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What gets done first gets done.

Since the stay at home order started in my state, the first thing I do after my alarm goes off is come downstairs before everyone else is awake, pour myself a cup of coffee, and sit down to meditate.

It’s not starting out with the most urgent or overdue task on my list, setting me up to think about the pile of deadlines hanging over my shoulder. It’s not just faffing about, using the time to “just wake up.”

It’s a choice to remind myself that I can greet the day with intention.

I’ve noticed that since I’ve adjusted my mornings to start this way, I’m less likely to do those “just checks” on my phone first thing. Or second thing.

It’s not necessarily a concrete form of habit stacking, but it does set the tone for the rest of the day. I’m more likely to move from meditation to something else that feels important, instead of getting sucked in to an endless scroll on the internet.

It’s a choice to remind myself to greet what comes during the day on its terms instead of mine.

I don’t have complete control over how (or when) my kids wake up, or what mood they wake up in, but I can choose to accept it without feeling like they’re supposed to behave in some predetermined way that lets me keep powering through my to-do list.

That’s a feeling that I’ve had to fight with since being required to do all my work from home. They’re not my co-workers. They’re not in my office. I’m trying to do work in their home, and I need to respect that difference.

And it’s a choice that helps me feel confident in my priorities.

I’m choosing to start the day focused on what’s going on directly around me and inside me. Instead of steeping my brain in fresh memes or outrage fuel from the moment I wake up, I’m taking stock of what I have direct influence over at this moment.

And I can see results from this.

I can do more good in a day if I start focused on what I have influence over instead of reminding myself about all the things that feel overwhelming, or create a sense of powerlessness.

Because while those bigger picture things can’t be ignored, that doesn’t mean they need my full attention before I’ve put on real pants or finished a cup of coffee.

I don’t always know how much I can do in a day, but I know that if I wake up on time and get started on one thing, that one thing is 99.9% likely to get done.

Starting my day with meditation isn’t just empty navel gazing. It’s a way to try and get in touch with things as they are, separate from my thoughts or feelings about them. It’s a way to make sure that the first thing that gets done in the morning is something that helps me focus on what I value most and what I have influence over.

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Don’t burn your bagel

We have a finicky toaster oven. The done-ness indicators on the dial are basically meaningless. I have a suspicion it’s collecting data on our use and reactions for a psychological experiment.

So when I put a bagel in the other morning, I knew I had to keep an eye on it. It’s also the moment Sprout decided she needed a refill on her Rice Krispies. And more banana.

And we had the radio on, which I was semi-paying attention to, since they were doing a news update.

Then Button decided to drop his teething chew thingamajig. This displeased him.

With these competing demands and draws for my attention, it would be very easy to forget the need to watch my bagel. The more I paid attention to these other inputs, the more likely it was that I’d be spreading cream cheese on a charcoal-tinged disc.

I won’t belabor the metaphor: This is all about avoiding burnout.

The repeated mantra somebody sent me that I’m keeping close to heart right now is “You’re not working from home. You’re at home trying to work.”

My job teaching at a university is not one designed to be done from the corner of my house over a webcam. Even if it was, the added complications of schools being closed, needing to be socially distant from our primary child care providers (aka, Sprout & Button’s grandparents), and losing just about every pressure release valve getting out of the house can provide… It can be easy to take your eye off the bagel.

Honestly, it got to the point where I wasn’t even sure where the bagel was, or what the bagel was.

P.S. “The Trip” is one I’m rewatching as mental comfort food right now.

But in this case, the bagel is what sustains you. It keeps you going. It gives you energy and pleasure and a reason to get up in the morning.

And right now, that bagel is jammed in an unpredictable toaster oven of a world. There’s no telling from moment-to-moment what the day or the week will try to do to that bagel.

You’ll miss the signs that something is going wrong if you get distracted.

And right now, it is very easy to get distracted.

Maybe it can help to use a timer, like the one on the toaster oven. To tell yourself that for X amount of minutes, this next thing is your bagel, and it’s going to have your complete attention. It’s one step I’m trying.

For me, it feels like my focus is an important tool to sharpen right now. Maybe you feel it, too.

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Mindfulness, Meditation, and actually talking (a little) about Buddhism

“Wherever you are, make sure you’re there.”
— Dan Sullivan

“Wherever you go, there you are.”
— Buckaroo Banzai

One semester when I was in college and in need of electives to fill out my schedule, some friends mentioned they were looking into a class on Buddhism. I previously took a course on near eastern religion (Christianity, Judaism, & Islam), and figured this would be a good continuation of that deep dive.

Early on in the course, the professor used a metaphor to explain the idea that reincarnation had a lot of misconceptions around it.

As I remember it:

Imagine a film strip. Thousands of individual pictures. Thousands of moments. When you run the strip through a projector, it looks like you’re watching one continuous moving picture, but that’s just an illusion created by your mind.

You’re watching a series of moments that begin and end.

