I’ve been giving a lot of thought to Dr. Stoddard’s message last week around “the me I want to be.” I am no stranger to transforming myself into a sometimes better, sometimes worse self. Usually that change is sparked by some event, like loss of a family member, a personal crisis, a move to another state or a health issue. This pandemic shutdown has been completely different. Over the last few months, I think I know the me I want to be and then so much time passes, I change my mind and start moving in a different direction altogether.
The monotony of the days is getting to me a little bit as well. Get up, shower, prep food, cook breakfast, clean up, work, prep food, cook lunch, clean up, work, prep food, cook dinner, clean up, work, get ready for bed, watch tv, sleep, do it all again the next day. On the evenings I feel like I just can’t stand one more minute of boredom, I start looking for something to do, which includes occasionally eating some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. So decadent and at least exciting for my taste buds. But is that ice cream helping me be the me I want to be? Pre-pandemic, I had started in earnest to release all of the extra pounds I’ve put on over the past several years. By the fall of 2019 I had dropped 13 of the 25 I wanted to release. Yay me. Then I got sick in November and stopped going to the gym. Then it was the holidays. Then it was a flurry of business activity at the beginning of the year. I finally got back to the gym in February and promptly hurt my knee, so had to back off again to allow it to heal. I had gained back a few of the pounds I had let go, but I wasn’t overly concerned. And then the shutdown happened. Now, 3-1/2 months later, I’ve gained another 6. My B&J Half-Baked diversion may seem like a very bad idea in light of my physical goal, but I’m not sure it’s bad for my mental health, which is equally important.
Mindfulness is awareness and I am really very aware when I reach in the freezer that the cold bites of brownie, chocolate ice cream and raw cookie dough are going to be wonderful, but with a price. And I think that’s important for whatever any of us are doing to cope with these circumstances. I think instead of doing something and then judging ourselves harshly about it afterwards, it’s much healthier to be cognizant of why we’re doing something (which is usually to escape discomfort) and to accept that it’s normal, but that we’re also responsible for the consequences. As human beings, we all have compulsive behaviors, so the key is to better understand them and determine if they’re serving us or not. It’s also important to observe our behaviors within the context of our overall goals and how we plan to achieve them.
So back to the me I want to be. My original desire to release excess weight was because that weight was beginning to cause problems with my knees, which have never been the strongest part of my body. And over the past few months, limping or walking awkwardly in order to relieve pain in my knees has caused my hips to start hurting. And 3-1/2 months of sitting in front of a computer on Zoom all day has greatly increased the pain in both of my legs to the point that I’m having difficulty with my mobility and the pain is drastically interfering with my sleep. So, I sort of woke up a couple of weeks ago and thought, enough.
It’s time to get back on track for both my physical and emotional well-being. I started walking a mile daily. I’m doing exercises with a video since I can’t go to the gym. I’m making myself stretch at various intervals throughout the day. And most importantly, I’m returning to what I know works in navigating my own transformation. I’m re-establishing my internal guidepost.
An internal guidepost is based on values and purpose. I don’t believe we’re just born, struggle to mature for the first 20 years or so, work another 40 years, retire and then die. That just doesn’t make sense to me. The alternative then, is to believe that we’re here for a reason. I think that means we have to figure out why we’re here and that well-being is optimized when we are actually serving that purpose. I also believe that our purpose changes over time, perhaps as we achieve certain goals or realize that we may have been on the wrong path for a while. Perhaps it also changes when a new need or calling arises.
For a long time, I felt my purpose was to be the perfect wife and mother. That failed sort of spectacularly after about 20 years, but after wandering with no purpose for a few years, I realized that there were many important lessons in that experience. I worked on finding my new purpose, which ultimately became a purpose of being of service. For quite a while, I didn’t know how to be of service, but that purpose felt right then and actually still does. I’ve honed in on how I can be of service over the last 10 years and when I’m doing it right, it feels good. It gives my life meaning, which all studies indicate increases our sense of happiness and wellness.
When I meander off the path of my purpose, I feel that, too. My life doesn’t seem to be full of meaning, but just a series of monotonous actions that aren’t moving me in any direction. Kind of like now! Hence, my return to my internal guidepost. Here’s how this works for me – for every decision I make, and believe me, we make hundreds a day, I measure my potential decision against my internal guidepost. Will this move me closer to or further away from being of service?
Being of service, for me, means taking actions that best serve me or others or the greater good. If I’m asked to teach something to a group, I consider if teaching that topic is moving me closer to or away from my purpose? Usually the answer is closer. If I’m offered a contract for specific services, is it moving me closer to or further from my internal guidepost, which I picture like a literal rod residing in the center inside me. Sometimes yes, but sometimes no. I’ve turned down offers that other people do not understand, but I’m making my decisions based on my purpose, not on money or what other people think.
When recently approved for an emergency disaster loan in light of the pandemic, I originally thought “of course,” due to the uncertainty about the economy. Whoops. I knew right away that I had just moved away from my guidepost. I don’t really need the money, so why add a financial burden that would only cause me worry or influence future decisions due to that obligation? I thought about it for a week, noticed that each time I thought about it, I had a physiological response that wasn’t pleasant, and called the SBA to withdraw my application. I immediately felt good again. Now that money was freed up for a business that might really be struggling and I don’t have a whopping debt over my head, even if it was a good interest rate.
When I reach for the Ben and Jerry’s, closer to or away from my guidepost? It varies. Sometimes, feeling better emotionally or experiencing pleasure helps me move closer to my purpose and other times not. That’s the beauty of mindfulness. When you’re truly aware of your thoughts and feelings you can make decisions that usually serve you best. Last night, I had my B & J. This morning, I still feel okay about it, so no real harm done.
Of course, that’s not always the case. As we struggle with monotony, fear, anxiety, frustration and more during this period of upheaval in our society, threats to our health from the increased spread of the virus, and constant uncertainty about our futures, most of us are turning to something to alleviate all of these unpleasant feelings at least sometimes. An occasional dip into the ice cream tub or an extra glass of wine at night aren’t permanently moving us away from our internal guideposts, but left unchecked, i.e., behaving mindlessly, can absolutely derail us not only from serving our purpose, but from enjoying good health, well-being and living joyfully. We can also numb ourselves to the point of losing sight of our purpose or preventing ourselves from finding a purpose, which ultimately results in an inability to find meaning in our lives.
Many people have not yet identified their purpose in life, which is normal amidst all of the distractions we live in, but perhaps more importantly, many people aren’t aware of the obstacles they may be creating that will prevent them from ever doing so. There is a difference between comforting behaviors that we engage in occasionally to compulsive behaviors that may be throwing us completely off our game. I asked Rachel Graham, TedX speaker, leadership coach, health entrepreneur and founder of the Healing Springs Ranch in Texas for her thoughts on this in a recent interview.
We can all find happiness in life, regardless of our external conditions, once we clear out the internal obstacles and stressors so that we can see clearly, identify our values and establish our internal guideposts. Will we fall off our path, even with that guidepost? Yes we will. It’s the nature of our humanity that we not only make mistakes, but that mistakes are the only way we learn and grow. Mindfulness allows us the ability to look at those mistakes without judgment, but with gratitude for the lessons learned.