Reframing How You Approach Time

Like so many others, I frequently find myself overwhelmed with commitments and pressed for time. I become stressed and can’t stop thinking of the encroaching deadlines at work, upcoming events and plans with friends or family. When this happens I have a tendency to become very rigid and plan out every detail of my upcoming days. I decide when I’ll go to the grocery store, when I’ll eat, when I’ll exercise and more. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with planning ahead during busy periods of one’s life, it’s important to remember that we never know what the future holds and oftentimes one’s plans may be thwarted and need to change.

In my experience life’s unexpected hiccups and changes often cause me a lot of distress and suffering when I have everything planned out. I find that I frequently resist the reality of my circumstances when the reality doesn’t match my plans. For example, last weekend I spent over thirty minutes lamenting the flat tire on my bike because I wanted to ride my bike to work and felt like I didn’t have time to take my bike to the shop. I ended up spending time sulking and stressing out over the tire instead of just taking my bike to the shop on my way to work. I’ve even noticed resistance can pop up with unexpected, pleasant events, such as an invitation to dinner at my aunts. I have turned down time with friends or family simply because I couldn’t let go of my plans and ideas about how my day would go.

In order to challenge the tight grip I can have on time, I am beginning to explore a subtle shift in my language surrounding time. Instead of planning how I’ll spend my time, I am setting intentions for my time. For example, instead of saying I will go grocery shopping after work on Tuesday, I will tell myself that I intend to go grocery shopping after work on Tuesday. This small change has allowed me to loosen my grip on the future and exhibit more flexibility when life inevitably doesn’t proceed as I thought it would. It’s easier to let go of my projections for the future when I view them as intentions instead of plans. I feel more open to the myriad possibilities of the present moment and am energized by the spaciousness I can find even during the busiest periods of my life.

What about you? I encourage you to see if you can enhance your flexibility by practicing this subtle shift in language.

“…but how do I let go?”

That’s a great question! It is often easy to identify the things we want to change about our personality, habits, thoughts and behaviors. When asked “what do you want to let go of in your life?”, most people can quickly answer. Anger, laziness, mindlessness, overusing technology, distrust, worry, there are so many things we all want to let go of.

In my experience though, it is hard to let go of maladaptive or unhelpful patterns of behavior without deeply considering what you want to cultivate to replace it. For example if you want to let go of over planning and rigidity, it’s helpful to focus on creating more spontaneity and flexibility in your life.Remember that the things we need to let go of most are often also the things we hold on to the tightest. The reason it’s so hard to let go of self-sabotaging your relationships is because if you don’t engage in that behavior you are vulnerable to rejection. We have to bravely confront the truth that our knee-jerk reactions and habitual behaviors kept us safe in some way and that’s why it’s so hard to release these behaviors that no longer serve us.

Therefore, instead of continually focusing on what you need to shed, flip the dialogue by asking, “what do I need to cultivate more of in my life in order to let go of rigidity/anger/isolation/etc.?” Maybe you need more self-love or self-compassion, maybe you need a greater sense of acceptance or more flexibility. Let your energies lie there- with whatever it is that you need to foster in order to have the strength and courage to finally let go. By actively cultivating new ways of being, you are much more likely to be able to let go to the habitual reactions and patterns that no longer serve you.

And if you need a little more inspiration, Pema Chodron has your back.

What I’m advocating here is something that requires courage — the courage to have a change of heart. The reason this requires courage is because when we don’t do the habitual thing, hardening our heart and holding tightly to certain views, then we’re left with the underlying uneasiness that we were trying to get away from. Whenever there’s a sense of threat, we harden. And so if we don’t harden, what happens? We’re left with that uneasiness, that feeling of threat. That’s when the real journey of courage begins.

— Pema Chodron in Practicing Peace in Times of War

If you need help figuring out what you want to let go of in your life, try this activity!

Changing from a Place of Love

As we all continue to be inundated with messages of ‘New Year, New You’ and lots of external sources telling us all the ways we can be smarter, more productive, healthier, more attractive and just better. Despite the unceasing reminders of our New Year’s Resolutions and the countless promotions and support groups, research at the University of Scranton found that only 9% of people keep their New Year’s Resolutions. The question then arises “what do I do if I have a change I deeply want to make?”

