Life in the Slow Lane

Today I woke up feeling good. On 7/11/18, 2 months and 2 days ago, I had just one of the worst evenings of my life. The following few days were even more difficult. These last 2 months have been a journey that I realize is life-long and I’m in no rush to finish. I’m enjoying and embracing every step forward and every obstacle that prohibits steps forward, or that even sets me a few back. Obstacles and set backs are really necessary learning experiences.

Today I’m in gratitude. I might not be in an hour, but for now I am and I’m incredibly grateful.

I could write for hours about how I got here (I promise I won’t). The biggest contributor was my childhood and the mal-adaptive strategies [albeit very normal] I developed early on to deal with life while my brain was forming. One of my newly favorite psychology writers Van Der Kolk calls it Developmental Traumatic Disorder (DTD). This diagnostic explanation is fairly new in the world of Psych. It didn’t quite make it to the DSM 5 which is latest edition of the manual by which mental health clinicians diagnose and bill for disorders. For now the closest diagnosis is PTSD, which DTD is branch of. Particularly for me, for now it’s Delayed Onset, Complex PTSD. It turns out I’m just another statistic and if someone were watching closely, everything that happened to me could have been predicted.

I’ve been through a gamut of emotions the past few months. Many before 7/11, but even more, and much more intensely since. Crazily, but also not surprisingly this episode took place just 2 days and exactly 25 years after what was one of the most transformational days of my life at the time when I was 17. I’d written about it before in My Mom. It’s one of my trigger dates, something I don’t think I fully believed in until this summer. I didn’t consciously recognize the significance of how the date triggered me, but my body did. The Body Keeps the Score.It really does.

What I realized most profoundly this summer is that I have PTSD. I really do. Two and a half years ago I had my first panic attack. I was immediately diagnosed with Anxiety and Panic Disorder. Last summer the PTSD diagnosis was added. While I remember telling people about it, somehow I didn’t realize how important it was to my mental recovery to embrace and work on it. In fact, when the true awareness hit me like a ton of bricks just less than a week after 7/11 this year, I was surprised to realize that I’d been sharing and telling people about it prior to then. A few days ago I re-read something I added to my blog page in May “About Me”, and it was there too! Why wasn’t I working on it?

I wasn’t working on my trauma and PTSD for many reasons. Because it wasn’t urgent and didn’t seem important. Because no one tells you that it’s important. In fact, no one can; it’s something you have to discover on your own when your body is ready. Also because I didn’t have the time or the life style until now. That is why I’m in gratitude this morning. I’m moving in the slow lane and I love it.

From a young age I moved fast. I always had excessive energy. I never understood how anyone could sit at a meeting or in a class and not fidget. I was just always bursting out of my skin. Driving… I had to be in the fast line. I was constantly assessing for traffic, changing lanes with the flow. Heart always racing. Breath always erratic. I was always, always, always looking for more efficient ways to do things. From driving to folding laundry to cleaning… to redesigning whole work groups and even departments at my job. I was good at it. It was a great outlet for my energy. I was efficient and I helped others to be as well. A good use of my talents. Or so I thought.

Now I’m living in the slow lane. I still have the habit of moving fast, but I catch myself at least 80% or so of the time when I realize that for no good reason my heart is in a lurch or my breath isn’t steady. I stop it and slow down. I manage my breath. I smell the roses. I ground myself in the present and it’s SO much better. I think about that quote about how nothing or everything is a miracle, and see things as beautiful. Even ugly things. I wish we could teach our children this from a young age. Instead we are programmed to ‘succeed’, to do more & faster, to have it all, to do it all. We are programmed to think we are a failure if we don’t meet this criteria. On paper by this methodology I was a huge success.

