when I am painting and making my own art, enjoying being at home with Derek and generally less frantic.

I have let several projects begin and dropped them halfway.  Some of them were art related - working on my kid's book but not pursuing a publishing contact because I just didn't have the energy to follow it through and knew I wouldn't be able to finish the illustrations while expanding my studio and moving it last year.  I was beginning the Rosetta Stone French series but only did it for a week or so before putting it on hold.  I think I would like to do that one some more, but would like life to calm down a bit before resuming.  I already speak French decently enough to be understood, so I didn't feel a great urge to push that just now.  I've dropped a lot of my own paintings and photo shoot ideas for paintings feeling that I ought to be working harder on the studio.  Still, though, I seem to want to take on classes like the Illustration Master Class even though it is expensive for me and turns into a week I can't work or earn money.  Why do I do this?

I think that the answer lies in my desire to create my own artwork and become better at expressing myself artistically and in general.  I hate to miss opportunities to grow was an artist, and can also see how I can use the class into an opportunity to network with my friends and get even better shows to happen at my gallery.  But I think the primary desire is really to paint better and create more.  Taking the class twice highlighted for me both times how I don't do as much of my own work as I would like to and instead spend a lot of time working for others or on other projects.  This might be a candle I need to tend to.

The kids book is not anything that is calling to my soul anymore.  I used to love to write and wanted to get into children's books, but that spark has faded.  I am happy with what I wrote, but not interested in pursuing it. Perhaps that will change in time, but for now, this is at least one project I can put to rest and feel good about.

I will continue to put thought into how I can become more focused and disperse my energy less.  I imagine only good things can come of that.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Futility of Denial

In my attempt to sort myself out, I have tried a lot of options.  First up was denial.  A complete inability to really see the main issues led me to flit about throwing my energy everywhere in an attempt to fix something I wasn't even sure was wrong.

Was it my work?  My staff have been doing an outstanding job of getting things running smoother and better at my studio, and we have only hit the occasional bumps as people will inevitably do.  If it wasn't work, was it my marriage?  My husband is amazing and an incredibly patient and loving human being.  It couldn't be him.  Was it where I live?  I am blessed to live in a really nice house out in the country.  It's quite comfortable and nicer than anything I thought I'd live in a this point in my life, to be honest.  Probably not that.  Was it my debt?  I have taken on a lot of loans to open my own business and expand it, and going further back, I still have student loans.  I have been keeping up with them, but it has certainly been a source of stress. 

I concluded that it must be none of these things at first.  My business for all intents and purposes had been flourishing, especially in the context of this economy and the fact that it is only in its third year.  My marriage was a cozy friendship, a place of safety, and while starting to get a bit boring, overall was not causing harm or strife.  The debt was being handled.  To my mind, how could anything that was being handled and not causing obvious problems be a problem?

So, I felt uneasy and anxious.  I got used to the business being what it is, and felt that I must need to do MORE to make it even better.  If I couldn't get it to improve or expand or make more money or be more popular quickly, then I was probably failing at business ownership and leading.  That must be why I was upset with work - my lack of making it better was making me feel bad!  I would come up with lists of better ways to do business, more places to advertise and spend money, more internet projects, more drawing and painting ideas, more gallery shows, more workshop ideas, and scores of things I had to do to feel that I was "getting somewhere."  It was making me frazzled, but I didn't know it.  I thought I felt anxious because I wasn't getting everything done fast enough or good enough.  It didn't occur to me yet that it was possible that making up so many things to do could actually be causing the stress.

At home, I basically worked.  I felt like I needed to work harder and get more done to prove to my husband and my family and my friends that I was accomplishing something big in life.  That way, I could be worth their love and attention.  The sad part was that I didn't realize I was making myself so busy and crazy that I didn't ever really see them anymore.  And when I did, my mind was working so hard on everything I still needed to do or could plan or add on to my list of accomplishments that I was basically checked out at every conversation. 

I would come home, say hi to my husband, grab some food and head to my computer to work some more.  In the mornings, I would get up and work until I had to go to work.  It was the same every day for weeks, months, a couple of years.  It was slow at first, but I eventually latched onto the idea that this is what new business owners have to do.  We have to work all the time or our businesses won't be successful.  Everyone I talked to confirmed this - articles in papers and online, my friends letting me know that they understood that I had to work so much to get things going and keep them going, my husband telling me that he knew that we wouldn't get to spend a lot of time together because I had to work.  Eventually, though, this started to undo me.

Why did I have to work all the time?  What if I wanted a day to decompress?  I felt so incredibly guilty for taking time off that I would actually just obsess about what I wasn't doing and what a bad business owner and boss I was to take a day or few hours off.  I couldn't relax at all in the morning because I was supposed to do emails or client drawings.  Or update the website, or link new ones to my own.  Or start my own drawings and paintings to go in my gallery.  Or promote some new show or idea, or meet new artists, or, or, or. . . 

This started to really suck.  I would hear myself talking about work all the time, and hated it.  I would see myself coming home and ignoring my husband or getting upset about watching a TV show with him because in my head, I was supposed to be "accomplishing something" with my time.  I would want time off, and would take it, but either work anyway or get into a tizzy being upset about how I wasn't working.  This resulted in more angst and guilt, and a need for more time off, because I really did need to rest.  But I would take it again and not actually recuperate, which would lead to me feeling like a horrible person and going back to work even more burnt out than I was before I took the day off.

Worrying about debt and how to pay it off and how much I still owe back for my business investments was really feeding my pattern.  I would feel like even if I didn't actually make a lot of money, at least nobody could blame me for that if I was constantly busy and trying to make money.