So instead of thinking of reincarnation as you are born, you live however many years you live, you die, and then you come back, think about how every single moment is like one frame of a movie.

The moment begins. You are there. Then it ends, and you are not. And it all happens so rapidly that it doesn’t even seem like they’re separate moments

You are born in that moment and you die in that moment, over and over.

Which would mean that there is very little difference between two frames that you believe are part of the same life, and two frames where you become a new self.

The film strip keeps moving, feeding each frame through, but each frame is only a single moment. You just believe that they’re showing continuous action because that’s how it appears to you.

If you wanted to pitch a film student on accepting the Buddhist worldview of non-being, that’s a damn good way to do it.

I don’t talk about this often, because despite all my reading and time spent meditating on my own, I’ve never sought out a community of other people walking this path. It’s been personal and mostly solitary, and in some ways that made me feel like I’m doing it wrong.

But even my limited glimpse of this larger world has helped me in ways I wish I could have seen earlier in my life.

I’m a person who survives with depression, and because of that, it can get easy to be pulled out of experiencing the moment and replay the past, or to see what’s happening in the present moment as part of an endless string of negative, connected events. It’s easy to construct a narrative tying together your worst feelings or lowest moments when you can’t separate out one moment from the others.

But the mindful awareness I try to tap into through meditation isn’t just about calming these impulses. It’s about working to focus my attention on what matters in the moment.

One quote I’ve recently grabbed onto about the effect of honing in on just one moment at a time:

“One day at a time. One. Day. And beyond this, one thought, one moment, one heartbeat. This, by the way, is why we practice meditation, which is not a life hack to become more awesome. Meditation is a path of fierce warriorship. It teaches you how to meet your experience on the spot, without embellishment, fully and courageously”

Susan Piver, Lion’s Roar

I’m writing this now, and opening up more about this part of me, because it feels like a time for fierce warriorship.


It’s easy to get bogged down in the endless refresh cycle, checking social media and news sites for updates on what we should fear and feel angry about.

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of a global threat, especially one that seems invisible and nigh-invulnerable to direct human intervention.

And there’s a massive gravitational pull from the fear of what might happen to those closest to us, and how our personal worlds could be made much more empty by a disease for which there is no vaccine, no scientifically-proven cure, and a paucity of resources to properly treat those afflicted if its spread is allowed to go unchecked.

It’s all so much, and it all seems to keep building and getting worse.

And yet, for those of us still fortunate enough to stay healthy, we are here in this moment.

So I ask you to consider, if you’re able, and if you’re willing, to try to confront this moment on its terms, as it exists, and not through the lens of fear or anger.

Because we can do nothing for ourselves or each other if we shut off. If we let the enormity of this all pin us down and hold us powerless, we can lose sight of our role and our strength.

And without a clear understanding of our strength, it can be hard to find hope.


I know the full Buddhist toolkit isn’t for everyone. I know because I haven’t taken it all on myself. But I have gotten some help from some of these texts:

Or if you just want to dip your toe in first before committing to a whole book, this blog post from Rebecca Toh I linked to on Twitter the other day is a good way to test the waters.


It’s something I hope you’ll consider right now, especially if you’re a person staying at home for the good of your community, or by necessity. It can be easy when sheltering in place for an extended time to feel like every day is part of one endless slog.

Maybe it will help you to feel less like the days are all repeating or merging together if you’re alone.

Maybe it could help you treat the people you are staying inside with with more patience and grace, and see their actions as existing in only this moment, instead of part of a narrative you’re stringing together during your extended time bottled up together.

Maybe it will help you feel like less of a passive observer of events and consider ways you can offer help to those in need.

Even if it’s only for the space of one breath, or the time it takes to wash your hands, maybe it will help you step outside of the narratives hanging over you and find some space to be the kind of fierce, compassionate warrior this world needs right now.

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Coffee and Gratitude

Truth.

Coffee is essential to my morning routine. Even if I get a good night’s sleep, that first (or third) cup of coffee in the morning is really what sets the tone for my day.

And some mornings, if I’m having a hard time waking up and doing anything else while I drink the coffee, I like to take the time to meditate on how grateful I am for that coffee. I remind myself about how this small, warm cup of energy in front of me is the result of my connection to a much larger world.

There’s the ingredients to the coffee. The beans themselves were stocked on store shelves by people who work on the store. They were brought to the store on a truck, and somebody had to load, drive, and unload that truck. People roasted and packaged the beans before they were put on the truck. Other people shipped the beans from where they were grown to the place they were roasted. People grew those beans, tended to the plants, and harvested the crop. Which means that I’m also thankful for the place that the beans grew: for the soil, the plants themselves, and the climate that allowed for planting coffee there.

So yes, if I buy a bag of beans that originated in Kenya, I am taking a moment to bless the rains down in Africa.

There’s a similar chain of people involved if I put sugar in my coffee. If I add cream, I also get to feel gratitude toward cows.