Take two driven people like my husband and myself, put them together, and what do you have? It’s debatable. 7 years ago I would have thought a match made in heaven. In fact at our wedding we incorporated the Japanese term of kaizen (continuous improvement) into our vows. Ugh… how I cringe now. All I can think of is U2’s lyrics in the song ‘Moment of Surrender’

The stone was semi precious
We were barely conscious
Two souls too smart to be
In the realm of certainty
Even on our wedding day

I do believe in continuous improvement, but not in the way it was taught to me (faster, better, do more, etc). I believe it the slow movement. That less is more. That slowing down and even stillness is where the magic of life lies. Take a look at the pets in our lives. They are content with doing less, watching the world outside the window for hours just as it is. Accepting us for who we are. Not caring about how we are dressed or what fancy letters come after our name. They are in a sense more human from a sense of connection than we are. I have four pets. I didn’t even have time to pet them before. I would shoo them away when they came to climb on me when I collapsed on the couch after 16 hours of non-stop movement. We had to have our dog in day care just to get exercise and go out because no one was home long enough to play with him or take him out. Picking him up and dropping him off was another burdened activity on the check-list. Why have pets, kids, a house (2 in our case), a garden, etc – when there was no time to put any love or life into any of it? It’s been a slow realization for me that none of this makes sense. That I was living by a clock and not a compass. It took even longer to do anything meaningful about it. I’m still on that journey and in no rush to any finish line. The unfolding is a beautiful experience that I’m embracing wildly.

I wrote a few paragraphs back that I could write for hours about how I got here. Everyone has their own journey, their own stories, their own level of awareness, and their own (hopefully) point in their life – more often than not in the second half of it, in which they proverbially “wake up”.

My own story started on March 1, 2012. At work I enrolled in a Franklin Covey industry based class for the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It was a 2-day seminar that set the path of a new life for me. At the time I was recently remarried and my husband and I were just finishing up the renovations we worked on non-stopfor 2 months in our new home. I felt SO alive during those renovations. I loved working on the house. We often stayed up until 1 or 2am in the morning on work nights and didn’t feel the least bit exhausted in the morning.

Once the renovations were finishing up I started to feel trapped, bored, and useless. Something I wasn’t accustomed to feeling. Since my husband and I moved in together with our kids the year before I felt like I was mentally unraveling. The renovations were a pleasant distraction. I began going to a bible study at the hospital where I work which one of my vanpool mates hosted. I hung onto many of the teachings and words, learning new language to explain what I was feeling. The Covey class used similar language but explained it in a different way that opened me up in a special fashion. Three things I really connected with was the concept of a paradigm that we see the world through, that I make my own independent choices constantly, and that to feel in line with who you are; we should be living by a compass and not a clock. Wow. This was mind blowing and life changing for me.

Shortly after I explored the bible much more. Then I ran into a Bishop Spong book quite by accident (I honestly cannot remember which one). I was never religious, but grew up Catholic and felt like it was a sin to question anything that didn’t make sense. As soon as my mind took me to those questioning places, guilt kicked in and I pushed it away. The John Shelby Spong book provided the freedom to question what made no sense and shift the focus to something that did in a more mystical, metaphysical way where it allmade sense. From there I found podcasts on the Centers for Spiritual Living to help time pass while having to drive to Bedford, MA quite often for work in 2 ½ hours each direction. Those podcasts prompted me to read the ghastly large book by Ernest Holmes called “The Science of Mind”. The world was opening and unfolding in ways I could have never dreamed. From there for some unknown reason I started taking yoga classes, which spoke the same type of language. Then I would listen to Alan Watts during my lunch walks and long commutes. All different words, but the same beautiful, timeless messages that make sense.

Years later in January 2016 I loved yoga and this way of thinking so much, I started yoga teacher training. My regular life with work, the kids, pets, blended family, commute, and constant RUSH was becoming unsustainable. Why was I adding a full weekend a month commitment to this training? I don’t know but I just felt compelled.

For some reason I thought in yoga teacher training I would learn more about the poses, teaching, and the actual class. Instead, like the Franklin Covey class years before it became a personal journey. I quickly decided that it was a necessity to meditate regularly. Once I started quieting my mind and relaxing regularly, I realized that is how a body should feel and how I lived for the previous 40 years was anything but calm. It started to become unbearable to not feel calm. Combine that with what I now realize is a few PTSD triggers from work at the time, it’s absolutely no surprise that I had my first panic attack exactly when I did and they escalated from there; completely out of control. My body was releasing 40 years worth of emotion that was bubbling just under the surface. The same energy that kept me moving, grooving and successful; was the same energy that was keeping me stressed and mentally unaware that I was damaging myself by not dealing with the trauma that has plagued my mind, body and spirit.

The past two and a half years since have been transformational. A lot of bad and negative things arose, but more positive, learning experiences than anything bad. You have to go through it to move through it. It sounds simple, but it’s much harder than it sounds. It wasn’t until now that I’ve given myself the time and opportunity to heal. But you have to make the time. Your life has to allow it. You have to slow down.