My commute was starting to get me down as well.  Not only was I working all the time, I was driving about an hour and fifteen minutes per day just to get to work and back.  It was (and is) expensive.  It exacerbates my husband's and my situation of lack of time together since we work different shifts already. 

I look back on this pattern (which I am still in the process of separating myself from), and feel sympathy for everyone in my life who has been gracious enough to deal with my frazzled muppet self.  I can see now that persisting in believing that I have to be Super Woman, and do it all is actually resulting in my doing less.  Everyone else has to be a clean up crew and finish what I start so that it doesn't fall apart.  I may be instrumental in others falling apart and becoming overwhelmed, thinking that they have to pick up all my loose ends.  It's humbling to know that the people I share my life with have been doing that for me out of love and kindness, and that they did it even before I asked for their help.

As I started to realize that I actually was in the middle of a pretty big mess and stopped ignoring it, I found other ways to be in denial.   I would pick one aspect of my life (for me it usually bounces between work and home), and blame all of life's difficulties on that one subject.  Life getting me down?  Must be my work life.  Of course it is because there was a minor difference of opinion between two of us, and now the whole thing is off kilter.  You know what?  I'll bet that's what's making my home life annoying, too.  Maybe I just need to come up with a whole new work strategy and that will fix it all.

Or, I would decide it was my relationship that was causing all of the trouble.  It must be because we aren't hanging out as much anymore that I am so upset.  It's all his fault.  If he could be as productive as I am, of course we'd get along better and then work would get better too. 

This was obviously flawed logic and totally ridiculous.  But it felt easier to me to blame one person or one aspect of work for all of my problems than it was to see that I actually have a LOT of problems all over the place.  It was easier to blame outside circumstances than to blame myself for creating these situations.  And ultimately, it made me feel like I wasn't responsible for any of it, which was supposed to feel OK but still had me in a panic.  What the hell could I do to fix anything if all of it wasn't my fault?  It took me a couple of years to realize that I was in the cycle of moving blame around just long enough to find some small relief before needing to move it again in order to keep up the denial.

So here I am, suddenly faced with all of my "problems."  I've been running from them so long that I'm not even sure what all of them are anymore.  They are not at all what I thought they were.  Some are pretty big, lots are small.  The sources of trouble all lie within myself, which is probably why I fought so hard to deny them in the first place.  I guess we all do that.  The good news is that once we are able to see with a little bit of clarity even one thing, the rest automatically feels a lot easier to face.

I hope that I will get better at recognizing denial in myself and learning to work with it instead of moving it from one subject to another.  It's easy to see others avoiding their life situations, but somehow very difficult to see it in ourselves.  I suspect that the antidote is learning to be present instead of wandering off in thought or making up a story about why everything is the way it is.  My stories all pointed away from myself, and so I couldn't see the main culprit.  What will happen if I learn to write my life story from a center of myself?  Not just as the subject who goes about life with lots of things happening to me, but as a person who makes things happen?  I used to think this was self-centered and therefore bad.  But self-centered is an accurate label for it, and it's only my judgment that this is a bad thing to do that makes me avoid it.  Besides, we make things happen all the time, and are usually quite proud of it.  It's only the things we aren't proud of that we try to pin on something or someone else.

Perhaps the antidote to denial is to be a little more self-centered in this observant way.  To realize that if my story stops saying, "I did this" when I start to feel bad and starts to look for an outside reason that things feel bad, I am still responsible for what I say and do and plot and plan.  It probably isn't some giant monster out there that I need to battle.  It's the monsters within myself that I need to battle.  I will do my best to stay with that attitude until it becomes a habit.

The Beginning

It seems to me that the only times we (those of us in America, anyway) slow down are when we finally get so overwhelmed that we collapse.  We like to rush around and accomplish lots of things, and we take ourselves very seriously and think that everything we are involved in is very important.

I am starting to see how this is both true and untrue.  I have been rushing around for years, also believing that everything I work on and do is very important.  Sometimes I even think it is all so important that I forget that there are people around me who care about me or want to spend time with me.  I am so busy that I push these wonderful friends and family away, thinking that I am better serving them by doing all this stuff than by simply spending some time with them.

One day I woke up in a deep panic, realizing that I was exhausted, and pretty unhappy.  Work was overwhelming.  My relationship was overwhelming.  Dealing with finances and future planning was freaking me out.  I was wondering if I wanted to start a family with my husband or just run away from my relationship altogether and start from scratch.  Processing my past and responsibilities was leaving me shaking and on the verge of tears. Maybe running away from everything that was going on would afford some relief.

I am not proud of all of my responses to my fear and sadness, but in facing them, I am finding some more solid sense of who I am, now, with all of my faults and all of my gifts.  I am relieved to find out that I am just a human being - no more and no less.  Much of what I thought I had to do in life (and I suspect a whole lot of what I still think I have to do) is really just made up.  It's shadows and mirrors I set up myself; expectations that I made of myself and therefore situations that I have the power to change.

I am on a journey towards waking up again.  I want to be a whole human being and awake for my life, ceasing my hamster wheel frenzy and slowing down enough to enjoy every day.  This blog holds my thoughts and revelations as I open myself up and learn what it is to be human and present.  If you find yourself here reading, hopefully you will find plenty to relate to that will help you on your own journey.  In the end, I think we must all experience the same feelings and marvels, the same ups and downs only vaguely disguised in circumstance.  It's great news to me to see that I am not actually as alone as I feared I was.  I hope that you also see how you are not alone, and that we all are a lot more powerful and capable than we think we are.