Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Night Owl's Experiment: Developing a Nighttime Routine

"Tomorrow, I'm going to honor a nighttime routine."

One of my big goals for July was to develop a Wake-up Routine. I succeeded in that goal, and it's been wonderful starting my days with intention. My apartment stays clean with fewer cleaning binges stressing me out. I let the routine slide during a high-anxiety week, and that's okay. The routine was all set and reassuring when I was ready to step back into it.

The reason it works is because it's more than "cleaning," it's meditation. It's cleaning mixed in with tooth-brushing, stretching and affirmations, and breakfast. It flows together like watercolors and reminds me that I am part of my environment, and I'm worth taking care of. (From what I understand, the “care” aspect makes it a ritual instead of a routine, but that’s a topic for another time.)

It's been such a comfort, I'm excited to work on a nighttime routine now. I'm a night owl. I get a burst of energy when the sun goes down and it takes major effort to pull me away from whatever I'm working on. I suspect learning to read my body's tiredness cues will be a big part of a nighttime routine's success.

When I experimented with a Dream Day calendar, I set numerous alerts to remind me to start winding down. They were absolutely useless, just like an alarm to wake up in the morning was useless. I need to apply the same strategy to nights that I've had so much success with in mornings, which is:

1. Focus on the task order.

I've tried making goals like "meditate every night" and they always get dropped for that extra episode of Cupcake Wars. Morning goals used to get dropped for extra time playing on my phone, and the way I got over that was by creating an “order of operations” for my morning. For my nighttime routine, if I blend meditation, cross stitch, and reading in with dishes, wiping counters, and washing my face, in the same order every night, I believe the whole will support the parts.

Every race needs a starter's pistol. I can start with the same task every time. I’m thinking first, put on podcast, second, wipe table. That feels like a good starting place for me.

2. Time the whole.

Instead of assuming I'll get to everything every morning, I limit my morning routine to an hour. My morning routine has dishes and laundry in it. Tasks like those fluctuate based on how much mess has accumulated. It took some practice to learn what an hour feels like without watching the clock. I have an even better idea for nighttime! I'm gonna put on a podcast or CD while I do the cleaning part, then finish it out to cross stitch, and after it's done, move to my bedroom/bathroom for tooth brushing, reading, and meditation. While my Wake-up Routine takes one hour, with how much effort it takes to convince my night owl brain to rest, the Nighttime Routine will probably take two.

3. It'll happen when it happens.

My hope is that the self-regulatory nature of routines will lead to a regular sleep/wake schedule. Then, I’ll be able to say, “My nighttime routine starts at 9 PM.” (HA, 9 PM, that's like early evening!) Until then, my plan is simply to commit to the tasks, not the hour, so I have to learn not to push myself to exhaustion by starting too late in the night. Tonight is a bad example of listening to internal cues. I was so excited to repeat the routine I practiced yesterday, I went straight to Google Docs to write about it.

It’s a process!

I’ve decided to break my Nighttime Routine into three phases, so I can master them in baby steps.

Phase 1: Leading Rein (Titled this, not because any of these acts give me control, but because they allow my mind to take me where it needs to go. Of course, listening to a podcast impedes that. Hmm.Something to consider, there.)
  1. Put on podcast or album
  2. Wipe table
  3. Wipe counters
  4. Wipe stove
  5. Diffuse a calming essential oil
  6. Prep tomorrow’s meals as applicable
  7. Throw out trash / sort recyclables
  8. Wash dishes
  9. Wipe sink and faucet
  10. Brew tea
  11. Sweep
Phase 2: Passage (The phase between active and asleep.)
  1. Tidy desk
  2. Tidy living room (adjust couch cushions and pillows, fold blankets, stack books)
  3. Enjoy tea and cross stitch [I’m still working on timing. Until end of podcast? End of one needle’s worth of embroidery floss? 20 minutes? I’ll try it a few ways and see what works.]
  4. Play with cats until they lay on their sides
  5. Plug in mobile devices to charge
  6. Refill water bottle
  7. Turn lights and other electronics off in the living side of the apartment
Phase 3: Landing Place
  1. Put on PJs
  2. Brush teeth
  3. Floss
  4. Wash face
  5. Moisturize
  6. Read, 20 mins.
  7. Adjust the bed covers and window so the room is cool, dark, and quiet
  8. Body scan meditation
  9. If not asleep within 30 minutes, repeat last three steps.

I made these lists in the Reminders app on my iPhone 4S. Any to-do list app will work great. Of course, it’s best to minimize screen use before bed, so a whiteboard, chalkboard, or plain ol’ piece of paper could be used instead.

I make sure to use the checklists even if I feel like I have it memorized because, honestly, if it were intuitive, I would’ve been doing it all along. Besides, the point is not to recreate the order every time, but to develop habits of Thing B after Thing A.

I’d like to say my goal is to master this by the end of August, but with three phases, I have a feeling it’s going to take longer than two weeks to get it down pat.

It’s important to remind myself to do these things without expectation. It’s all for me, so if it doesn’t improve my life, I can let it go and try something else instead. It is impossible to fail.

What works for you?

Monday, August 17, 2015

Better Life Meditation with Lynn Le: A Night of Coping Lessons

"Tomorrow, I'm going to practice new coping skills through meditation."

A week ago Friday, I sat on my couch as the sun set, not bothering to adjust the lights. My day had gone as planned: wakeup routine (including the laundry AND the stretching parts!), 750words daily challenge, healing writing project, work hours--all good.

Yet I felt unsettled. Anxiety's been coming back intermittently since my mom had all those health scares a couple weeks ago. That’s why I haven’t been blogging.

