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  1. Presence: Awareness Times Infinity

    March 17, 2019 by Diane

    Over one-third of the way through the LIFE XT program, I failed.

    I had started the program with high hopes after reviewing the book it’s based on, and agreeing to dive in and record my progress on the suggestion of one of the readers of this blog. I started with meditation in week one, added exercise in week two, questioned stressful thoughts in week three, and embarked on week four with these instructions:

    Add Presence: Use showering as the cue to Notice-Shift-Rewire to Presence.

    To build a new habit, the authors suggest anchoring it to a cue. In a perfect world, you Notice the cue, Shift your awareness to the new habit, and Rewire your brain by allowing the experience to sink in. Do this 21 times, or whatever magic number it takes, and you’ve developed a new habit.

    The only problem: I couldn’t remember the cue.

    Every night as I showered, I sang with gusto. Or worked through plot flaws. Or edited blog posts in my head. The only thing I noticed was that it was bloody cold with the overhead fan on, and the water was too hot.

    I was not present.

    I was failing week four.

    Friday rolled around, and I took my lunch outside to a picnic table on a rare sunny afternoon. My mind journeyed back to a time before funeral parlors, when the body of a loved-one was embalmed in the kitchen, which is why kitchens in the early 1900s had a big drain in the floor. Not an appetizing thought, but I was sitting across from the history house at the museum which triggered the image, and my thinking would have continued in that vein if I hadn’t dropped a chunk of barbecued tempeh on the table, right in the path of an ant.

    The tempeh, from an ant’s perspective, was the dimension of a two-story building. The ant seemed confused at first, then interested, then excited in the way ants get when they’ve found the Mother Lode of sustenance, and after navigating around the base of the object, the little guy climbed up and over and down and around and hurried off to summon the troops.

    I picked up the tempeh to toss in the garbage, thinking how disappointed the troops would be when they arrived to find nothing but the lingering scent of barbecue and fermented tofu. Would they send stressful ant-thoughts to the scout, labeling him stupid-stupid? No. Ants don’t have the capacity to judge. Their brains are ant-sized. They would inspect the area throughly and then march onward, looking for food elsewhere.

    Watching that ant brought me back to the present moment. It’s probably why children spend hours hunkered down over an anthill. You can’t get more present than watching ants. Or being a three-year-old. I finished the rest of my lunch, feeling the warmth of the sun, appreciating the birdsong, admiring the dusty blue cowboy sky. Time expanded. My body relaxed.

    This is what it meant to take my meditation off the mat.

    I wondered: if being present felt so expansive, why did I spend so much time opting out instead of in?

    Three reasons came to mind.

    One: I was preparing for the future with what-ifs. As long as I explored every possibility, like the ant examining the cube of tempeh, I’d survive whatever came next. It was a form of magical thinking, believing I could prevent bad things from happening just by dwelling on them. That was the kind of trouble my human-sized brain got me into.

    Two: I was attempting to reclaim my past self with coulda-beens. I visualized where I’d be now if I’d acted differently then, even though what I knew then was a fraction of what I know now so my choices, good or bad, were based on limited experience and could not have been otherwise.

    Three: I was avoiding whatever might be lacking in my own life by focusing on things outside myself. Like whether The Bachelor would lose his virginity. And did anybody really care? Wasn’t Bachelor Nation tuning in to see if he’d crash and burn, along with the snippy women who fawned over him, so our own lives would look pretty close to perfect?

    I pondered that possibility—and the awful realization that I had referred to myself and Bachelor Nation in the same sentence—while showering. And then I remembered: oh yeah, this is my cue to Notice, Shift and Rewire to Presence.

    Which I did.


  2. Inquiry: Don’t Believe Everything You Think

    March 10, 2019 by Diane

    Three weeks into the LIFE XT program. If you want to follow along from the beginning, start here.

    The first week, I meditated daily as instructed. Ditto for the second week. The third? Not so much. I skipped several days, choosing instead to nestle under the covers on those cold winter mornings.

    As instructed, I added exercise in the second week. Three sessions of aerobic, one session non-aerobic.

    The instructions for week three are:

    Question one stressful thought each day immediately before or after meditation.