This past summer was rough. I spent hours upon hours writing and allowing myself to remember and experience the anguish of old memories. Many were the same memories that came up during what I now know as PTSD episodes, but I’d felt too ashamed, embarrassed or dramatic to explore. In writing, crying, thinking, gardening, exercising, waking up in the middle of the night, reading, etc – I started to explore my triggers and where they came from. It made sense. I learned more about how the brain is wired and why I seemed to lose control at times. I logged and shared trigger dates with my family. I allowed myself to feel all that I’ve always pushed away and thought I moved past years ago. It was always there waiting for me to deal with it. I just didn’t slow down enough to hear it.

Today I feel good. Over coffee this morning I saw my husband petting one of the cats who was purring where he shouldn’t be (on a counter). When my husband moved his hand away to finish getting ready for work, our cat Gilmore bipped him on the hand – asking for more petting, which Daren provided. We are in a place where we have time to pet our cats. I am thankful I am in a job where if I woke up in the middle of the night and didn’t sleep for hours that the pressure of getting dressed and driving to the office with a smile is not there because I can telework and I’m part-time. I’m thankful for the mental health breakdown this summer. I spent so much time on the days I wasn’t working living like my pets. I napped in the middle of the day if I needed to. I only ate when I was hungry. If I felt like the sun was calling me, I read and wrote outside. If I felt the urge to move I went for a walk, run or bike ride. Listening to my body helped me to attune to what it’s telling me in other ways too. Our bodies are a walking, living, physical communication device. It’s a compass of that path we should be on.

This summer I also listened to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People CDs that I was provided with from that class back in March of 2012. Listening to the late Stephen Covey’s voice felt like listening to an old friend with sound, sage, timeless advice. I also spent quite a bit of time doing those old exercises again. I created a mission statement, thought about my values and principles, my ‘rocks’, how I communicate with people, how I think and how I live. I thought about the life that I want to program. My own talents. Not the talents the world has barked at me – like designing things bigger better and faster, but what I wanted to be when I was a kid with no restrictions and what that meant. The imprint I want to leave on the world.

These aren’t overnight answers. If I thought for a New York second that I know them right now I’d be fooling myself. I’ll be working on them for the rest of my life. I’m trying diligently to listen to the compass. If we quiet ourselves enough, and ask our inner selves for advice, the most profound wisdom is all there, right within us. Our bodies know what we need. They keep the score.

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My dog Koji who teaches me all sorts of invaluable lessons without saying a word
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Bored at home after carpal tunnel surgery of my right hand this past Monday (9/10), I decided to try to open my right brain by painting with my left hand
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My left handed drawing depicting what is supposed to be a sunset
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This one started left-handed by I switched to using my wrapped surgical hand to clean it up (majorly). It’s a rendition of a little knickknack my step-kids gave me for the holidays several years back by one of my favorite fun modern artists (Miami artist Roberto Britto)

On the Mysterious Secret of Slowing Down

Last Sunday evening after dinner I was washing a pot. I was washing it very mindfully.  I was noticing the feel of the warm, soapy water on my hands. I thought about how the pot was made and how I infused the homemade vegan chili in this large, heavy blue pot with love. Most importantly I was slowly and methodically removing the food that was stuck to the bottom of the pan. I thought back to a lesson I just cannot seem to always remember – “To go faster you must slow down”.

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I led a fast paced adult life until about 2 years ago. So fast that I hardly had time to think. Washing a pot with food stuck to the bottom has always reminded me of this paradox; thanks to a visit from my mother a few years before she passed away. When my children were young and I was first married, we had little money, but I kept a really good home. I felt very on top of things. But I was rushed back then too. I was so rushed that I never really had time to deal with pots that ended up with years worth of stains on them. In late 2001 my mother came to visit with her new husband Boris. I had only just met him, and I know he made my mother very happy. He was from Venezuela. My mom talked so much about how laid back he was and how he got her to slow down, grow out her hair, and stop fussing so much with make up and keeping up the house. I made a big dinner when they came to visit, and afterward there were many pots and pans that needed cleaning. My mother and Boris came into the kitchen to help and stationed themselves at the sink; she on dish duty, he on drying duty. What seemed like only moments later while I was putting the leftover food into containers, I noticed Boris drying off one of the pots. What caught my eye about a particular pot that usually had brown and black soot on the bottom was that it was so shiny and clean. Years worth of food and cooking build up was gone! I asked my mother how she did that and so fast… she only smiled with a glint in her eye and said “Boris showed me how”. She never told me with words, but with her eyes she told me to slow down and go easy. The next time I had to clean a pot and ever since I’ve taken my time, used far less pressure than I ever would have and they have always come clean. Working in a rush and with too much pressure used more time and never yielded the same results. I never understood how, it’s just the way it works.

