Finding Joy in the Routine

My life used to be a very on again off again experience. It was like my life was on pause when I did routine tasks such as grocery shopping, doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, or paying bills.  When these tasks were over, my real life would resume.  These were commercial interruptions to the meaningful things of my life.   As a result, I suffered through these tasks or, at best, endured them.

 

The reality is that our daily lives are often filled with routine tasks.   And this was a problem for me because I didn’t like doing those things. Consequently, a large part of my daily life was joyless.   I was doing things just to get them done.  When these chores were done, then I would have a few hours left in the day when I could feel I was actually living my life.

 

My perspective changed dramatically, though, about six months ago when I read Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth.  And that book connected to something my AA sponsor said to me years ago.

 

In A New Earth, Tolle addresses the way many of us live fragmented lives.  Life is not about what we are doing, Tolle says, but how we are doing it.  Whenever we see what we are doing as an impediment to our real lives, we approach it with resistance.  And that causes suffering.   Reality conforms to our thinking, so what I dread becomes dreadful.

 

Oftentimes for me, I don’t integrate ideas, even powerful ones, into my life until I connect them with other powerful ideas.  When they come together, it is an epiphany.  And these are life-changing events for me.  This happened while I was reading Tolle.  I remembered my sponsor’s words to me.  I was complaining about having to go home and mow the lawn.  I had nearly lost my job, my wife, and my house because of my drinking.  My sponsor said to me, “Instead of thinking that you have to mow the lawn, think that you get to mow the lawn.  You are blessed to have a lawn to mow.”  Those words got me through that task and many others for a while, but as time passed, I forgot them.

 

Then, as I was reading Tolle recently, my sponsor’s words came rushing back to me.  As Tolle’s words and my sponsor’s words converged into an epiphany, their wisdom found a permanent place within me.  Because I am no longer dying to my drinking, I get to do the tasks that are before me.  That was what my sponsor was saying. Tolle takes it a step further.  Don’t just do a task; pour your consciousness—your full attention—into it.

 

What I have discovered is that when I pour my consciousness into what I am doing, I immediately turn the stage lighting up on it.  I become more and more aware of all the wonderful sensations involved in the task.  For example, I used to hate grocery shopping.  Now, I look forward to it.  It’s because I have poured my consciousness into the present moment at the grocery store rather than thinking about what I could be doing instead.

 

Now when I am grocery shopping, I am in awe of all the produce that comes from so many different parts of the world, their vibrant colors, the wonderful smells of these fruits and vegetables, the appealing display of all these things.  It’s really is a thing of beauty.  But when I am resisting the shopping and withdraw my consciousness from the experience, it loses its luster and fades to drabness.

 

The key here is to pour your consciousness into whatever you are doing.  And that begins by noticing.  Notice the sights, the sounds, the smells, the texture of all the things associated with the task.  Feel your body respond and delight in the work.

 

So how can you get your consciousness to pour into what you are doing?  Tolle says there are three ways:  acceptance, enjoyment, and enthusiasm.

 

Acceptance is the opposite of resistance to a task.  And just moving from resistance to acceptance can be a life-changer.  “Our performing an action in the state of acceptance means you are at peace while you do it; it is surrendered action,” says Tolle.

 

When we move from acceptance to enjoyment, the stage lighting turns up some more.  We become more attuned and aligned with the task. We perceive what we are doing with a sense of joy.   In a sense, we are consciously joined with the task.  We are no longer just enduring it; it becomes what we want to keep doing.

 

This sense is further expanded and intensified when we move from enjoyment to enthusiasm.  “Sustained enthusiasm brings into existence a wave of creative energy, and all you have to do then is ‘ride the wave.’” Tolle says.

 

Like all tasks in our lives, we have a choice about what attitude we bring to them.  Whether we love or dread the task, we still need to do it.  Why not choose to accept it and pour yourself into it?   You may find that it becomes something that you enjoy—maybe even something that you become enthused about doing.  And that can bring a great deal of joy to all the parts of your day.

 

Kind Regards,

RJ

Five stress factors that can lead to relapse

I remember the scenes from old TV shows and movies where the husband comes home from work and makes a beeline for the booze in one of those elegant crystal glass decanters.  Oh, that wonderful vicarious feeling of the first drink as it melts away the stress of the day.

 

This became my routine, too, as I would rush home from work and head directly for the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that I kept chilled in the freezer.

