Bringing Zen back…

I’ve been blog quiet lately because I’m at a crossroads. As Lil Wayne said so eloquently (that I simply couldn’t say it any better myself), I admittedly “just built a house on I Don’t Give a F*ck Avenue.” I am officially less than a year away from ending the most challenging professional experience of my life and as I wrap up projects that I started on the day I arrived 2 years ago, I realize that I’m emotionally spent and absolutely burnt out. Being invested in being drained is a business I’ve gotten all too used to.

Unfortunately, now that I’m trying to shift energy to other things I’ve neglected, I’m finding myself stalled and ill equipped. With one foot out the door of my day job and the other not coming to terms with the emotion of doing ethnographic field work, I feel stuck. After brainstorming ways to get unstuck in my last trip to South Africa, I’ve taken on a few new activities to manage my energy and get my Zen back.

I started guided meditation. It’s been a long time since I have had a regular yoga practice. And while I was anxious to get back into the yoga scene in Mozambique, I wasn’t physically ready after a recent surgery. So, I settled for guided meditation thinking I’d find a new group to get mindful with. Instead, it’s one on one meditation with a very cool thespian who is helping me connect with the elements, reunite with my inner child and interpret the images that come to me from my meditation sessions. Kinda hokey, I know, but also very powerful. Tonight, for example, we worked on 3 meditations: Kingdom, Light and Fire. In the interest of time, I’ll summarize just one. My kingdom’s castle ended up being El Mina castle in Cape Coast, Ghana (a Portuguese constructed slave fort that I visited in 2005, just as I started researching the African Diaspora in Brazil) and when I was given robes and a crown to greet my people, I was wearing my doctoral graduation cap and gown (and red Christian Louboutin pumps). When I greeted them, what I was actually seeing from the windows of the top floor was the view from Maputo’s Fortaleza, hence a view of the Port of Maputo, Maputo Bay and the Indian Ocean beyond. In so many ways, my value comes from my research and being an academic who questions African identities and presents them in all their nuance. Pretty powerful and illuminating actually – my illusions of grandeur are just within reach!

 

chat mug by vectored life

Chat mug by Vectored Life

I reserve the right to have no filter. It takes a lot of energy to try to perceive what other people want to hear and then modify speech and content to soothe them. I find that by 9am every morning I’m fresh out of that energy. So, while I was always pretty blunt, these days I reserve the right to have word vomit and forgive myself for it later. Using my energy to appease others feels like a poor use of the little energy I’ve got, but it’s totally freaking people out to get honest answers to their semi-rhetorical questions. Just today, a friend shared with me the great news of her expecting a new baby. I was delighted for her and congratulated her profusely! But, she kept talking… And then she launched into the only logical conversation from there, which is of course asking what I’m doing with my uterus. So, I gave her the no filtered version of what my reproductive organs have been doing lately and shared that I’ve been pregnant before – most recently this year. It ended in miscarriage, but it was a pregnancy nonetheless. All sorts of awkwardness ensued later, b/c I think she thought I wanted consoling. That was a really weird assumption held solely on her part, but I moved on to other more meaningful conversations and back to work. Could I have avoided the overshare? Maybe. But, it’s no secret and it brings me no shame to speak my truth. Frankly, the more I talk about my experiences the more I realize how common they actually are. So, why give the easy answer? This is just one example of my delivering a heavy dose of honesty lately to people who I knew weren’t looking for it. The best I can do is to preface every conversation with fair warnings, like “I really don’t think you want to hear what I have to say,” OR “I’m not human before 10am so if you want to talk now, it’s on you,” OR, my favorite “Do you actually want an answer to that question?” Because, for me, small talk is draining and I’m out here living real life to the fullest.

 

I concentrate on legacy, not success. I’m really into podcasts these days and my absolute favorite is “Asian Efficiency’s Productivity Show.” It’s pretty nerdy stuff on organizational development and productivity hacks, as told by various people who have concentrated on energy management, as well as professional & personal development. One of the most profound was episode TPS102 on Essentialism with Greg McKeown. And the most powerful part was his focus on a 100-year vision. Yes, you heard me right. Eff your 5-year plan. To hell with your 10 year projections. McKeown thinks it really helps people to get away from the urgent minutiae to focus on what it takes to build a legacy that lives on 100 years after we are no more. Fatalistic, I know, but it’s been very transformative for me. Thinking about what mark I want to leave on the world, not just which minor tasks I want to complete today, gives me great inspiration to trudge forward and thrive, not just survive. It’s motivation to get through and past the small stuff, so I can refocus on what matters most to me really and what will matter most for generations to come. Profound right?