I learned this 17 years ago, but I still don’t always remember or practice this principle. Two years ago I slowed down immensely, truly savoring the small, day-to-day moments, and oddly enough I found myself to be happier, more at peace and with more time than I ever had. It’s not only time, but also about ‘less’. Doing less, trying less, having less… all equal less stress and more joy.

Last week I had the luxury of traveling with my husband and a group of amazing individuals from my yoga studio to a jungle sanctuary in Costa Rica. Getting to this sanctuary required two commercial flights, a puddle jumper plane, a 45 minute car ride, and then a 20 minute hike crossing a river four times. It was hot and humid; the type of humidity where you never dry off, even after a shower.

The only way on and off the sanctuary is a 20 minute-plus hike. On the last full day of the trip, my husband Daren and I ventured off the property to the sanctuary’s closest neighbor Nena, in pursuit of pure organic extra virgin coconut oil. It was a short walk over a bridge that overlooks the ocean to Nena’s house. For the previous two days, Daren & I opted to take some excursions off the property with our group. Both days were a little hectic and obscenely hot at times. I felt ambivalent all morning about whether or not we should take the walk down the hill to get this coconut oil, mainly because it was hot. For some reason I said I’d like to go but I wanted to walk slowly. So off we went to Nena’s house for coconut oil.

Daren and I really took our time. We stopped and looked at monkeys. We watched little birds. We passed our friend the white cow. When we left the property and crossed the street we stopped on the bridge. Actually, Daren on the bridge and called out to me “Babe, look at this view!”. Slightly annoyed, I stopped to look. I was initially feeling rushed, looked at my watch and started calculating how much time it would take to get to Nena’s, buy this coconut oil, trek back, “relax” at the pool, and then dash off to the next yoga class. However, when I turned my head to the left and saw the scene, my heart rate actually slowed down a bit. I couldn’t believe I was about to just walk by and miss this scene! I took it in. While standing there I couldn’t help but notice this insane harried American thought pattern and I pushed it completely away. When I stopped and didn’t worry about the time, I was able to remember that I was here in this beautiful place, at this beautiful moment, with my beautiful husband and a group of beautiful well-lit individuals. I stopped my physical, then mental body from the rush of insanity and fleeting thoughts to appreciate the view and the view of my husband appreciating the view.
We stood there a while in silence. I took a few pictures and resisted the urge to snap more. More is not better. More pictures, more talk, more activity… more, more, more… No, no, no… I know this, but I live in a world that tells me the opposite; so it’s easy to forget.
It was I who broke the silence after a long while. I had the profound realization that because we walked slowly we weren’t as hot as we were the rest of the trip. I intellectually knew that before we walked and even made that suggestion, but it was even more profound to experience that it worked. It dawned on me that every time I go anywhere where the weather is warm all the time, the locals move slowly. I heard other Americans and Canadians joking about how the natives live on “Costa Rican time”. I’ve heard the same joke in other places. All these Americans and Europeans thinking it’s so funny to crack jokes about how slow everyone moves, when really the joke is on us. What is wrong with us? We are the dummies sweating in the sun because we are rushing around like lunatics. It’s our culture that is uptight, wound up and stressed. What are we in a rush to do anyway? At that moment on the bridge I decided to put my watch in my pocket and let the day pass as it may. Strangely there seemed to be just the right amount of time for everything once I stopped worrying at all about it.

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Daren with our friend the pretty white cow who was often on the path onto and off the sanctuary.
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The view I nearly just didn’t notice

When we start to move too fast, we often do not see what we need to see. (Huffington Post 2015 – Why Going Slow Will Make You Go Faster). This applies to work, our lives with our families and friends, or achieving any of our goals. Maybe it’s not just what we need to see, but what will enhance our everyday experiences.