 

As I look back to those days when alcohol worked its magic, I can see how it was my go-to stress reliever.  I didn’t look within for the source of my stress.  That would have violated my personal creed: Only the unexamined life is worth living.  All I knew was alcohol rounded the edges of my stress and allowed me to stuff it away.

 

What I failed to understand was this avoidance pattern only intensified my stress and anxiety. What I resisted persisted.  So the cycle would begin again after the next day of work.  On and on.  Finally, I couldn’t drink enough to silence the strident voices of my stress.

 

Sober now for more than a decade, I have revamped my personal creed to Sophocles’ original: Only the examined life is worth living.  In those 10 years, I have immersed myself in the Big Book as well as other psychological and spiritual literature. By looking within rather than away, I have finally gotten to know who I am.

 

But it’s still one day at a time. Stressors are still a part of the sober life. And I am very aware that if I don’t surface the issues in my life that cause stress, that I am very likely to relapse.

 

One of the books that has been a tremendous help to me is The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living, by Dr. Amit Sood.   It’s turned up the stage lighting on what creates stress in my life and how to cope with it.  When we are able to name the source of our stress, we can tame it.  This knowledge may save you from a relapse as well.

 

According to Sood, stress has two internal and three external components.  The internal ones are fighting life and fighting change.

 

Although I recited the Serenity Prayer out loud in hundreds of AA meetings, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I recognized its stress-reducing power.  To “accept the things I cannot change” is an approach to life that has great efficacy in disarming one of the internal stressors: fighting life.  When I can accept life as it is rather than how I think it should be, I immediately reduce my stress level.  I no longer judge my daily experiences as good or bad.  They are all lessons that my Higher Power engages me in for my ultimate good.

The second internal stressor is fighting change. There is a powerful Frederica Matthews-Green quote that says, “Everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change.”  That was me until a few years ago.  Although I had made a drastic change in my life by giving up alcohol, I was unaware of the beliefs I held onto that caused me stress and suffering. During my morning prayer and meditation, I now often ask my Higher Power for “the courage to change the things I can.”  I’ve also discovered that relationships provide a mirror for me to see what I need to change.

 

The three external stressors are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

 

In my drinking days (and still to a much lesser extent), I created movies in my head in which I would play out different scenarios for situations involving unpredictable people.  Rarely did these movies sync with the actual situation.  Instead, they created expectations and then stress when things didn’t work out as I envisioned.  I now “accept the things I cannot change,” knowing that people will be endlessly unpredictable. And isn’t that what makes them fascinating?

 

The second external stressor is lack of control.  That was a huge one for me.  I would stress myself out by constantly trying to control the outside world so that I could be more comfortable in it.  The desire is understandable.  Humans have an aversion to pain.  Yet, control is an illusion.  In honesty, I can’t even control my own thoughts let alone another person.  Giving up my attempts to control others has significantly reduced my stress levels.

 

Power is the last of the external stressors and is the most elusive of the five. I don’t know of anyone who has tasted power who doesn’t crave more of it.  As much as we chase it, we can’t ever seem to hold on to it for long. When we try to seize it, we become like terrorists to others.  People then don’t follow us out of love but out of fear. Honor the moments of your life that you have power.  It is a gift from your Higher Power to be used lovingly.

 

What is common to relieving each of the five stressors is acceptance.  It is a potent antidote to stress.  And it’s central to the Serenity Prayer.  When practicing acceptance, I savor each of its  three flavors: acceptance of others, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the situation.  Life is the highest spiritual path, and I can avoid so many of the stressors by “accepting the things I cannot change.”

 

Four Ways to Increase Your Joy

If you find that your life has become bland, boring, or blah, there are four easy ways to bring joy and vitality back to it.

In his brilliant Guide to Stress-free Living, Dr. Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic, says that we will all experience an infusion of sparkle and zest in our lives if we awaken to novelty: the appreciation of uniqueness.

He suggests four ways to do this:  acceptance, transience, flexibility, and kindness.

Acceptance

“Our brains, designed as fault-find machines, need to be reprogrammed to seek and find joy,” says Soot. The downside of fault-finding is we lose our sense of enjoyment in what we are trying to improve. This holds true for family and friends alike.

When we treat these people in the same way as a fix-up project at home, we are adopting an air of superiority that distances ourselves from them.  Instead, notice their most positive attributes, and accept their flaws as you accept your own.

