Thursday, November 5, 2015

Mindfulness, Coloring Books, and Forcing Myself into Calm

NaBloPoMo November 2015
At the height of my dissertation madness I was finishing up final edits and trying to make sure I had taken in the feedback from all three of my committee members, teaching full time, and moving through a particularly challenging phase of parenting that had me near tears (and by near tears, I mean openly sobbing) at least two nights a week.

I decided to try meditation. Actually, let me go ahead and be honest. I promised my concerned (and very mindful) therapist that I would try meditation. Perhaps because she didn't really trust my hemming and hawing, she helped me set up a specific plan. I would spend a few minutes in the morning running through some meditative practices each day before I got out of bed in the morning.

I did it . . . twice. Not even twice in a row.

Honestly, I really suck at this. Like, really really. And I don't know why.

I don't have anything against meditation. I don't hate it when I do it. I felt better on the two days that I did do it. I have five minutes to spare in the morning. There is no logical, reasonable reason that I cannot complete this goal. But here we are.

I was thinking about this failure when I read Julie Beck's Atlantic article on adult coloring books (and to be clear: adult coloring books mean coloring books designed for adults, not pornography, though I am certain those also exist and might even serve meditative functions if you're into that). Beck writes that she rapidly changed her mind about coloring books (which she initially viewed as silly) when she recognized that they were helping her achieve a mindfulness that she had struggled to reach. She colors while watching TV:
I really do think that a lifetime of multitasking has left me occasionally incapable of subduing the entirety of my mind with one activity. If the front of my mind is occupied by the show, and the back is focused on picking colors and staying in the lines, there’s not room for much else. It’s a sort of mindfulness that’s more like mind-fullness.
I have definitely lived "a lifetime of multitasking," and I know all the research says that there isn't really such a thing as "multitasking" and that our brains are just really switching rapidly between tasks and not managing them simultaneously, but I am typing this blog post while watching Gilmore Girls and thinking about what order I'm going to grade the papers I have to grade tonight. If my brain is just switching its attention between these things, it's doing it too quickly for me to discern the edges, and it's used to it. So when I am truly trying to zone out, relax, center, focus on my breathing, meditate, well, it's hard.

If you're a mindful person, you're probably shouting at your screen right now that this is exactly why I need mindful meditative practice in the first place (okay, you're probably not shouting because you're all centered and at peace with the world and whatnot). And, here's the thing. I know that you're right. But that knowledge is not sparking action. I'm stalled.

I did, however, pick up one of those patterned coloring books the other day, and I've found it to have the same soothing effects that Beck reports. She writes:
Coloring offers that relief and mindfulness without the paralysis that a blank page can cause. It’s easier in the way that ordering from a restaurant with a small menu is easier than deciding what you want at Denny’s, where you could eat almost anything. This is the paradox of choice, and it’s been well-studied—too many options is overwhelming. But with coloring, you know what you’re working with.

And maybe that's my problem with the meditation I've been trying to do first thing in the morning. At the beginning of the day, I'm facing a mostly clean slate that will be unpredictably filled. I can listen to a guided meditation and have specific points to focus on, but I don't have a specific target for that centering. I know, I know. The goal of being generally centered and well for the day is a good one. I should be satisfied and motivated by it. But I'm not (at least not yet).

What I am motivated to do, though, is make the very worst moments of almost every day go by a little smoother. Let me back up and tell you a story.

It's time for me to pick my daughter up from school, an elementary school that houses three-year-olds through second graders and has a 20 minute pick-up window for the entire student body. I don't even bother trying to park in the parking lot because there are no spots, and the line to get spots is six chaotic, misaligned, and uncoordinated cars deep that works like a roach motel: once you get in, there's no getting out. So I park on the street, a task that sometimes takes circling the entire block (which involves about three minutes, three traffic lights, and a traffic circle) three or four times. Then I have to play a high-stakes live-action version of Frogger to fight my way across the street as the other frustrated parents play the same game of finding a spot that I just completed. Once I get inside the school, I make my way through zigzagging lines of excited children moving in all directions to my daughter's classroom. Once there, I have a two-to-ten minute battle to get her to gather her things and actually leave with me. My daughter has some sensory processing issues we're dealing with, so depending on how her day is going, this can be as simple as waiting for her to hug her friends goodbye or as complicated as dragging her out from underneath a desk while trying to physically wrangle her shoes back on her. I never know what I'm going to get. But once we're out in the hallway, the chaos of the streams of children and the loud noises and the excitement of seeing educators that she loves and cares about overwhelms her. If I try to hold her hand, her body goes limp and we can't move. If I let go of her hand, she runs ahead and disrupts the lines. If I let her stop to look at the fish tank, she screams when I make her leave. If I don't let her stop to look at the fish tank, she screams that she wants to stay. Some days, this is a relatively brief process that is just a nuisance. Other days, this is a fifteen-minute process that leaves me literally shaking with anxiety. Then we have to navigate the parking lot (a task for which I insist on hand holding, sometimes to great dissent), cross the Frogger-like street, get in the car, buckle into the car seat, and drive through the traffic to (finally, finally) get out.

I am not exaggerating when I say this is the worst part of my day. It made me sick to my stomach just typing that description.

One day recently, I accidentally got there early. Though the parking lot was still crazy, I was able to find a street parking spot without additional rounds of searching. Since it was too early to get my daughter, I decided to turn on one of the five-minute guided meditations I had promised to use in the mornings. I did the whole thing, and the pick-up went so much better. I felt focused and calm, and I think my focus and calm helped my daughter balance her own overexcitement. Even if it didn't, it helped me react to it.

So I have a new goal. If I can't motivate myself to meditate in the mornings for the sake of starting my day off right, I'll do it in those five minutes in the car for the sake of smoothing out a moment of daily life that I dread. Maybe, just maybe, some regular success will help me take the next step and commit to the mindful practice that I know I need . . . and deserve.

And I'll keep coloring those pictures, too.

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