    This is called “Inquiry.” The idea is to evaluate whether there’s any truth to the stressful thought, become aware of how crummy that thought makes your feel, and consider replacing it with a healthier thought.

    Since I had already mastered dysfunctional thinking, this week would be a breeze.

    Or so I thought.

    On my afternoon aerobic walk, I became aware of a voice in my head calling me stupid. And not just stupid. It called me stupid-stupid. Which is stupidity, doubled.

    What’s that all about?

    Ah, yes. The missing paragraph.

    In my last post, some editorial wackiness deleted a paragraph about The Sweet Shop (which is now intact, so feel free to zip over and read it). Therefore, my reference to The Sweet Shop made zero sense. At least, that’s what I believed. Further, I believed that anyone reading the post with the missing paragraph would think: What’s the deal with The Sweet Shop? It makes no sense. And probably go to sleep dwelling on the stupidity of that blog post and my writing abilities in general.

    Stressful thought.

    I ran it through the Inquiry process:

    Is the thought true?

    Uh…no.

    What happens when you believe that thought?

    I lose five inches of height.

    What would you be without the thought?

    Taller.

    What healthier thought could you think instead?

    Nobody noticed.

    Nobody noticed!

    Which, upon further reflection, could qualify as a stressful thought, if nobody noticed because nobody follows my blog. But I chose not to go there, tempting as it may have been.

    As the week progressed, I became aware of other stressful thoughts.

    I’m overwhelmed!

    I don’t have enough time!

    I can’t get everything done I want to get done, and I don’t even know what I want to get done!

    And so on, circling around to some variation of:

    I’m a failure.

    Which, I know, isn’t true. But isn’t it interesting, the tricks the mind plays on us?

    And why is that? Can’t the mind think of better ways to keep us on our toes? Like, with riddles? I’d much rather inquire about why the chicken crossed the road than whether there’s any validity to the thought that I’m overwhelmed. Which, by the way, is true. I am overwhelmed.

    I ran it through the Inquiry process:

    What happens when you believe that thought?

    I feel more overwhelmed.

    What would you be without the thought?

    Less overwhelmed?

    What healthier thought could you think instead?

    I have the choice of how to spend my time.

    I could spend it like a tornado, accomplishing as many things on my to-do list as possible in one hour and then rewarding myself with a period of relaxation. Or I could spend it de-cluttering my physical and mental space so I had a better idea of what needed doing, and whether or not I wanted to do it in the first place. I could sit on the beach gazing at the ocean for hours and feel how time is endless (even though it’s far too cold to sit outside anywhere). Or I could set a deadline to complete ONE THING, then do that ONE THING to the best of my ability and consider it DONE.

    That was the key. Getting to DONE. Because my perfectionism wouldn’t allow me to let go.

    Another stressful thought.

    Those pesky thoughts kept popping up, like that game, Whac-A-Mole, where a mole pops up randomly from a hole and you whack it with a mallet.

    By the end of the week, I was using the Inquiry process to inquire about Inquiry, which made my head pulse. Yes, it’s useful to question my dysfunctional thoughts, view them through another lens and release them. But it’s also useful to remind myself that the reason I’m having stressful thoughts is because I’m stressed. It’s a symptom of being out of balance. The weather is cold, the wind is blowing, I have many tasks I’m paid to accomplish at work, I have many projects I wish to accomplish at home. These things unsettle my constitution. I need to resettle. Get to bed earlier. Wear a hat, scarf and gloves when walking in the cold. Eat warm, soothing foods. Be diligent in meditating. Massage my feet and palms with warm oil before sleep. Allow myself time to do nothing every day. These things bring my body and mind back into balance.

    And those stressful thoughts? As long as I’m aware of becoming unbalanced, and make corrections, those thoughts won’t need to pop up to alert me to the fact, like some random mole in a Japanese arcade game.


  3. Exercise: Movement on Meth

    March 3, 2019 by Diane

    Having survived week one of the LIFE XT program, I was eager to embark on week two. Given that I have the attention span of a gnat, and hadn’t yet thrown in the towel on the whole program, I considered myself successful. If you missed my account of week one, you’ll find it here. And you’ll find my review of the book this program is based on here.

