Friday, April 29, 2016

Be Still : A Beginner's Guide to Beginning Meditation

Years and years ago, I read a book that discussed meditation.  All I remember is that you were supposed to close your eyes, sit still and chant the same word over and over again.  I don't really know why - you were just supposed to do it.  This weak introduction coupled with religious suspicion  that emptying your mind of thought would let the devil in didn't serve my foray into meditation well.  I tried it a couple times out of curiosity and decided there just wasn't anything there except for being still, for which I had little appreciation.

Maybe you've noticed it, too, but meditation seems to be making a comeback.  The mysticism has been turned way down, and the most compelling sources indicate that a meditation practice is connected with greater productivity, clearer thinking, and ability to be fully present and in the moment all day long.  Increased ability to be present is what got my attention, as I constantly find myself days and days down the road without ever having looked up to appreciate what a blessed life I live.  I'm focusing on attentiveness in 2016, and working on it five minutes at a time seemed like a good idea, so into meditation I've gone.

It's difficult to explain exactly how or why, but after about six months of attempting to practice meditation, I believe the positive reviews are true:  even just a few minutes of meditation a day can deepen your experience of every day life, and give you a little extra calm.

Here's my Beginner Teaches Beginning Meditation Guide:
  • Sit somewhere quiet, with your spine straight and uncrossed legs and arms
  • Check your surroundings, so you can be confident there are no pests close by that might bother you while your eyes are closed.  For me, this means assuring myself there are no snakes lurking in the grass :)
  • Set a timer - not more than 5 minutes.  Press start, and make sure you see the numbers begin to count down.  Otherwise, you'll have to stop meditating to make sure you really pressed start and that the minutes really are counting down.
  • Close your eyes and just sit for a moment
  • Check out how it is to be right here.  Can you feel the breeze blowing?  Do you feel sunshine on your face?  Are the birds singing?  Are your thoughts flinging around the inside of your brain like a game of ping pong?
  • Consider your thinking self and your body to be two parts of the same whole, and locate where your thinking self is inside your body (I promise this will make more sense in a minute).  For me, my thinking self is usually tightly compressed into a ball, just above my right eye.  Or maybe it's left eye.
  • Now, start to stretch your thinking self down into your body.  I imagine it's kind of like how Peter Pan presses his shadow onto himself when he finally manages to catch it so Wendy can sew it back on.  Or like turning the honey jar upside down and letting the honey slowly drip down the inside of the jar, or like pulling a window shade down over a window.  Your thinking self is stretching down into your body so you're inhabiting and feeling your entire body.
  • Consider your body as you work your way from your head to your feet.  Think about how it feels, and notice if you're tense anywhere.  Think about how grateful you are for every heartbeat, every lung full of air, every task your hands perform, all the stairs your legs climb, and all the steps your feet take.
  • When you've made it to your feet (it doesn't matter how long this takes you - it doesn't necessarily have to be a long time), take a few seconds to feel present throughout your entire body.  How many times a day do you feel wholly present?  If you're like me, probably not many.
  • Now it's time to focus on your breath.  Breathe in deeply through your nose, and let the breath go as far down into your lungs as possible.  Feel your chest expand with the breath.  Pause for a moment at the top of the breath, and slowly exhale through your mouth.
  • Continue to focus on your breath until the timer goes off.  Please note:  this will feel like approximately 27 years.

While you're trying to focus on your breathing, your mind will wander.  That's perfectly fine.  Just sync yourself back with your breath, no judgment.  This is the thing:  you're teaching yourself to focus, and your focus muscle may not be particularly buff in the beginning.  Just keep working it out, and you'll find that the more reps you do, the stronger your focus muscle becomes.  This is where the benefits of meditation seep into real life.  You'll find that - kind of magically, because it doesn't seem to be related, but somehow it is - your ability to hold focus and your ability to bring yourself back to focus more quickly grows, whether that focus is on balancing the budget, pushing through a complex issue, maintaining concentration in a room full of wild and crazy toddlers, or remembering why you walked into this room.

Another benefit of meditation is that it helps you internalize the moments when absolutely nothing is wrong, which is most of your life, by the way.  We all know that we don't have the past and we don't have the future - we only have the present.  If you take the moments of meditation and isolate them from all things past and all worries future, I can say with just about 100% accuracy that in this moment:
  1. no one is harming you
  2. you are not upset with anyone
  3. everything in the right here and right now is absolutely, completely, wholly, totally just fine
The ability to be in the present, like the ability to focus, rather magically stretches into other moments of your life beyond your quiet meditation.  You'll find you can face situations with a deep down chill that might once have turned you upside down.  Why?  Because your understanding that everything is fine has expanded outside of your meditation sessions and into everyday life.

I  won't be running away to climb a far off mountain and sit in constant meditation anytime  soon ... life here is too good and there's too much to do.  But I can't explain the unaccustomed sense of calm that's undergirded me as I've contemplated a very crowded calendar the last few months and negotiated the unavoidable curveballs of life, except for this new practice of being still for a few minutes a day and focusing down to the very simplest of things: breath and being.  When you get those basics lined out, paying attention to the rest of life gets just a little bit easier.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Make Your To-Do List More Productive: Assign time values to tasks

Hurrah for Friday!  We've been rehearsing all week for the performances of Alice in Wonderland (the musical), presented by our homeschool co-op.  Wonderland, here we come!

