July 20, 2012

Tigers Above, Tigers Below

Lately I’ve been reflecting on mortality -- about death and getting old -- you know, your basic mixed bag of depressing thoughts.  It’s a heavy subject, not something I particularly enjoy thinking about, but for whatever reason it’s been a major theme in my mind for the past several weeks. 

What makes mortality seem particularly close is when life begins to feel monotonous – as if every day is the same. When that happens, I feel like I’m not living life to the fullest, and that makes me a little sad.  Though stability is a basic need in my life (I relish in some amount of consistency and routine), I am a big proponent in continually seeking stimulation and growth.  And while such growth can be achieved by having new experiences, I sometimes wonder, which are the right ones to go after?

But every day is not an adventure, and it can’t be an adventure. Too much chaos, commitments, obligations, etc. wear me out anyway.  I'm an introvert -- I need my quiet time.  While reflecting on appreciating the simple pleasures in life and making small changes to mix up your routine, focusing on being in the present is vital. This is what Buddhist philosophy is teaching me.  We do not live in the past or in the future. As a perpetual worrier, living in the present is not instinctual, though. I am always worrying about the future; any possible scenario of something that can go wrong, I have probably already thought about it, and schemed up a solution for it. And this can be a stressful way to live.

While it’s important and necessary to plan for the future, beyond saving for retirement and taking care of yourself physically and mentally, there is no actual benefit to worrying about the future when you cannot map it out by the nanosecond anyway. There’s a saying that goes something like, you plan and then life happens. I agree with this adage, especially as I like to plan and then I also like to rebel.

I suppose the good that's come out of all this worry about mortality is that it’s forced me to take a long hard look at what makes me happy as well as what makes me unhappy -- things that we don't generally evaluate very often. So often we’re in autopilot mode, such that we don’t really stop to think about whether this is what we want to be doing, what we should be doing, and whether these things provide us satisfaction or dissatisfaction.  (A few months ago I gave up my weekly personal to-do list for this very reason and I was amazed to see that I was actually more productive without it.) 

What I've realized is that when you cut out something that doesn’t give you happiness or satisfaction, you have much more time and energy to do other things that are relaxing and enjoyable and provide long-term gratification versus short-term gratification.  They also force you to be in the present.  For me, these things are doing yoga and meditating, listening to and cataloguing music, reading and writing. They are relaxing activities that make me feel like I'm, on even a very small level, growing, evolving, and not watching life passing me by.  But it's only since I've reflected on what it is that both relaxes me and gives me happiness, I've learned that these are the kinds of activities I enjoy doing when I’m simply too tired to do anything else.  When I'm not so tired, well, that's a different story.  I do like a little adventure in my life!

But satisfaction and happiness and living life to the fullest is about finding appreciation in the simple things too -- having dinner with a good friend, enjoying a crisp evening breeze after a hot summer day, listening to your favorite song on the radio, or smelling the peonies in your front yard. 

The other evening I read a parable from The Pocket Pema Chodron about there always being "tigers above, tigers below", which happened to be the perfect prescription for my current angst.  I'll end this post with an excerpt from the passage:

              Tigers above, tigers below.  This is actually the predicament that we are always in,
              in terms of our birth and death.  Each moment is what it is.  It might be the only
              moment of our life, it might be the only strawberry we'll ever eat.  We could get
              depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness
              of every single moment of our life. 

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July 6, 2012

On Honesty

"Your best work is your expression of yourself. Now, you may not be the greatest at it, but when you do it, you're the only expert." - Frank Gehry

The one place where I’ve always felt completely open and uninhibited, with the exception of those who know me well, has been with my writing.  When I write I have no worries about feelings of inhibition, concerns about being misunderstood, or fear over the potential for rejection.  Writing is just my words and me.  I’ve kept some blog or another for the past few years as a space for my thoughts and opinions, and consequently to share with a few readers, be it friends, family, or the occasional foreign visitor, and all the while it has been a great exercise in the ultimate practice of honesty.

My mom happens to be a regular reader of my blog, which I think is great, even if the subject matter doesn't always appeal to her.  She readily expresses her opinion (whether positive or negative) about my chosen topics -- from spray tanning (negative), pink Legoes (positive), or the new HBO show, Girls (negative).  “You know I think you’re a great writer, Sarah,” she says cautiously, adding, "but sometimes I don’t always like your subject matter.” 

“That’s okay,” I tell her.  “You don’t have to.”  I am not offended by this, nor am I surprised.  Knowing that she even takes the time to read my blog is a compliment -- it would be overkill and unexpected, even, to think that she would agree with everything I say.  “Just be careful,” she continues, as if writing a blog that very seldom people read is going to set me up for being kidnapped or raped, but I take her expressed concern as a term of endearment anyway. 

“I appreciate your honesty,” I say.  And I do.  My mom’s perspective is, well, that of a 50-something-year-old Mom – much different than mine, but nonetheless I appreciate her point of view, even if it's slightly old fashioned, the focus of which is on the following issues: my keeping up appearances, being a “lady”, and maintaining a sense of morality.  These are not bad things, and while her opinions make me reflect more about them, they sometimes have the unfortunate side effect of inhibiting me a little bit -- not the best thing when you're trying to attain the ultimate sense of freedom through your creative pursuits -- though it's usually temporary. 

“You are not trash,” she says, referring to my various posts, some of which sometimes contain inappropriately explicit content, according to her. 

I pause, and smile, “Well, maybe I am trashy,” I say. 

“You are not trashy.” 

“Maybe I’m a little trashy,” I respond, testing her. 

I give my mom props for raising the woman I’ve become – she instilled in me the ability to become a pretty strong and dynamic person; she showed me the value of good manners and of being a lady (to which I sometimes succeed at); she taught me all the housewife basics (I am no housewife, but if I were I think I'd be a damned good one); and, she reinforced the importance of gumption and follow-through.  By way of leading by example, and perhaps most important, she also taught me to have a voice, an opinion, a perspective.  I cannot remember ever not having an opinion about something, whether I shared it or kept it to myself.

The truth of the matter – which I tried to explain to my mom in this conversation and which she understood being the reflective person she is – is the importance of having a little place in the world where we can feel free to be ourselves, away from what society expects from us, from what our parents expect from us, from what even we expect from ourselves, because often, when we let down our guard, when we give way to inhibitions, we surprise ourselves, giving way to greater depth than we ever thought possible, and that is a pretty special thing -- inappropriate or not. 

For me, that space happens to be my blog, which is mostly anonymous, except for friends and family who know I keep one.  For others who happen to stumble upon it, well, they only know me as Sarah, that “wallflower with a lot of opinions and a bit of sass.”

I believe that practicing honesty by shedding inhibitions is a big step to sharing yourself with the world, even if that “world” happens to be only a few handfuls of people.  It’s a short life to live if we’re always consumed with appearances and how people are perceiving us  -- something we all struggle with in one way or another because we’re all just trying to be understood.   Ultimately, the gratification we get from a life fully lived is achieved by being as honest with ourselves as we can be and then attaining the self-acceptance that we're all striving for.   And you know what?  Life is too short to be ladylike all the time.  Right, Mom?

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