In the midst of this jungle last week we were surrounded by wildlife. It was beautiful, simple, exotic, intoxicating, and natural. This was a yoga group at a yogic sanctuary. Yogi’s might be more aware than most about the beauty of being conscious, but are no less human and subject to falling prey to being unconscious in a world that keeps dangling shiny temptations all around. One of my teachers deliberately did not go on one of the daily excursions on a day that every other single one of the group did. She said she did not want to feel rushed, and she sat watching monkeys for several hours that day instead. The message she took away is that the monkeys were there all along, providing the same level of awe and entertainment, but had one not taken the time to just stop and observe, it would have been missed.

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The evening we returned to Connecticut from Costa Rica, Daren and I found ourselves on a line at a McDonald’s drive through on the way home from the airport at 11:45 at night. By that point in the day we had been up & en route home since 5:15am. We had only one square meal. We were tired, dirty and stressed. Hurry up and wait. We almost missed a connecting flight because Passport Control was a hot mess when we got back into the U.S. We were waiting on a very long car line at 11:45pm for an absolutely nutritiously poor meal (well Daren was waiting, I was looking forward to some soup at home). We were stressed. Daren was tapping at the wheel. I was mentally trying hard to not fall into the trap of ordering something greasy or feeling upset over the slow moving line, all while trying to stay cheerful so my husband could stay positive too. In my mind I was doing math again about the number of things I needed to do the next day to get ready for the week, wondering how I could fit them in. How much mail was there? Who is taking the dog to the vet Thursday? What should I pull out for dinner tomorrow? Should I go shopping? I needed to inventory the food situation at home first, right? With every thought I felt my blood pressure rising. And every time I noticed my breath becoming rapid and shallow or my heart racing, I made the conscious decision to breath deeply and live in the moment. That only lasts a few moments out here in the “real world” until the thoughts & heart start to race again. How could you explain this feeling to someone in the third world?

We may have been in the middle of the jungle, but the concrete jungle creates artificial stressors that make living life to the fullest impossible. It’s impossible because living life to the fullest was taught to me that one need to fit in as much “fun”, work, and activities that one possibly can. This means learning as much as you can, moving quickly, multi-tasking, making lots of money to do these amazing things (because heck they aren’t free!), AND providing these amazing experiences to our offspring. Making money means more rushing and more stress. For most, making money means sitting in a car or in some form of transportation for unfathomable periods of time each day, to do a job you hardly ever see the results of or feel connected to, for far too many hours each day. Then rushing home to activities and usually harried, unhealthy meals – if you are lucky with loved one(s). Weekends for the most are spent putting your living quarters back together from the rush of the busy week by cleaning, doing laundry, shopping, shuffling other humans around and spending “quality” time with other humans you are supposed to care for to keep your social life active and your role as a parent connected with your children. In between you must squeeze in the “fun” and “experiences” you are going out to make all that money for, but also it’s very important to exercise, meditate, perform self-care, visit the doctor-dentist-optometrist regularly, prepare healthy organic, locally grown ingredient-based meals at home and sleep enough hours per night just so you don’t get fat, stressed or sleep deprived. You know… so you can be happy and experience life to the fullest. Sounds insane to me!

The Harvard Business Review writes about how this slow to go fast paradox works in business as well. When we take the time to get things right, rather than plow ahead full bore, we are far more successful in meeting objectives (Harvard Business Review 2010 – Need Speed? Slow Down).
Physics teaches us that time is relative. Slowing down means time slows down with you. I can’t explain why this is, it’s just is. Another exquisite paradox is that it also helps you appreciate and truly experience more. Additionally life and experiences become less expensive, less material and far less stressful. This article is a bit more on the holistic side, but resonates with me because it talks about how when you work less you work better, find what really makes you happy, have the ability connect with others, and are able to savor life (Wholesome Living – 10 reasons why you should slow down to go faster).

The overall message for me is that slowing down = living life to the fullest. I keep forgetting, but the time between which I do is growing larger and larger. I hope that others who haven’t given it a whirl do! There’s nothing to lose but old, tired ideas of what it means to life our lives to the absolute fullest.

Unknown

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Sunrise one morning from the Tower at the Sanctuary
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Sunset one evening on the beach of Santa Theresa Costa Rica

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