The water from my coffee comes from our well, so I’m thankful to the people who drilled our well, to the people who installed the plumbing in our home so I could use that water, and to the aquifer that we draw our water from.

There’s my coffee maker, which had to be assembled by people according to a design made by people. My coffee maker uses electricity, so I’m thankful to the people who installed the wiring in our home, to the people who maintain the power lines that run to our home, and the people who operate the power plant that provides us with electricity.

I’m drinking the coffee from a mug. In this case, it’s a Star Wars mug with a picture of the Death Star that my in-laws got me as a Christmas gift, so I’m thankful to them (especially because it’s a huge mug). I’m thankful for the people who made the mug. I’m thankful to the people who decided to put Star Wars branding on the mug, since it encouraged the gift purchase.

So I’m also thankful to George Lucas when I’m drinking coffee this morning.

“I bet this will look great on a coffee mug in 30 or 40 years.”

And this has barely scratched the surface, because you could think about how all those trucks that had to carry different goods to stores were traveling on roads that had to be built and maintained by people. They had to be planned out by people. They had to be funded by many, many people through taxes.

If there were boats involved in shipping some of the goods, well there’s room to feel gratitude toward the people who designed and built those boats. There’s also cause to be thankful to the designers of the first boats.

And if I’m stretching back that far, I should feel gratitude to the first people who decided that they should throw some ground up beans in boiling water and drink the result, because that was a stroke of genius.

There is little we can enjoy in this world that hasn’t in some way been touched by other people.

When we don’t remember that; don’t acknowledge that, it can harden our hearts. It can lead us to giving ourselves too much credit for our joys and our successes. It can make us feel disconnected from others.

And it can make us forget how much we owe to each other.

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Dance Like Nobody Is Watching (You Outline)

I needed to figure out some alternative solutions to a mystery in a story I’m working on.

A lot of the work I’ve been doing on this project has happened sitting and typing out ideas that I’ve solidified while either in conversation on the phone with a collaborator, or talking to myself while driving. But this time, I needed to generate those ideas in that moment, and I didn’t have anywhere to drive.

So I started by standing up. I have a whiteboard in my office, and it’s useful for thinking through ideas. But just standing there wasn’t helping me let my guard down and look past the couple pre-conceived solutions I came into the office with.

I recently finished reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Sparked by some ideas in that book, and the fact that I also have a subwoofer in my office, I thought about how adding some movement to the moment might help.

I want this to be clear: I am not a dancer.

I’m not a professional dancer. I’m not a good dancer. But I love music, and sometimes the groove gets in my heart.

Enter Daft Punk’s Alive 2007:

I’m not going to stop you if you want to start playing this album right now.

I can’t guarantee that any of my ideas were better because I was dancing while I was mind mapping. But it was more fun.

And there’s an aspect of breaking down your guard. Sitting down with as proper posture as I can muster, fingers on the home row, clacking away… It can feel rigid.

So getting less self-conscious about that movement and feeling the beat of the music cuts through that mental filter that makes you want to focus on perfection. Move to the rhythm. Turn off sense of self.

It’s like with meditation: If your mind is irritated or too energetic, calm the body. Take a few deep, slow breaths, and your mind will start to follow your body’s lead.

In this case, I was using my body to signal to my mind that it’s time to loosen up and throw whatever ideas it has up on the board. I broke down the mental walls separating the movements that were part of dancing from the movements that were part of writing on the whiteboard.

Change Your Environment and Change Your Mind

What I was doing by adding wasn’t just a change with my body: This was an attempt to alter my working environment.

It’s not just that I spend a lot of time sitting and typing or scribbling notes, but that when I sit and work in the same space that I check Twitter, grade papers, and track Amazon packages, there’s a sense that I have other things I should be doing besides writing.

That sense of everything sharing a space frustrates and confuses willpower.

In Keep Going Austin Kleon writes about the importance of creating a bliss station, so that there’s a specific time and/or place where you can put yourself in the headspace to work.

It’s the idea that signaling to your brain that here and now is where a certain type of work gets done helps that work get done in a better way.

He goes further to suggest that you can break down that space by certain jobs, like if you have one space where you work on your computer, and a separate space where you draw or write things out on paper. Even if they’re spaces in a single room, a small shift in where you sit or which way you face can send different cues to your brain.

It also might be about timing. Setting a timer, using a calendar to make appointments for certain tasks, or treating certain days of the week as having a specific focus are other ways to cue the brain and put it in the right mindset for the task at hand.

You are not just a brain in a jar, firing out ideas

You receive input from your environment. You receive cues from the rest of your body.

Accept that no matter how much willpower you feel that you have, you can’t exert total control and operate in a state of constant peak productivity.

But there are things you can try to control.

“When?”, “Where?”, and “With What?” are all important questions to answer when thinking about what you have to get done.

And if you’re getting stuck on something, those are the same questions you can examine to see if changing an answer to one might free up a little mental mojo.