    The instructions for week two are:

    Exercise aerobically three times a week for at least thirty minutes and do one nonaerobic workout.

    Nonaerobic? Piece of cake. I can recline in front of the television like an expert.

    It was the aerobic part that had me worried.

    My idea of a cardio workout is a panic attack. Nothing gets the heart pumping faster than a jolt of adrenaline.

    But panic was not forthcoming, so I needed to pursue other options.

    Other options? Hmm.

    I don’t belong to a gym. When I did belong to a gym, my routine consisted of sitting on an exercise apparatus, towel slung around my neck so it appeared sweat was involved. Nobody noticed I wasn’t actually moving, because they were preoccupied with their own workouts and their reflections in the mirror. I proceeded to sit in this manner until I had parked myself on every apparatus. Then I showered.

    I don’t jog. I’m more of plodder. Not a plodder in the sense of an old grey mare. More like: let’s take a lovely stroll through nature, preferably with a good book.

    I don’t ride a bike. The seats are too hard for someone who, according to my physical therapist, has no ass. Plus, they’re infinitesimal. Finding a perch is nearly impossible.

    But…I do swim.

    For several years, I swam in an outdoor pool with a buddy. My approach to swimming was similar to my approach to working out at a gym. As my buddy swam toward me, I passed him, immediately turned around, and passed him again. He was astounded at how quickly I navigated from end to end. I also wore flippers.

    But it’s winter, and, like…chilly. So, swimming was out.

    Which left brisk walking. Maybe a combination walk/sprint.

    On your mark, get set…

    Monday morning, after fueling up on crackers and peanut butter and a banana (because I’m also a grazer), I set off on my first aerobic workout. The only problem: a shin splint in my right leg. Which bumped me down from plodder to hobbler. Did that deter me? Nay. I plodded briskly, broke into a trot, backed it down to a plod, up to a gallop (maybe old grey mare isn’t that far off), and attempted to jog on the balls of my feet which I’ve seen other joggers do, until my calf seized up and I was back to hobbling. Did that deter me? Neigh! I proceeded in this fashion until a mile down, when I arrived at The Sweet Shop.

    Picture a quaint shop that offers coffee, pastries, and bins and bins of candy. I had the brilliant idea that I could barge into The Sweet Shop, eat fistfuls of Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, M&Ms, Gummy Bears and Skittles, down a blueberry muffin, chug a gallon of espresso, and consider it an aerobic workout. Because barring a panic attack, nothing gets the ticker revved up like huge quantities of sugar and caffeine.

    But the Sweet Shop was closed.

    On I hobbled/cantered until I had completed two miles, returned home, and earned the right to graze on dates stuffed with peanut butter. (If you haven’t tried this deliciousness, I urge you to run, not plod, to the nearest store that sells whole pitted dates, grab a jar of peanut butter and a knife, and indulge.)

    My second aerobic workout was an indoor affair as the day brewed windy and cold for California, meaning: non-shorts weather. I considered tap dancing in the garage on a sheet of plywood, but submitting my joints, not to mention my shins, through heavy pounding on what amounted to plywood on concrete didn’t seem wise. So I opted for a cardio workout of pushups, sit-ups, lunges, squats, planks, jumping jacks, and a dozen of those movements where you drop to your hands, kick your legs out, kick them back in, and shoot upright with an energetic hop. Not easy to do when you live in a cottage the size of a cat box. I was only able to endure what I call Movement on Meth because at the same time I was watching the all-stars battle it out on Jeopardy. Note: do not attempt this without proper preparation and ability. Those all-stars are pros.

    For my third aerobic workout, I prepared for the rain. I suited up with a salmon-colored rain jacket (what was I thinking when I bought it?) boots and rain pants, the lining which had melted into hard blobs when I threw them in the dryer. With umbrella in hand, I proceeded at a brisk pace in the direction of the library.

    Suffice it to say, I did more browsing of the New Books section than anything resembling an aerobic workout. But I did come home with a five-DVD set of a Canadian television show so I’d be ready for my nonaerobic workout.

    Which, by the way, I aced.