A Return to Stillness (Digital Detox Month)

When COVID first hit the U.S. and we were forced to go into lock down, I remember how surreal it felt. For the first time in my lifetime, the world stopped. I had to hunker down and grapple with the gift of stillness (which often felt uncomfortable).

Like others, I picked up new practices with this extra time. With nowhere to go and with the hustle and bustle of life removed, I slowed down and began taking long walks. I began writing. I connected with friends and family with more frequency. Excuses about how busy we were became nonexistent and we made space for meaningful connection, albeit virtual.

A year and a half later I’m still reflecting and trying to define the silver lining from that time in life. 

What sticks with me most from those first weeks of uncertainty was how it forced us to slow down. Most demands on my time, outside of work, evaporated. This absence provided an opportunity to engage life on a deeper level – with intent and purpose. I found myself with extra time and choices to make about how I should use it. 

BUILDING A NEW NORMAL, BRICK BY BRICK

Contribution is something I’ve been thinking deeply about for the past 18 months. I’ve had time to form practices that have allowed me to hone my contribution. I made intentional choices to prioritize creative and regenerative activities that have benefited my quality of life.  

The stillness from last year helped me tap into a resevoir of creativity I had forgotten existed. That discovery led to the creation of this blog and a deeper exploration of my own creative limits. In that time, I’ve learned that creativity, as messy a process as it is, demands discipline to reap its rewards. I’ve become a better version of myself by engaging deeper with a creative practice. 

And yet, once things began opening up earlier this year, demands on my time quickly began piling up, like a bad habit finding its groove. This tension has served as a reminder that if I don’t  prioritize what I value most, the world won’t hesitate to impose its own agenda. 

As such, anything that doesn’t align to my purpose or my ability to contribute must be evaluated seriously. If it fails to serve a clear purpose, in line with my values, I must eliminate it. 

RETHINKING TECHNOLOGY

After reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, I’ve realized how much a prisoner I am to technology; how much time I spend mindlessly and passively consuming content. Technology has become a security blanket against boredom and a constant source of anxiety from FOMO. I’ve accepted the narrative that all the conveniences gained from technology are worth it without ever really asking “what does it cost me?”

So, for the month of September, I’m examining the role I want technology to play in my life. I’m taking a page out of Cal’s book and doing a digital detox. By setting very clear guidelines on how I’ll use technology, I’m hoping to see what I gain from the additional stillness. 

  • Will I find more time to create?
  • Will I experience more meaningful connections with friends and family?
  • Will the constant, low-hum of anxiety from always being on dissipate?
  • Will the extra time with my thoughts lead to some deeper realizations on how I can contribute?

NEXT STEPS

I’m including a link to a document I put together that explains guidelines as well as my own commitments (in case you’re interested to see how I structured it). I don’t claim to be an expert, but if you’re interested in taking a similar journey, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions.

I plan to share insights and struggles throughout the month. I’m not sure what will come of it but I greatly appreciate you riding along for the journey, in one form or another. 

The Beautiful Mystery

On a walk the other day, my oldest daughter turns and asks, “which way are we going, Papi?”

I’m not sure,” I replied.

But you’re the adult, you always know where we are going!” she stated with the passion of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. 

Seeing an opportunity to expand her perspective, I replied, “I don’t always know where I’m going. Sometimes I prefer to leave myself open to the possibility of the moment. Not everything needs to be planned out.

She looks at me unsure what to make of my response and goes back to walking.

A hard life lesson learned has been knowing when to plan and when to be open to the present moment and let life unfurl as it occurs. 

If all we do is plan, we miss out on the present. 

If all we seek is certainty then we are blind to possibility. The beauty that’s born from the mystery evades us

My daily routine of staring death straight into its baby blues

What you’re looking at there is my life – from beginning to end – in a simple picture.

It’s a visual representation of how long I’ve lived and how much I have left (should I die an old man).

It’s an extension for Chrome called Mortality.

I see it every day – multiple times a day in fact. 

It’s a reminder that life is impermanent and death is inevitable.

I think it’s important to be reminded of that often, but not because I look forward to dying. 

Death is a reminder that this great party of life can’t go on forever. At some point, all the guests have to leave and you’ll get ushered out. 

Until then, it’s worth the reminder to get the most out of your time  – give love generously, build connections, contribute and make it memorable. 

Perhaps, it’s a bit morbid. But, I hope to meet death with a smile on my face knowing I lived life fully rather than confront it staring back at an unfulfilled life. 

Death is life’s greatest motivater. 

It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of this. 

Amplifying Moments by Choosing How We Narrate Our Story

Joy doesn’t just happen. It’s intentional and requires work.

We experience joy in proportion to our ability to practice gratitude. Gratitude in turn opens us up to noticing the moments in our day-to-day that are joy-worthy. 

Once we notice, we can choose joy as the emotional state to live in and find opportunities to amplify joy.

And after the last 16 months, there is plenty to amplify.