 

So, these are my confessions of trying to bring my Zen back – YEAH! (a la J.Timberlake). If you have other relaxation, balance, mindfulness and/or centering techniques to share, offer them in the comments, because word vomit really isn’t very sustainable…

Minus work, my life is balanced…

Kiss Him, Johannesburg (2015)

Kiss Him, Johannesburg (2015)

Since the clock struck 12, just 25 days ago, much has happened. Yet for weeks, I’ve felt that not so much of it has been worth writing about. I went to Joburg for my poor, poor friend’s wedding (you remember her, right?). I went to Durban to celebrate my birthday. One of my very best friends came to town to enjoy it all. I went to work a lot. I met exciting new people for my research. I made a few new friends. I bought the Minaj’s album (as well as that of Mafikizolo, Chris Brown, Drake and Liquideep). I even made my first donation, as promised, to the Whitman Walker Clinic. All  great things…I tell you. And none of that has seemed worth writing about.

I’m jaded.

IMG_1541I’ve always been a bit of an Eeyore, i.e. the cynic (borderline pessimist) who never understands what the big deal is about things that other people considered big deals. But the problem now is that I feel like I’m doing so much that I just don’t get a chance to stop and smell whatever this flower is called, much less appreciate it enough to write about it. My whole life my parents have reminded me that I’m “never satisfied.” No matter how much they tried to make me smile or enjoy a good day, I was always looking for more of a good thing, so much so that it negated their efforts in the moment. And what’s worse, I think I’ve lost the ability to understand how stressful chasing the next satisfaction really is on me and the people I love.

What most might call “a first world problem,” has followed me wherever I’ve lived, wherever I’ve gone, no matter how much I try to run away from responsibilities. So, maybe it’s just a character flaw? I don’t know how to relax. I never have. Is it possible that I never will?

I’ve spent much of my adult life talking with counselors and therapists, friends and people who probably didn’t really care enough to listen with both ears, simply trying to find outlets to vent. But it has occurred to me now that talking about all the things I do, rather than actually limiting those things, will not offer much relief. I watched a really great Ted Talk on ‘work/ life balance’ a few weeks back and I thought “shit, so a gym membership won’t fix this?” (Nigel Marsh: How to make work-life balance work).

When I originally heard the term back in 2009, I was a skeptic of the value of ‘work/life balance’ debates. First, I didn’t have much of a family and I’d just started my job, so work was still exciting for me. Almost 6 years down the line, I’m figuring at this rate either my body or my brains will fight against any willful efforts at procreation, so there’s nothing to balance there. According to the IRS, my husband and I make a family. That should be enough to tear me away from my office, except my sense of work ethic keeps me attached to my seat complaining about people I don’t particularly like and work I don’t find particularly meaningful. Not to mention that at this very moment, my work eats a piece of brain and two pieces of my soul on a daily basis.

My poorly thought out solution was to chase my dream of completing a PhD.  But, there’s a fundamental problem here. I didn’t actually quit my job. How many more hours of the day did I gain by pretending that work isn’t the real focal point of my life? Negative 8 hours.

I genuinely feel like out of a 9 hour work day, when I add the time I spend without my spouse and the time I should be working on my PhD, and divide that by the time I spend complaining, I end up losing 8 hours of life energy per day. The 1 hour retained was lunch.

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So, of all the awesome things I’ve done in the past few weeks to take my mind off things and to relax, much of it – like my PhD – seemed to be fulfilling, but still stress-inducing.  I made work out of relaxing and certainly didn’t take the time to stop and enjoy each moment.

Nigel Marsh says that even adding a gym work out to the mix won’t help me be more balanced, just more fit. And I’m inclined to believe him. It’s already one more thing on my lengthy and never-ending to do list… just above “read.”

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Obviously, for me the question isn’t so much about the tension between work and life, but finding value in both accomplishments and happiness. Being a glutton for work punishment may be an outgrowth of my own inability to separate the two. My own personal sense of achievement comes from seeing something through from start to finish. I value measurable accomplishments. Taking the time to live out my own happiness is hard thing to step back and admire. I’m not sure how to celebrate my days spent at the pool. But, it sure makes me feel energized for the days ahead and it just feels good.

Perhaps 2015 is the year to figure it all out…