Today I'd like to share something with you that's rendered rousingly positive results for me lately.  Particularly this past week, when we had to leave the house for drama rehearsal each day late afternoon, utilizing this plan has helped me get a little more done than I might normally have.

I'm a big believer in to-do lists, but this little two-step trick has helped me get more items crossed off my daily list than anything else I do.  Like all the greatest tips and tricks, it's pretty simple but the results can have you ticking items off your list instead of putting off until tomorrow what you could've done today.

Estimate how long each task will take 

Each day when I make the list of things that need to be done, I write down beside each item how long I think the task will take to complete.   As a general statement, I estimate in blocks of 15 minutes, and  I always round up rather than down.  So, my daily to-do list might look something like this:

Schedule out your work day

Next I write out the tasks chronologically.  This helps me be real about how much is really possible to get done in the time available, and it keeps me from beating myself up when some items wander onto tomorrow's list.  Having things written out on a time schedule lets me see how I'm doing at a glance based on what time it is, because honestly, the schedule rarely runs the way I expect it to and I'm frequently regrouping.  On extra busy days, when I'm working with a deadline, or when we have to cut our day short to go into town, it's easier to see how I can adjust.

Here's why this process is super helpful:

- it prevents expanding tasks to include related work.  I know other items on the list won't get done if I take on more than the stated task.  This keeps me from falling into traps like "let's see, while I'm pulling the healthcare paperwork, I'll just organize the whole file system".  It also puts on just a little time pressure that requires a steady pace.  That helps me avoid things like "oh, I have a few minutes to watch this one video."  We all know there's no such thing as one video.

-  with one look at the to-do list, it's easy to see which items can be completed in any available time slot.  For example, if I know we need to leave the house in 30 minutes, in the past I might have blown off trying to use this chunk of time.  Now I can choose a task that I've estimated will take half an hour, or maybe a couple of 15 minute tasks, and those things are knocked off the list.

-  perfectionist tendencies are soothed.  My inner perfectionist  hates leaving things undone.  When I'm confident I have the estimated time available to complete a task, I'm more likely to begin it.  Estimating realistically but a little on the generous side gives me a pleasant sense of accomplishment and helps me feel like I have more control over time.  Perfect!

- when the day is way-laid by the unexpected, it's easy to salvage what time is left.  Maybe the morning is taken up by pulling together paperwork from hither and yon, but you know you'll have two free hours in the afternoon.  Now's the time to review the task list, pick items that will total two hours of work and get busy,  All is not lost!

And of course, there's the best part ... crossing things off!!  What's your system for making a great to-do list?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Family Surfing Night #16

Live from the living room, it's Family Surfing Night!

Abbie's name has been on the paper fridge trophy an extra week, it's time for someone to challenge her for the winning title.  If you're new here and wonder what in the world is Family Surfing Night, click here ... otherwise, read on and enjoy!

We start with Nathan's entry, submitted via email message, since he was otherwise occupied.  It supposedly had to do with jigsaw puzzles, but I'm not buying it.  Anyway, this entry is longer than our recommended 3 or so minutes, but if you have 7 minutes to spare, you'll be so glad to experience the grand finish of this impromptu duet by two strangers at a Paris train station: 

Next is my entry, wherein two brothers convince their younger sister that while she had her wisdom teeth extracted, the Zombie Apocalypse did indeed happen, and it's time to head to Mexico:

From Abbie, a sweet and lovely video called "Out of Sight" about a blind little girl and her dog:

And from Aaron, a hilarious misheard lyrics enactment featuring the song "Radioactive":


Such good stuff!!  The winner is:

We couldn't break the tie. 
Although, if not for that silly "you can't vote for your own video" rule,
mine would have totally won :o)

Friday, April 8, 2016

Spring Clean Slate

It's 7:00 in the evening, and I'm sitting on our back porch.  The weather in Texas is famously fickle, bi-polar and unpredictable, but one thing you can be sure of:  when spring comes to Texas, and Texas wants to play ... it's blissful.  The crickets are chirping, the birds are singing, the tiniest bit of breeze is blowing and suddenly my passion for autumn seems silly.  Spring!  Spring is the best!  Nevermind the cleaning ... Spring!  Spring is the best!

I made the switch from winter to spring decor on schedule, even though holding out through sunny days of 70 degrees in late February felt ridiculous.  My spring decor comes out for March, April and May regardless of the temperatures - it's my way of creating four seasons, even if Texas doesn't cooperate.  The switch from winter to spring always makes everything feel a little sparse, and nothing so sparse as our long and unbedecked hallway that's the view front and center from the front door.  It's decidedly uninspiring.

Since we moved in, this long hallway has been an undecorated chute.  It's a design challenge, because I didn't want to put something on the walls that could be bumped and knocked down and yet having nothing at all isn't very pretty.