As the number of people vaccinated increase, life is slowly beginning to return to some semblance of normal. People are beginning to gather, families are reuniting, and we’re able to start exploring the world around us again. The most empathetic employers are rethinking what the future state of work looks like. The organizations most likely to last are evolving their approach on how to amplify a work culture that allows employees to continue bringing their whole self to work.

We’ve had to lean in to those closest to us for support these past 16 months. And while, it’s not been without its challenges, it’s given a deeper appreciation to being part of a community or family. 

This isn’t to say that all has been a bucket of adorable baby sea otters. There is still so much turmoil and pain and grief in the world. However, most of us have zero control over any of it. What we do have control over is what we notice or pay attention to.

Learning to notice gives us the power to narrate the story unfolding before us. 

We can choose to bookmark certain moments as worth remembering. We can look for the indicators of past moments that made a life-changing impact and be present in current moments that have the same markings. We can amplify feelings and experiences and shape them with meaning. We can reframe a challenging reality by intensifying gratitude, joy and growth.

The point is, we are all narrating our lives. 

It’s up to you to choose the stories you want to tell yourself and which emotions you want to give a greater voice to.

What to focus on

If it’s not going to matter in the next five minutes, five hours or five days, is it worth focusing on? Is it worth the energy or emotional output?

On the other hand, if it may matter or have lasting impact in the next five weeks, five months or five years, shouldn’t this get the lion’s share of your attention and focus?

Learning to ask better questions is a useful skill. But, getting good at asking better questions isn’t enough on its own. 

The answer to a good question will usually sort itself out.

For most of us, if we ask ourselves a question like this at the right moment, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to discern which of the two categories the current moment would fall into. 

The hard part is training yourself to pause and recognize you are in a moment that requires asking the question.

Noticing is at the heart of it. 

Learn to notice and what to focus on will take care of itself.

The Somebody Trap

…most of us are raised to be somebodies and that is a no-win game to buy into, because while you may turn out to be much more somebody than somebody else, a lot of other people are going to be a lot more somebody than you. And you are going to drive yourself crazy.

Bird By Bird; Anne Lamott

I have a hard time letting go of the fact that I may not be somebody someday (my ego bristles as I write it). Add high-achiever with a dash of perfectionism into the mix and accepting this idea becomes as easy to stomach as trying to hold down some syrup of ipecac.

The allure to be somebody is strong. We all want to be like our heroes. They are our heroes, after all, for a reason. Their contribution changed us for the better. And, perhaps, you dream of making an impact on the same scale. 

The truth is, in order to make our fullest contribution, we have to hold space for the belief that we are worthy of making such a contribution. But, the subtlety here is that the focus should be internally versus externally.

The desire to be somebody keeps you grounded in the finite game of comparison. There will always be someone better than you. Yet, the high-achiever and perfectionist holds themselves to the standard of their heroes. This becomes an impossible benchmark to clear, making it harder to start. 

Looking back, this is exactly what held me back from starting a blog. I wanted to write like my heroes. I expected myself to operate at the same level completely glossing over the time they had invested into their craft. 

When I reflect on the times where I felt less than, I seem to find comparison at the center of it all. Comparison, as they say, is the thief of joy. 

The cosmic joke of it all is that this is an instance where what you need is the complete opposite of what you want. 

When you are able to shed the desire to be somebody, you allow space to make mistakes and do things for the joy of it. It becomes a practice to improve yourself versus proving yourself. 

This allows the roots of inner strength to take hold and enables you to withstand the deluge of the external world. 

You may not end up being somebody. But, that’s the point. Fulfillment comes when we make peace with the fact that we have everything we need in front of us. 

We just need to free ourselves of our ego and take the first step with no expectation other than the joy of the journey. 

What we lack

If you focus on what you have, you gain what you lack. And if you focus on what you lack, you lose what you have.

Effortless by Greg McKeown

I think a lot about time. 

How little of it we all have. 

How we are at the mercy of fate, happenstance, chance or whatever other word you want to use to describe how little we control. Tomorrow holds within it the mystery of unknown or unlimited possibilities. We could face death or we could face another day of the same existence. 

How do we bear the level of anguish that such an uncertain existence burdens us with?

If we calibrate our bearings on what we lack, how can we expect to find solid footing? 

How do we remain grounded? 

The things we lack are infinite. With our mind fixated upon all we lack, we are almost certain to enter into a spinning free fall, unable to distinguish between up and down. We lose ourselves to the pursuit of more – a bucket that will never be filled. And yet, we continue to fill it, remaining ignorant to the hole at the bottom of it. 

This is the very definition of setting ourselves up for failure. 

A focus on what we lack is a coping mechanism for fear – the fear we are not enough, fear we’ve never been enough or fear we’ll never be enough. 

Perfectionism and high-achievement are both born out of a belief that we must pursue what we lack. They narrow our focus and provide us with a myopic view of what we think matters. They are a symptom of a culture that tells us we are not enough and sells us on what we need to fill that gap for just four easy payments of $99.00. 