Many of us have aspects of ourselves we want to improve, such as quitting smoking, going to sleep earlier, exercising regularly, being more present or having more balance between work and family. These are all great goals, but it’s helpful to remember that change comes more easily and is more lasting when it comes from a place of love. Most likely you can remember a time when you’ve used self-criticism as motivator for change. You may even recall moments when others used criticism to try to motivate you to change. Was the criticism successful in supporting you in making lasting change? If you’re like most of us, the answer is no. We frequently beat ourselves up repeatedly hoping that this time it will finally give us the willpower and tools to change.

Take a minute to try to connect with the pain you experienced as a result of your self- criticism. First offer yourself some compassion for shouldering such pain and then ask yourself, “is there a kinder, more supportive and caring way I can motivate myself to change?”. You might want to consider how you would motivate a friend to quit smoking or establish better sleep habits. Most likely you wouldn’t chastise them if they slipped up and stayed up late watching TV shows once again. Instead you might remind them that you love them and care about them feeling their best and their health and therefore want them to keep trying to go to bed earlier. You might even offer that they set a reminder on their phone or help them brainstorm ideas of their own.

It’s easy for us to see that our friend is more likely to keep digging deep and working to establish new patterns of behavior if they feel loved, supported and understood. Why don’t we use our insight into supporting other people who are making difficult changes to help ourselves? Why don’t we try using love and self-compassion to motivate and encourage ourselves instead of continuing to cause ourselves emotional pain by continuing to criticize ourselves?

If you’re having a hard time believing that you would be motivated to change if you aren’t hard on yourself, you can conduct an experiment on yourself. Think of a pattern of behavior that you really want to change and in the past have used self-criticism as a motive. Simply try to use self-compassion and love to support yourself in making change for a week. After a week evaluate whether you were able to make some progress. You should also check-in on your overall well-being and level of contentment. If using self-love and compassion didn’t help you start to make changes or increase your overall wellbeing, you can go back to your old habits. If more self-love and self-compassion benefitted you, please keep it up!

New Year’s Resolutions

Every year on January 1st we are all bombarded with messages about self improvement. Gym membership ads on social media, radio news reports about the newest weight loss diet, apps to help you meditate more, newscasters discussing ways to save more money and more. It seems like everywhere you turn people are discussing their New Year’s Resolutions and all the things about themselves they will change. Your sister will stop drinking so much, your friend will run everyday, your neighbor resolves to follow a new diet, the list goes on and on.

There’s nothing wrong with resolving to make changes, but I encourage you to examine your motivation for changing. Are you resolving to lose weight or read more because you feel like there’s something wrong with your current weight or reading habits? Do you want to change because you believe (whether knowingly or not) that there is something wrong with you? Do you believe you are not enough as you are now? 

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So often one’s drive to change comes from fear, self- hatred, blame and deep feelings of isolation and unworthiness. We feel as if exercising more or eating differently will somehow “fix” us, but what if we don’t need fixing? What if you are already whole and beautiful as is? What if the qualities you dislike about yourself didn’t make you different than others or unworthy of love? What if you recognized that your perceived flaws are what make you human? What if you sent love to your darkest places and worked to change because you love yourself and deep down you know the change would allow you to live more fully?

This year, instead of resolving to change or improve, I’m resolving to remember that I already am whole and deserving of life’s splendors as I am now. The contemporary Indian master Bapuji writes:

My beloved child,
Break your heart no longer.
Each time you judge yourself you break your own heart.
You stop feeding on the love which is the wellspring of your vitality.
The time has come, your time
To live, celebrate and to see the goodness you are…
Let no one, no thing, no idea or ideal obstruct you
If one comes, even in the name of “Truth,” forgive it for its unknowing
Do not fight.
Let go.
And breathe– into the goodness you are.

This year will you let go of the stories you tell yourself about your unworthiness and breathe into the goodness you are?

If you’d like you can turn the poem above into a gatha (a short verse that helps you practice mindfulness). Repeat the lines in your head or softly aloud while breathing in and out.

The time (breathing in)
Has come (breathing out)
Your time (breathing in)
To let go (breathing out)
And breathe (breathing in)
Just breathe (breathing out)
Into the goodness (breathing in)
You are (breathing out)

You can repeat this gatha during a traditional sitting or walking meditation or repeat it at a time when the negative voices in your head are strong. If you try it out, please let me know how it goes!