Back to School Zen
It used to be that Back2School was something I secretly counted down the days to, with the promise of structure, routine, predictability – and a quiet house. Today my son started the 7th grade and tomorrow my daughter starts 10th grade. When, at bedtime, I confided in Bill (my husband) that I was bummed about today being Back2School, he reacted as if I had announced I was going to start watching football. I explained that yes, I look forward to the peace and quiet, which is something my ADD-riddled brain hasn’t had enough of during this insanely active and adventurous summer. And I won’t miss the sibling fights, or the frustration I feel surging every time I see a kid on the couch, head bowed in prayer to the iGod. I will, however, miss my children and existing with them in a space that isn’t dominated by academic demands, athletic practices and games, quickie breakfasts, packed lunches, and late dinners for the sake of having a meal as a family. And, a big part of my lack of overwhelming enthusiasm is the fact that once again, my kids are entering the jungle. Especially my son, who is in middle school, which is innately an awkward stage no matter how cool you are or appear.
After the middle school bus left, I went for a run. As I navigated the local hills, I thought about my son, his classmates, and all the millions of kids who are entering the jungle today and along with their ridiculously heavy backpacks, are saddled with whatever else is going on in their lives. I started to pray for the children – may they move through their anxiety, feeling comforted by their faith, the love they get from home and from their teachers, the spark that lights up within them when they are learning something that interests them or become engrossed in a physical or creative activity that makes them laugh and feel alive. I started that prayer and then, before I could reach the top of the hill I was creeping- I mean, powering - up, my mind switched and I started thinking of the homes that release all these kids into the jungle.
Both of my kids have had situations through the years that have been excellent opportunities for me to practice extreme self-restraint and not go hunting down some kid and their parent and shake them and scream, “WTF do you think you are doing???!!! Don’t you know that my kid is kind and sensitive and nurturing? How DARE you do that to her/him???” And to the parent, “WTF do you think you are doing???!!!! Don’t you know your kid is an asshole and it’s probably because you are not modeling love, setting boundaries, limiting screen time and sugar???”
I thought about the most recent opportunities where I have practiced a level of self-restraint (at least, in public), that Gandhi would have been proud of, and my prayer took a turn. I thought of all us parents who really are, I believe, doing the best that we can, with the information that we have, at any given moment. Our kids are out in the jungle today, but we moms and dads, and other guardians, we are all in the jungle too. And the way that we raise our little cubs is in many ways a result of how we were raised, and now that we are adults, the choices that we make every day, in thought and deed. So, this became my prayer for you:
May you, dear guardian of the cub that is in the same jungle as my kid, feel loved. May you know that no matter who you are, what you do, what you have done, you are loved. May you have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change in yourself, your child and your life; the courage to change the things you can, especially in yourself, and to say no to an over-crowded schedule and to the voice in your head that says you are only worthy if you do XYZ and if your kid accomplishes XYZ; and the wisdom to know the difference between letting go and giving up.
One of the key lessons I have learned in yoga, is that when we resist, we suffer. When we push, the way we force a stretch, we end up uncomfortable or injured. Instead, what we need to do is soften into it. Back off the discomfort, take a deep breath, and then as we exhale, see if we can gently sink, or lean in to the pose. Life is the same way, and parenting is a great way to test this out. There are few things I believe everyone should do, but yoga is one of them. I started out with yoga as a way to stretch and strengthen and get some balance (physically) and focus. And then, at some point I realized that while I am far from being Bendy Wendy or looking like anything on Pinterest (except maybe #realpeopleposes), yoga has transformed my body in many ways but also my perspective. What happens on the mat doesn’t stay on the mat. Just like, what happens at home doesn’t stay in the home.
The Serenity Prayer I adjusted during this morning’s run, customizing it as I thought of all the baggage our little cubs haul into the jungle with Back2School, is really very much like what I have learned through yoga. The original Serenity Prayer goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
- Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
In yoga, if I try to force my body into a pose it’s not ready or meant for, I can seriously injure myself. If I have the courage to test out new poses or go a little longer in a pose that challenges me, I get stronger, physically and mentally. If I don’t do this mindfully and instead am led by my ego, I will suffer.
