Thoughts On Enlightenment

One of my favourite concepts that I learned at yoga school is that yoga (and life) is about finding a balance between your internal and external worlds, not just shutting down the external world. Our yoga teachers taught us that it’s very easy to be enlightened when you’re meditating alone in a cave in the mountains somewhere, but it is not so easy to be enlightened as you move through a chaotic, busy marketplace full of people. Yet those who can stay mindful, present and peaceful in the marketplaces of life are those that are truly enlightened.

On Enlightenment >> Life In Limbo

David Foster Wallace says (in my favourite piece of writing of all time),

“If you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the unity of all things.”

I get choked up just reading those sentences, because the blindingly beautiful truth of them reminds me of what it means to be human. On my very best days, I can get glimpses of this: I have smiled like an idiot on a seriously hellish streetcar ride, truly feeling so connected and grateful for the experience and the souls I’m sharing it with. Don’t get me wrong though, on many days, I’m just anxious to get to my stop and mentally rolling my eyes at “how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like they seem”. But I have experienced the former, and the truth and beauty of those experiences is life, is love, is what it means to be human.

On a funnier (but no less true) note, Ram Dass says, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” And isn’t it always the case? Go home for even a day, and stories and thoughts and annoyances from your childhood appear and you revert back to your high-school aged self. Buttons are pushed, triggers are triggered, etc, etc, etc.

But. Life doesn’t happen in the cave, it happens in the market. Love doesn’t happen in the cave, it happens in the market. Same goes for connection, harmony, and collective joy, not to mention many forms of personal and spiritual growth that can only happen in relationship with others.

I sometimes think that if I could just get my life set up to exclude anything I consider negative or bad, then I’d be happy and life would be perfect. Essentially, I imagine that one day I’ll build myself the perfect cave full of perfect things and live happily ever after. But of course, life happens in the real world, with real people who are maddening and beautiful. The market is where a million things are happening that are outside of your control, things you don’t like and would never have chosen if you’d been given the choice. But the market is also where the magic happens.

Measure What Matters

I went for a run the other day and I didn’t track it. I didn’t start up Strava and set it to auto-pause when I stopped at street corners so that every single part of the run was monitored ‘properly’. I just put on my shoes and I ran. When I was tired, I stopped. When my friend called for a chat, I walked instead.

This probably seems simple to you, but for me it was borderline radical. That I could go for a run without measuring it, quantifying it, tracking it so that I could compare it to my previous speeds? Completely foreign territory. For me it begged the question, “Then why even do it at all?”

Which: haha! Ha. You are hilarious, Stephanie. There are (of course) tons of great reasons to go for a run, chief among them the fact that it helps soothe my anxiety, think more clearly, and get lots of fresh air and movement after sitting on my butt all day. But I hope I’m not alone when I admit that this was a revelation for me. Like many of the epiphanies I have, this one felt like an “oh, right”, rather than an “a-ha!”, but it was still important.

Measure What Matters >> Life In Limbo

Am I measuring the right thing?

My whole life, I’d been measuring my runs by how fast I was going, how that speed compared to other people’s times, or whether I could do a route more efficiently than the time before. I was using workouts to measure myself against my previous performances and the results of others.

Why was I measuring in that way? Why were those my metrics?

A big part of my personal journey is learning how to reject the generic cultural standards of measurement and defining what success and joy look like for me. For ME. Not for anyone else, but for me.

Where I live, success tends to be measured in terms of things like your wealth, your relationship status, your weight, and whether or not you have a prestigious job. In interactions with others, but more importantly, in the way that I think about myself, I am compared to those standards and inevitably find myself lacking. I’m not special here, or depressed, or different: I venture that most of us measure ourselves against these impossible standards and find ourselves lacking. How could we not? We think we need to be faster, run harder, beat everyone else in the race, and be constantly doing better than we’ve ever done before. Even when we reach our goals, we find that the finish line has moved just a little bit further away.

But maybe we just need to measure different things. 

When I am at my calmest and most grounded, I measure my success by how much I laugh, how peaceful and free I feel, the amount of love I have in my life, how creative I am being, how good of a listener/friend/daughter/sister I am, and how often I make time for what matters to me. That is the life I most want to live, and for me, those are the standards of measurement that count. They don’t quite match what my culture proclaims to be important, but they do match what I know to be true for myself.

In his incredible book Solitude, Michael Harris talks about how the analytics feature on Twitter changed the way he wrote, how it made him begin to pander to the whims of his audience and do more of what they ‘liked’ most. So he turned it off. He says:

The less I looked to the reactions of others, the more I interrogated the modes of expression that I had thought were “natural” to me. My online posts weren’t my “voice” at all; they were learned responses to the positive feedback of others. I wanted to dodge that now; I wanted to become my own algorithm.

I, too, want to become my own algorithm. I want to dodge my learned responses to the positive feedback of others. I want to keep my mind on what matters to me. I want to measure my runs by how much calmer I felt afterwards, or whether I let myself stop when I was exhausted instead of forcing my way through. I want to do it for the love of it.

Seems like a good philosophy for life, too: I want to do it for the love of it.


This is For You

I started doing this thing on Instagram recently, which is this: I stopped trying to gain new followers.

I had been dutifully posting my list of 20+ hashtags on every photo for years, rolling my eyes at the fake comments from bots, watching people follow me just to see if I would follow them back so that they could unfollow me right away. I never felt like I knew which hashtags to use, it was tedious to find new ones, and I didn’t like how they looked under my photos. They always made me feel like I was trying too hard. Not to mention that – especially when the post was a personal one – using hashtags like #toronto_igers felt like inviting a bunch of strangers into my living room and having to watch them make inauthentic, superficial remarks about the stuff I loved.