Irv Blitzer, John Candy’s character in Cool Runnings, sums it up best:

"A Gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."

This is the true lesson of life. 

We must find a way to ignore the incessant beat of the drum for more and focus on what we have. 

What if everything is as it should be?

Gratitude is the antidote for living in the present. 

This is no promise we’ll see tomorrow. We might as well appreciate what we have to unlock the true beauty and impermanence of life. 

Maybe then we’ll realize we lack nothing and have everything we need.

Missed Shots

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take

Wayne Gretzky

I get the point Wayne Gretzky was trying to make with this oft repeated quote. But, I think it ignores the subtlety that catchy maxims gloss over.

This idea that we should be prepared to take the shots or opportunities we’re given sets a false expectation. Is every opportunity worth pursuing? And if I don’t take the shot, will my opportunities in the future diminish?

What if the shot isn’t aligned with my purpose or overall vision for life? 

A mentality where we believe we must take every opportunity is finite thinking, it’s a life of scarcity. 

What if, instead, we just realize the shots for what they are – a decision point, a juncture, a choice. 

And just because you choose to close yourself off to some, doesn’t mean you’re doomed to never get more. 

If anything, these opportunities are a marker you are on the right path. 

Success generally breeds more success. The real challenge is not grasping for every opportunity that presents itself. Rather, we must define what’s important to us so we can take the opportunities that align with our purpose. 

Opportunities have trade-offs. Saying yes to one, closes you off to others. You cannot get something without giving up something else.

Without acknowledging this, you risk living a life reacting to whatever is presented versus one of your own design.

While it is true that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, a life of purpose necessitates we say no to many of them. 

Transcendence in a pair of socks

Spirituality is the deep human longing to experience the transcendent in our ordinary life – it’s the expectation to experience the extraordinary in the ordinary, the miraculous in the mundane, and the sacred camouflaged in the profane

J. Pittman McGhehee

This past Christmas my wife took our 5 year-old daughter to a local shop and let her pick out a couple of things to gift me.

Aside from upgrading my office decor with some serious swagger – including, but not limited to a heart-shaped painted stone, a porcelain jewlery holder in the shape of a dog and a gel pen with a blue kitty cat figurine resting atop with its tail functioning as the clicker (don’t worry, the feelings of jealousy you’re experiencing are completely normal) – she also bought me a brand new pair of thick, soft novelty socks.

This prompted me to ponder on the utility and value of things and how they can evolve over time.  

As a child, socks would often be relegated to one of two piles: 1) the “accidentally misplaced in the garbage” pile or 2) the practical gifts that I’d begrudgingly accept.

As an adult, however, a pair of new socks makes me feel like I’m a descendent of the French monarch living in the Palace of Versailles. 

Slipping my feet into a new pair of soft, thick, plush socks feels so indescribably gratifying, like something that is best left for the privacy of my sanctum. 

It’s on the same level as the feeling of wrapping yourself in a fluffy new bath towel or a flight attendant handing you a hot towel to freshen up or napping in a hammock on a perfect spring day.

By no means do I think I’m transversing to some higher level of spirituality through these moments, but I’ll be damned if it’s not a moment of experiencing the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

And the more mindful I am, the more I find these moments are available to me.

Part of the process of Being – of finding fulfillment – is realizing these moments exist in the mundanity of life.

We need only pay attention to find them.

Boundaries

State lines. Property lines. Medians. Guard rails. Borderlines. Fences. Goal line. End zone.

These are all various forms of the same thing – a boundary. 

They serve as reminder of where the edge is. 

Push too far past it and you’ll exceed the boundary that’s been set. 

Build something outside your property line and there will be reprucussions. Veer off the road over the median or past the guardrails and disaster is certain. Catch a football outside the the end zone and your team won’t score any points.

Boundaries give us information about how the world is structured.

This of course is easy to see in the physical world. The edges are clearly marked.

And we don’t question them. 

The external world exerts a boundary and we adhere.

Of course there are some boundaries we should question critically. 

Because not all boundaries need be set by the external world. 

That’s not to say the external world won’t alwys impose. 

If we haven’t given much thought to our own personal boundaries, it’s easy to accept what is presented as if it’s our only choice. We can feel helpless like flotsam at mercy of the ocean currents.

To set our own boundaries, we must first care. 

We must be invested in an outcome that is different than what the external world imposes. We must have the courage to disagree and push back. Otherwise, our acceptance can turn to resentment. 

You cannot live intentionally if you are constantly accepting what the world imposes. 

A boundary is nothing more than a constraint that informs how to achieve an outcome. 

If you value building a life of contribution, you must set your boundary to encompass the activities and behaviors that maximize your ability to contribute. Anything outside of that or not related must be ignored or minimized.

I suppose if you don’t know what your desired outcome is, then any boundary will do.