I knew if I stayed home that night, I’d end up watching TV until my mind went numb, so I made a choice to fight my withdrawing impulse and go try something new: a meditation event at a nail salon.

When I got there, a woman opened the door for me and gestured down a hallway. It opened into a well-decorated, fully-outfitted nail salon. (Lots of purples--of course I would like like it!) A woman stood at a podium near the front entrance, sorting papers.

"Looks like nobody's coming," she said.

"Oh really?" I asked, "There were 7 RSVPs, weren't there? I can leave if you want to cancel."

"No, no," she said, "This is better. For you."

She uncoiled a white mat and tossed down some pillows. I started to sit perpendicular to her, like I would've if it were a larger group sitting in a circle.

"You can sit in front of me. It's just us," she said. I felt on display there, suddenly aware that I'm three times her weight, suddenly wishing I'd worn a shirt without spills on it. At the same time, I knew this was pretty cool. How many people have this experience of trusting a stranger enough to sit down with them and close your eyes?

She asked about my meditation experience and I told her I've been practicing Mindfulness Meditation and Secular Buddhism for about a year. I do a body scan meditation every night. But generally I'd still consider myself a newbie.

The type of meditation we did that night at the salon is called Frequency Meditation. I had done it before but my mind was still anxious and I didn’t make the connection. Frequency meditation relies on chakras and flows or blocks of energies. I don't believe in chakras, but I let myself be suggestible while I'm there, because I do believe in the power of the mind. If I visualize energy in my heart chakra for an hour, the act helps me cultivate love and compassion.

Lynn Le guided the meditation with the simple directions to, “Breathe, from your heart to your brain, and out through your mouth.” I tried, but I had a hard time visualizing that. As a singer, I regularly imagine my breath starting lower--more of a belly breath. When I imagined breathing into my heart, the breath felt limited and tight. Eventually I settled into my normal deep-breathing habits because I was more comfortable: deep belly breath, out through the nose. I continued to zone in on the phrase “from the heart to the brain,” though. Lynn Le held her hand out to use her vibrations to heal me.

We stayed like that for an hour, and then she asked if I felt anything. I answered honestly.

“I feel more relaxed. I feel connected to you. My breathing felt tight in the beginning, but now I breathe easily. My foot’s asleep.” I stretched my legs out in front of me. “It was hard to concentrate because my back hurt. I have a fractured vertebra, but I’m glad I made the effort.”

“Oh, really?” she asked.

“Well, the wing-shaped tip of a vertebra is fractured, not the whole thing. It’s an old injury, but it still hurts sometimes.”

She closed her eyes and said she would help me. We meditated again.

My back pain did get better. I think admitting out loud that I was hurting helped me adopt a more comfortable seating position, without trying to “look the part” of a meditator. But it could have been Lynn’s healing energy. Why not?

The most energizing part of the experience was the hour that followed. We talked about coping skills and depression. The lessons she gave were so beautiful and on-point, I had quite a few epiphany moments. I’m going to write these in list style so they’re easy to access and copy down for reference.

  1. “Twirling water.” When someone causes conflict, you can respond, or you can collect yourself first. A quick comeback is like twirling your finger the opposite direction of spinning water. The water’s going to crash over the sides of the cup, make a mess, and leave you thirsty. However, if you wait until you are calm, the water will also calm.

    I experienced this when I got in an argument with my brother. Instead of saying the first angry things that came to mind, I vacuumed my living room rug. I meditated on how my environment is an extension of myself. Clean rug, clean mind. Then I sat down and did nothing for a while. The origins of my brother’s feelings became clearer, like taking a moment to breathe had made room for empathy. I responded to him thoughtfully. Later that night, he sent me an apology. If I had reacted with my initial anger, we might still be fighting.
  2. “I don’t want to feel this feeling.” This lesson reminded me of Brene Brown’s work. Sometimes when we’re in a negative state, we try to get rid of it by numbing it or raging at nothing in particular. Since we can’t stop all negative things from happening, we get stuck in this dark pattern. It’s more productive to “sit with it,” feel what we’re feeling, and try to figure out where it comes from and what we can do about it.

    I keep re-learning that one. We can’t change everything else in the world, but we can change how we perceive it.
  3. “Depression is an accumulation.” Every time we don’t resolve a feeling, we miss an opportunity to learn how to deal with difficulty. We might also develop a scar, a complex, an energy--whatever you want to call it, a hurt that can be triggered and hurt again.

    Lynn would describe this as a buildup of negative energies. When I told her I struggled with depression, she asked what caused it. After I told her what I thought caused it, she asked when that started. A lot of the triggers on my “Why I’m Depressed” list went back to when I was a child.

    I liked the way she saw things, with patience. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, thinking that because I’ve struggled for so long, I always will. But it’s not about that. If something bad happened to me as a child, but I never think about it now, it’s probably resolved. It’s the thoughts that keep returning that tell me where the healing needs to happen.
  4. “The present is still the most important time to heal.” Even though we can look at overwhelming negative states as hurt accumulated, it doesn’t do a lot of good to look back unless the present is calm. We’d just accumulate more.

    From what I understand, current therapies agree with this idea. “Tell me about your mother” therapy isn’t really practiced anymore. It’s better to build up coping skills and then look back from a stronger place.
So, that’s the story of how one Friday night went from boring and anxiety-filled to an enlightening, new experience. I met an awesome person. She takes care of others all day at her spa and teaches meditation on top of that. She wants to spread healing and joy to as many people as she can.

The days that followed have been up and down. It’s a process getting back on my feet after a period of stress. I do feel more equipped this time around. The waters are as muddy as ever, but I float on top like a lotus.