This is For You >> Life In Limbo

Obviously social media is exactly that – social – and I completely understand the impulse to find new friends and fans. I should be clear that I don’t judge anyone trying to grow their following or their business by (almost) any means possible. But given that I don’t even use my Instagram account as a business tool (it’s a collection of pretty moments I love), it started to seem silly to be hustling for likes and follows. As this blog makes obvious, I’m not really interested in creating viral content or creating a “lifestyle brand”, even if that idea does seem appealing sometimes.

So I just stopped posting hashtags on my photos, beyond my own personal ones. And my engagement went way, way up. I now have fewer total likes per photo, but significantly more comments, especially from people who I actually know, love, or respect.

I sent the message to the people who matter to me:this is for you.

Removing tags and talking in my real voice rather than my Marketing Voice sends an extremely loud message, even subconsciously. Posting without an official call to action is refreshing to read – and to write. And this has actually had an effect. Now, when I ask a question, my people know I’m talking to them, rather than some unidentified Future Fan. Now, the comments I get are real, authentic, and supportive. The robots have (mostly) gone away and left me in peace. I feel more grounded, and more free to share what’s really on my heart. I’ve made my Instagram life just a little bit quieter and a little bit more fun.

When I started reflecting on this, I heard Brené Brown saying:

I thought about how crazy it is that most of us can steamroll over [real] friends while we work to win the approval and acceptance of people who really don’t matter in our lives — people whom we’d never call when we were in a real struggle.

Again, I don’t really think the answer is to never use hashtags again, or to abandon Instagram as a marketing platform for your business. It’s a tool, and like any tool, it can be helpful in creating community and driving sales. But it’s something to think about, as our lives continue to get noisier and our attention spans become shorter:

How do you treat the people who already love you?

Reminder: My choices are not a commentary on yours.

On Doing Nothing

This sentence popped into my head yesterday:

Seek out places where it feels easier to do nothing.

I was at my mom’s house in the woods this weekend when this idea occurred to me. I had spent the day doing the following: reading a book, eating a snack, playing with the dog, talking to my mom, making dinner, and going for a walk. All I did, all day long, was some combination of those activities, and that’s it.

Do Nothing to Do Something >> Life In Limbo

What made the day especially magical was that I didn’t feel that guilty push/pull I normally do when I’m at home on a sunny Saturday in the city. On those days, it’s as if I’m afraid of “doing nothing”. I feel like I have to be productive somehow, even when I’m relaxing. (No, it doesn’t make sense to me either, but it’s true. Can anyone relate?)

But that day at my mom’s, like all days at my mom’s, I didn’t feel guilty for sitting in a deck chair reading a beachy summer novel. I didn’t feel like I “should” have been going for a run, or exploring a new part of the city, or checking something off my to-do list. I didn’t feel depressed that I felt like having a nap or that I wanted to sit on the couch for awhile to decompress. All day long, I never once noticed the time. Things felt simple and easy. I was perfectly content. 

Do Nothing to Do Something >> Life In Limbo

This is why one single day at my mom’s house can feel like a weeklong vacation: it’s a place where it is actually easier to do nothing than it is to run around trying to do “something”. The internet connection is unreliable, so it’s not easy to watch TV. The house is down a long windy road, so it doesn’t feel convenient to run errands or really go out at all. The driveway is hard to find, so you can’t exactly order a pizza if you feel lazy. It’s quieter than most places. It’s more peaceful than most places. There are a handful of simple activities that you can do, and those are your options. You don’t feel overwhelmed by all the choices available to you, because some things are easily ruled out. You don’t feel guilty for “doing nothing” because you don’t have much of a choice.

I’m reminded here of Gretchen Rubin’s Strategy of Convenience: “To a truly remarkable extent, we’re more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and less likely if it’s not.”

At my mom’s house, it is far more convenient to do “nothing”. But of course, “nothing” is not the right word for what I’m describing. Here, “doing nothing” refers to what remains when we stop rushing, stop hustling, stop worrying, stop fussing, and just slow down. Here, “nothing” is what’s left over when we turn off our screens and stop making so much noise. In the space that remains, we end up laughing more. We play more. We talk to each other. We linger over meals. We move slowly. We’re more present.

Do Nothing to Do Something >> Life In Limbo

Rob Bell writes, “What seem like the small things are actually the big things”. He’s absolutely right. And similarly, by doing “nothing”, we actually make room for what is meaningful, important, and precious:

Quiet. Groundedness. Peace. Connection. Stillness. Grace. Rest. Satisfaction. Joy. Presence.

So let me amend my original thought:

Seek out places where it feels easier to focus on what is meaningful, important, and precious.

For me, that’s reading, writing, being with the people I love, and spending time outdoors. I tend to get pulled away from these things by unimportant things like movies, social media, busywork, distractions, or a fear of missing out if I choose to opt out of things in order to “do nothing”.

I’m still in the process of figuring out ways to exploit the Strategy of Convenience in my daily life (without being at the cottage in the woods) by making it less convenient to get sucked into bad habits and easier to get pulled into good ones: keeping my phone plugged in outside my bedroom, logging out of Facebook on my computer, having a stack of library books on the table to make them easier to grab. The intentionality is helping, as is the thought that “doing nothing” makes room for the most important of “somethings”. 

How do you remember to focus on what’s important? What are the ways that you help yourself carve out time to do “nothing”?

PS. I also like this post from my friends over at Mindshift Ninja which has some similar ideas & strategies.