Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Could've, would've, should've

This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
                                                --- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Time. I have had the luxury of time these past few months. Time to sit back and listen to the silence. Time to enjoy long walks. Time to observe nature. Time to study something just for the fun of it. Time to listen, read and watch wonderful creations from amazing minds. Time to reflect. Time to be non-productive... hmmmm... that doesn’t quite sound right, does it?

Just before I took a sabbatical from work, I made a list of things I wanted to do during my time off. I called it the ‘Time Off’ list (yeah, could not come up with anything creative there). It was a list of everything I’d wished I were doing while I felt stuck at work. Things I normally could not find the time for. Everything on my list was something I enjoyed doing and ambitiously hoped to get better at. All I needed was time and that was exactly what I was getting. Loads of it. Wonderful!

For the first couple of weeks, my mind was a mush. The medications made it impossible to have a clear head. All I could do was amble around. But I like ambling, so I ambled often during the course of the day. Which apart from helping the circulation, also helped me mull things over. As mullings go, it was pretty exhausting (and frustrating when the decisions don’t magically appear in one epiphanous moment) but I was desperate to find some answers and time was ticking.

Later, when I could function near normal, I still did not do most of what was on the list. It is very disappointing to look through the list now, at the end of my vacation. I am puzzled at my apparent disengagement to the list. Like I said, everything on it is something I love doing. Why then did I not find the time for it? It looked to me like a pattern. A pattern in my life were chances were not availed upon for some reason or the other, all seemingly rational. My recent choices were a bit of an eye-opener too, a realization of what my true priorities were and not what I thought they were. It was humbling because I was fanatically certain of what my choice would be when given the opportunity. There is a term for it - Cognitive Dissonance. A fancy way of saying I did not do what I thought I would.

Defining the problem could see us halfway through a solution, but it doesn’t quite take away the frustration it causes. And I suspect that, in some way, this dissonance correlates to the lizard brain. The higher the resistance, the more the dissonance. This is marked by a feeling that sticks to me throughout the day, a feeling that translates as a never ending wish to be doing something other than what I am presently doing. A colossal inability to engage in the present.

On observation, it looks like this urge to disconnect starts from the time I wake up. Actually, it starts right about the time I am supposed to wake up from the cozy confines of bed. Its very first occurrence of the day - a wish to stay cuddled up under warm sheets... and the corresponding resistance to get up in the wee hours of the morning to fit in a workout. If I do oblige my wish to stay comfortable and push the limits of time, then the hour that is lost takes with it the time for my keystone habit. And then I might as well forget all that has to be done through the course of the day. Everything goes hurtling from there. But if by herculean effort I do as I ought to, it’s mostly on autopilot.

Most of what I do is done without full engagement. My mind is constantly trying to rush the minutes, ready to skip to the next activity. One more thing to be crossed off in the day’s checklist of activities. There is always something better I should be doing at the moment. However much I fancy finding the time for, say writing, when I do get a chunk of time for it, I decide to go walking instead. A breath of fresh air will clear my head, give way for creativity maybe? But don’t you think it is better to sit down and show up? Nah... I need to walk outside on slippery sidewalks in subzero weather. I think it will do me good.

Interestingly, what was not on the time-off list was my intention to heal and get healthy again. I did not have to put that down in the list. It was something I knew and felt. I worked out the specifics as I went along and followed the way of the legendary tortoise. I was utterly focused on doing something that was glaringly not on the list. A prime case of dissonance, I would say. A bad habit that has become so ingrained that it is almost a reflexive response to everything I do. But the case maybe that subconsciously, I might have felt that the list was in fact, a distraction. I must have felt that it was imperative to me and those around me to stabilize my keystone habit. A foundation upon which all else rests. So that is exactly what I worked on these past few months, without quite admitting it to myself.

Why so surreptitious? Because it seemed frivolous, to me at least. Why would I want to spend so much time, thought and effort on being so ruthlessly focused on something that should be second nature anyway? Shouldn’t I instead, work feverishly on my blog posts, knock off a book a week from my to-read list, try to write down all those stories spinning in my head, give my time to those who need it, learn French, learn a new technology, work on my meditation, find time to cook a meal for a friend...? But the only hurdle to it all was that I seemed to be thinking of working on them always at the most inopportune moment. Every. Single.Time. 

Anyway, I kept at the process, a very likeable one I must say, of eating well and moving more, while all the time fighting a guilty feeling that I was whiling away precious time. Time that could be better spent on less selfish deeds. And that I understand, is exactly how excuses grow larger and louder. And how the resistance grows stronger - the typical workings of a lizard brain. For some inexplicable reason, this time around, on the matter of my health, I ignored the resistance altogether without actually intending to. Didn’t try to reason with it nor did I try to justify my actions. I simply and stubbornly stuck to the course. If finding ways to spread 10 miles of walking throughout the day and being obsessive about what goes down my gullet seem a tad narcissistic, so be it. This went on for a while. My health improved and I had never in my entire life felt this good. To celebrate my full recovery, I ran a 4-miler. Not to gloat, but for perspective: running was not even an option for another few weeks. And no, it was not stupidity or disregard for medical advice. It was, in my case, taking the advice, then working, persisting and finding out for myself all that is possible.

So when the time came to look back and take stock of the year that’s passed, I realized something. I had, for the first time ever, however fleeting it was, felt consonance in my thought and action. What I had valued and was particularly diligent about was what showed through. Never mind that I did not quite acknowledge it. So at the end of it all, here is my revelation - an action can become second nature when you plow through resistance with unwavering focus on what needs to be done. Oh and, when you immerse yourself in the process, you could care less about how it appears to others.

My time off felt like a roller coaster ride. Roller coaster ride as in... lots of thrilling ups, terrifying downs and head-spinning loops. And also as in... the ride was entirely voluntary. And for the realization that came half way into it - that there was no way out but through. Now that the ride is over, I am all shook up. In a good way. I pretty much am the same as when I started. But very much marked by my experience. And somewhere along the ride, a few excuses fell away. Now, what I remember most about the ride is the exhilaration and the fear. And my utter focus on the ride itself. For that, I am glad I took it.