I've longingly dreamed of painting an entire wall with chalkboard paint, and even considered making a chalkboard myself out of something creative and obscure, but our textured walls threw me for a loop and really and truly I'm not a big DIYer.  Our kitchen island is a good case in point.  I shopped for and ordered it from Amazon, and in my world, that totally counts as a DIY project :o)

When I found a big chalkboard at Hobby Lobby for 50% off, I was elated!  I didn't really have an idea about where it would go, but at home it was clearly the answer to my long and lonely hallway problem.  I realized I'd always wanted something interesting and interactive there, and viola!  Now we have it, even if it did take several years :o)

My kids asked me what this chalkboard was for, and the best way to answer the question is that it's for graffiti.  I want everyone to feel free to doodle on and mark it up.  It's a place for creativity and humor, rather than perfection and seriousness.  Years ago I would tape butcher paper to the kitchen counter, and put out colored markers and crayons for the kids to color on it.  When the paper was filled up with art and words and color, we'd start all over again.  It was such a fun creativity booster and casual family project.  It was always fun to walk by and see what had been added.  The chalkboard reminds me a little bit of that, except now the kids are older and we're working with chalk.

We have two chalkboard rules:
- nothing is sacred
- the slate is wiped clean on Sunday
There's place to note things we're thankful for, but other than "the rules", everything is wiped clean on Sunday, and no one is allowed to take offense if someone else comes along and draws a hat on their dinosaur.  Or, you know, crosses out their word "sacred" and writes "soup".

I'm excited to finally have something fun in the hallway.  A clean slate every Sunday ... that may just do for spring cleaning this year.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Just Keep Going

Happy Friday!  I hope you've had a productive week!  I hope joy found you!

At the beginning of this week I wanted to feel expansive.  Don't laugh, I know it sounds grandiose.  That's what planning and sticking to the plan does for me in the face of a to-do list and schedule that are completely whacked out for the next two months.  And my kids don't even play baseball :o)

I was expecting to use our results from this week's Family Surfing Night for a blog post this week, because you know - Family Surfing Night was on the schedule and all.  We did have the companion Family (Sitdown) Dinner, however FSN was bumped by a high level discussion about the cell phone bill.  Let's just say a family plan with six lines plus travel to Mexico can be a tricky proposition.  Our cell phone carrier already credited us $347.00 - yes!  three HUNDRED forty seven dollars!! - and we STILL need to speak a supervisor.  Maybe the supervisor's supervisor.  ¡Aycaramba!

Postponing Family Surfing Night had me casting about for a post topic, and I came upon the following that I wrote sometime in the dim past.  I can't remember why I wrote it, but write I did, and then promptly forgot about it.  That's how all the forgetting is these days ... prompt.  

When I hear authors and writers speak about writing, so often they say to write what you yourself need to hear.  Dear Me, do I ever need to hear this one.  A wonderful family vacation where eating was so much fun, plus a few emotional weeks, plus an exercise schedule out of sync equals : hello ten pounds I thought I'd lost, but now I've found.  Sigh.  

If you're in need of a little motivational reality talk, this one's for you.  And for me.  Mostly me.  

I'm not sure anything is worse than seeing no progress in the face of  trying. so. hard.

You fix the goal in your mind and in your heart and begin the march toward it.  It's personal, so there's no one to walk beside you to ease the tedium of the journey.  It's just you and the trail.  There are days when you can feel the press of the heart change just there, so close.  And then there are days when it seems you're just walking in place, and nothing you do sets you forward.

Chuck Swindoll compares striving toward a goal to climbing a mountain. You begin, and although the peak is admittedly high, you expect you'll be there within the hour - maybe an hour and a half.  And you keep looking up to the top to check your progress, but it doesn't get any closer.  Each step is a groundhog day, and with every glance to the top you become convinced you're frozen in place.  The peak rises there above you, the gap between it and "you are here" maddeningly vast.

In the face of no apparent progress, of course you cast about for an easier route.  You search for a shortcut, but the truth is there's only one path to the top.  It's those moments when your effort seems to render no progress at all that it's so critical to just keep going.  Just keep going, even though it seems to make no difference.

Because the thing is, there isn't a short cut.  There isn't a tomorrow that's easier, or a method that's easier.  Our human nature wants to choose the path of least resistance, the easiest way, the shortest cut.  But that path brings you nowhere near your best self, and it does nothing to develop and challenge your skill and your talents.  The path of least resistance takes you straight to mediocre, just enough to get by, and the smallest possible life.

And REALLY, if you stop trying right now, you'll see that what you're doing DOES matter.  If you stop trying right now, you'll be slipping back down the mountain, faster and faster, further from your goal before you realize it's happened.  And when you finally finish that out of control slide and look up to see where you are, you'll see that whatever it is you're doing right now that you think doesn't make any difference, actually represents half a mountain's worth of progress, and holding onto that progress is far better than losing ground and having to start at the bottom again.

So don't stop.  Keep going.  You can do this.
Where you are is lots better than where you were.

And now, because it fits so nicely and oddly enough I will never see this video too many times, 
here's a bit from Shia Lebeauf that says it all.  
It gets me every single time ... simultaneously, I laugh and want to do something great.  
So come on ... let's DO IT!