A few days ago, as I rushed to prepare a morning smoothie for breakfast, my dad turned to me in the kitchen and innocently commented, ‘you look like you are in a rush’. Without hesitation and without looking his way, I blurted out ‘yes, I have to go meditate now and I am hungry’. It was only once I walked upstairs to my sister’s bedroom, which I’ve commandeered as my second office thanks to a slightly more reliable wifi connection, and sat down on her chair that I caught up to the irony of my response a few minutes earlier.
As I shared with my meditation group that morning, I believed that rushing to meditation and yoga classes was a ‘New York moment’ of sorts, unique to the hustle and bustle of that environment, and one that I have experienced far too many times to admit. I now have learned that rushing to slow down has less to do with New York and more to do with me.
This weekend I hit the pause button on my virtual New York lifestyle that I have continued to live from my parent’s home in Toronto, and for the first time in four weeks, chose ‘to be’ over ‘to do’.
The weekend continues to unfold and I am uncovering the unfortunate truth that running continuously takes a toll. On my body, my mind and on my emotions.
As I embark on an introspective journey to make sense of my desire to be productive at all times, a set of practices, a 'mental health toolkit' if you will, has surfaced and I share it below with the hope that it inspires you to take care of yourself, especially in this period when we are all a little more vulnerable.
A meditation teacher once shared, “you have nowhere to go, you are always on your way”. This teaching serves me well to help loosen the tight grip of my mind that has a continuous desire to be productive. I have become curious to uncover where this conditioning of my mind has come from.
Perhaps the conditioning of my mind is from the machine of the markets. As an entrepreneur for over a decade now, I have been rewarded for the productivity of my business. What is a business? As Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari explains elegantly, a business is a construct that involves a collection of people who form agreements. Agreements to work with one another, to work collectively to solve problems that another collection of people have and to be compensated for that work. Productivity leads to profits and profits lead to happiness. Just kidding. While the former may be true, we know that the latter is not.
Perhaps the conditioning is hereditary and passed on through genetics. My mom, who despite her age and arthritis, is an Energizer Bunny who bounces around between cooking in the kitchen, learning from YouTube videos, painting a myriad of landscapes, working in the garden, annoying my father with endless commentary, talking with my sister on the phone or her latest feat, connecting her phone to her printer. I had strong doubts that this was possible and was glad to be proven wrong. I witnessed first hand this week that where this is a will, there is a way.
Perhaps it is not unique to me and a condition of the brain. Yesterday, I spoke with my brother-in-law on the phone and he shared enthusiastically about his productive morning. I could hear the lightness and energy in his voice, and I felt lifted by his productivity. When we complete a task, be it doing the dishes, taking a walk, writing a blog post or even to sit in meditation, our brain releases the famous dopamine hormone that leads to a pleasurable sensation. The experience of consuming alcohol, drugs, Netflix or Instagram also releases dopamine in our brain.
It literally feels good to be productive and no surprise, it becomes addictive. It has for me.
Our culture has led us to believe that being productive is a good thing, for both you and the collective. Productivity leads to progress for all of humanity and is required. The question I have is if it is required at all moments and to highlight that there is a cost to always being productive.
On a walk this week in my parent’s neighborhood, which is unbelievably quiet and peaceful, I took my phone out and started calling friends. After three different attempts that were met with pre-recorded voicemail greetings, I put my phone back in my pocket and lifted my head up.
I heard the sound of the wind dancing with the trees. I saw the brightness of the sun illuminate every inch of the neighborhood without discrimination. I watched two squirrels playing and chasing one another, with no regard for physical distancing. And then I felt a smile, of a different variety, appear on my face. This one was not triggered from a dopamine release in my brain. It was inspired by a deep connection with reality, with nature and with the present moment.
The desire to be productive can be superseded with another desire. The desire to connect more deeply with this present moment, with all of its peace and suffering. To connect begins with a pause, so that I can see, hear and observe reality as it is, not as I wish it to be or think it should be.
The natural trajectory of my lifestyle, including the current virtual environment, business responsibilities and the communities I participate in, does not always lend itself to these moments of pause organically. It is for this reason that I have started to be intentional and seed moments of pause, like many parents may be hiding easter eggs for their children right now.
Here are a few recent practices in seeding moments of pause. My teacher Julie often qualifies her offerings with, “take it or leave it, it is entirely up to you what to do with this”:
Airplane mode: in the evening, I put my phone on airplane mode and wait until after my morning routine (meditation, yoga, journal, shower, food) to turn it off. The 8-12 hours of continuous disconnection each day helps my mind take a pause from consuming.
Mobile apps: I do not have email or Slack on my phone anymore, have never kept any notifications on and do not use social media either. Given that I am not out and about physically anymore, I do not need to use my phone the same way I once did.
Meal time: in week one of lockdown, I could be found eating quietly at my desk in my room while typing or Zooming away. Now, I treat each meal as an opportunity to pause. In my case, it is a chance to connect with my parents and with my food.
Meditation: this reflection would not be complete without me highlighting the importance of meditation for my mental health. In addition to my own self practice, I continue to lead a live meditation each weekday at 930am EST for friends. Come join us!
As I learn how to pause, which is a skill in itself, my awareness begins to expand in new ways. It is clear that feelings of anxiety have heightened for all of us at this moment. Please know that to feel anxious is absolutely normal right now. I would be worried if people in my life told me they did not feel anything right now. This is why it is more important than ever for each of us to be intentional about caring for our own mental health. This is particularly true for health care professionals and essential service workers, who we remain indebted to for being productive on the front-lines, for all of us. Health is not limited to physical or financial. Mental health is health.
As I reflect on my desire to be productive, what I have discovered is that to pause is one of the most productive actions I can take.
A bit more to share:
I am hosting live meditations weekdays at 9:30 a.m. EST on Zoom. Details and guided meditation recordings are available on FindFocus.Live
A series of recorded conversations between friends about the future of humanity, as we transition from B.C. (Before Coronavirus) to A.C. (After Coronavirus), available here
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