To increase your awareness of these winning traits, write them down.  When the person demonstrates the trait, let him or her know how much you appreciate it.  Nothing will incentivize the person more than praise.

Transience

This is your awareness of the finite. It is “a perception that this moment is precious because it will never repeat,” says Soot.   Life changes quickly.  Think about this:  How many more times will you see your dearest friend?  You don’t know.  It could be that she must suddenly relocate because she is needed at the Dallas office.

Cherish the time you have with these loved ones and be fully present to the novelty of your life experiences.  “Each day spent being partially present,” Soot says, “is a day that’s not fully lived,”

Flexibility

Soot recommends that we stay flexible in accommodating other people’s preferences.  It not so much what you do together, it is being together that is important.  Notice the novelty of what you are experiencing together in the moment.  You will find that others find enjoyment in our preferences if we express our enjoyment of theirs.

“Flexibility will come naturally if you’re genuinely interested in the other person.”

Kindness

Whether we are aware of it or not, kindness is a trait that we universally seek in other people, particularly those who have the honor to be within our inner circle.  People will respond positively to your kindness.  By blessing others, you will bless yourself.

“All the world’s spiritual teachings  instruct us to be kind,” says Soot.

Notice the difference in how you feel when you negatively judge someone verses when you see them through the eyes of compassion.  If in doubt about what to say in a situation with a loved one, ask yourself: Is it true?  Is it kind? Is it necessary?  A random act of kindness can light up a person’s entire day.

So search for the extraordinary in the ordinary until you can see the divine in all things.   Awaken to novelty by paying attention to the details that make people, animals, and nature unique.  Challenge yourself to engage in fresh experiences, especially those that push you beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone.  And infuse your daily experiences with acceptance, transience, flexibility, and kindness.  By putting these practices in action, your ho-hum like will be transformed by joy.

Avoidance is Costly

I have spent much of my adult life running away from my pain.  Maybe more accurately is that I buried my pain alive.  Although it helped in the short term, I have paid dearly for it in the long run.

“The foundation of all mental illness is the avoidance of legitimate suffering,” according to Carl Jung, the father of analytic psychology.

His words, which I first heard about two years ago, changed my life.   They were an epiphany that powered my journey from avoidance to acceptance of my pain—a journey that has brought me a peace that transcends my trauma.

I grew up in home with a rageaholic father and an enabling mother.  Like many children who later suffer from addiction, I internalized that rage as shame.  And that shame fueled my drinking.

I became an expert at numbing out to anything I perceived as painful.  Recovery experts are aware of the close connection between mental illness and addiction.  They say that addiction is the compulsive avoidance of immediate pain.  Can you hear Jung’s words in those?

In his excellent book, Recovery 2.0, a combination of memoir and sobriety handbook, Tommy Rosen says “feelings left unprocessed are buried alive!  They will act as an energetic blockage to your happiness and health.”

He goes on to say, “Later, these energetic blockages will cause a variety of emotional and physical symptoms, which will get more and more serious unless you shift onto a path of healing.”

It’s little wonder that all addictions are progressive.  They only worsen over time.  Rosen makes the point that since the original trauma never gets dealt with, all subsequent pain gets piled on top.  “It gets to the point where you’re feeling emotions that no longer correspond to what is actually happening in the present moment.”

When I relive in my mind humiliating experiences that occurred before I got sober 10 years ago, I see the insanity of my reactions to friends, family, and colleagues.  Who was that guy who was a master of misinterpretation?

It was the effect of allowing hurts to pile on top of hurts until I wasn’t experiencing reality as it was but as I was.

As I said in an earlier blog, the ultimate addiction is to our thoughts.  This, I believe, is universal.  Everyone, regardless if you consider yourself an addict or not, is addicted to patterns of thinking that cause suffering.

Rosen’s definition of addiction is “any behavior that you continue to do despite the fact that it brings negative consequences into your life.”

It is only through awareness rather than avoidance that we can begin to understand our trauma.  And that doesn’t have to be major trauma.  It can be anything that we have turned away from or buried—any past pains or threats that we have avoided.

We can’t fix what we can’t see.  I hope that this blog and my others give you the courage to look unblinkingly at your own trauma and to drill down to the root of your present suffering. The tears you shed will water the seeds of your joy.