“Listen. Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” ~ Mary Oliver
I’ve been hearing Barbara Walters’ voice a lot these days—“This is 20/20.”
Of course, she was introducing a news show, not a new decade, but we’re here—this is 2020.
A close friend of mine is a teacher and is quick to point out that the true end of the decade occurs this coming December 31st. Regardless, many of us spent time last month not just reflecting on the year, but the past 10.
Social media sites have become our digital scrapbooks, flashier than the faded scrapbooks we paged through the last decade. My feed reminded me that 10 years ago I couldn’t breathe.
In December 2009, I had just been discharged from the hospital for status asthmaticus, a really long asthma attack. I vowed to stop working so hard and to take better care of myself. I didn’t have a choice; I had to take breaks at work for breathing treatments and I couldn’t walk for more than 10-15 minutes at a stretch. I started practicing mindfulness as I literally needed to learn to breathe again.
Meditating on my breath was difficult, my mind was never quiet and I thought I must be doing it wrong. So, in a few months when I graduated from steroids, I stopped practicing and returned to my unsustainable work schedule. I certainly didn’t want to get sick again but the fear of returning to the hospital became removed from my everyday life.
Flash-forward five years, I was having difficulty breathing again, this time from panic from the weight of work and family obligations. I finally decided I didn’t want to live like that anymore and started practicing meditation, breathing, and the conscious movement of yoga to be more present for the moments that count. I’ve practiced consistently for three years and made progress—but with so much going on in the world, I still struggle to stay mindful. My self-care routine is already trailing off and it’s only January.
If like me, you are feeling blocked or having difficulty deepening your practice, consider these five causes:
1. Compassion fatigue
Compassion fatigue is common in people who work in helping professions. It often starts with feeling pressed for time and eliminating the very things that would combat stress. We eat lunch over the computer rather than breathing and cancel yoga class to finish emails. We lose compassion for ourselves.
Compassion fatigue can progress and mimic depression with irritability, a tendency to blame others, loss of motivation, and lack of enjoyment in tasks.
2. Unrealistic expectations
When I first started practicing yoga, I imagined I’d transform into a Zen master and never get upset. This didn’t happen; my thoughts were all over the place even though I was putting in time and effort. I stopped practicing because I didn’t think I was any good at it.
It was unrealistic for a yoga class here and there to transform me into a relaxed creature, the unicorn version of my best self. I was looking for an aha moment when yoga is about little shifts in mindset over time.
3. Unresolved anger
When the holidays are over, our energy shifts to getting back on routine. There is little headspace left to process any unresolved feelings from gatherings with the very people who trigger distressing memories.
In yoga, the phrase “no mud, no lotus” refers to a resilient flower that grows in muddy water. It is a symbol of good fortune in Buddhism, and mindfulness encourages us to find gratitude in difficult times. Sometimes, when I’m angry instead of grateful, I feel like yoga must not be working.
This is not the case. We practice to be able to sit with upsetting emotions—anger is just energy; we aren’t defective for having it.
Most of us don’t view ourselves as perfectionists as we focus on our flaws. Our society values overworking for high achievement. We all like to be good at stuff and won’t admit when things are hard. Why not? I want credit for the time I put in to make it appear I have it partially together.
Many of us beat ourselves up when we’ve abandoned our 2020 goals by the end of January even when we’ve made significant changes.
5. Giving from a place of depletion
I’ve heard “you can’t pour from an empty cup” countless times but my dedication to self-care wasn’t filling me up. Any energy I restored was poured right back out, like the flow through a funnel. Even if it’s raining self-care, a funnel will still be empty.
When I think back to how little I was doing to care for myself, I realize I was an upside-down funnel. My little spout was on top and all my energy was spraying out the bottom in different directions. I was giving from a state of depletion.
How mindfulness can help
Mindfulness is about noticing thoughts and feelings as they arise, without labeling them as good or bad. When you accept a thought as just a thought and not a character flaw, you can be angry without believing you are an angry person.
Mindfulness allowed me to flip my funnel and be more careful about how emotional and physical energy flowed in and out of my body. I started to fill up, and now there are days I overflow with creativity and gratitude.
Breathe to think more clearly
Forget perfect vision, let’s make 2020 about thinking more clearly. Protect your energy by recognizing those aspects of the world, your job, and your family that are broken. You can be responsible for you and contribute without carrying the disappointment of not being able to fix the unfixable.
Check your energy gauge—are you an upside-down funnel? What type of life do you want? I don’t want to run around working so hard just to miss out anyway. I don’t want to live like that!
Breathe and take time to unplug. During those moments you will find the life that is most important to you.