Parenting is the same. I am or have been tempted to try to control the outcome, by making things easier for my kid, wanting for him/her to have or not have certain teachers, cluttering their schedules with tons of structured “opportunities,” wondering if I should get involved when another cub in the jungle is hurting my cub, wanting so badly for my kid to be a certain way and trying to mold them into that by convincing myself that I still have the power to change my child. I don’t know if it was the yoga or the fact that my kids are older and little adults-in-the-making, and I’m older and wiser (I hope), but at some point it hit me that a lot of what I thought of as Good Parenting is actually not as effective as Good Self-Care, or at the very least, there needs to be a combination of Good Parenting+Good Self-Care in the parenting approach. Gandhi said, Be the change. We tend to think of that saying as awesome in terms of changing the world, but I wonder how many of us think of that in the way that we can most effectively change the world – through our children?
So, going back to my prayer for you, the cub-raisers – may YOU move through your anxiety, feeling comforted by your faith, the love you get from home and from your teachers (mentors), the spark that lights up within you when you are learning something that interests you or become engrossed in a physical or creative activity that makes you laugh and feel alive.
This new school year is a fresh start for our kids, but it’s also a new chance for us, the cub-raisers, to create change by making self-care a top priority, saying NO to anything that feels burdened with guilt and doesn’t light a spark in us, saving some sacred space for our kids and families to just BE (not DO). We deserve it and our children need us to know that, and to live it.
Just Grit It.
When I tell people that I would much rather run a half marathon (13.1 miles) than a 5k (3.1 miles), unless they are seasoned runners, they usually look at me the same way they look at me when I state that I like the smell of skunk and I could live the rest of my life without eating doughnuts. I.e., they think I’m weird.
We returned from an amazing two week trip in Europe this week, and along with some bargain-priced Desigual dresses from Barcelona and Hunter boots from Scotland, I brought a very sore back (apparently, walking 20,000 steps per day with a bag on my shoulder and a heavy camera requires training, oops). I know that the worst thing you can do for a sore back is languish in sedentary pity party mode, so I have taken some tentative runs.
I find that the challenging training days – when I am hurt, or feeling blah – are an excellent chance for me to practice mindfulness. As I push through mental and physical discomfort and self-doubt, I think of the kids and adults I coach, who have real and/or perceived challenges to overcome in order to reach their goals. The tough days remind me of how much I take for granted on the good days. But even on the days that I feel great physically, and mentally motivated and focused, those first couple of miles of each run can feel awkward or downright uncomfortable. Now, with my back issue (which includes a sore hip flexor), I am even more uncomfortable – which means, I have an even better opportunity to dig into my mindfulness and observe my body’s and mind’s reaction with curiosity.
Today I ran 6.1 miles, the most I have run since before my trip to Europe. (My longest run there was 5 miles). The first 2 or so miles, I ran slowly and paid attention to the sensations in my problem areas, ready to slow down to a walk if needed, especially on the hills. I felt better than I had on the same course 2 days ago, so this time I didn’t walk at all. I noticed the beautiful scenery around me, the perfect weather, and kept tuning into my body. Somewhere around mile 2, I realized that I felt pretty good. My problem areas were present but I didn’t feel any pain or discomfort, it was more of a “I’m your sore muscle and I am here” feeling. I settled into a rhythm, with my breathing and stride finding their comfortable rhythm. At one point, it occurred to me that although I had been piping music through my headphones, I hadn’t heard a single song. I was completely focused on what was going on in my body and in my surroundings (birds, farmland, uneven surfaces, occasional cars), and Coldplay had become part of the background. I was in The Zone.
I see a lot of similarities between running and other life situations/projects. Because I quit drinking about 8.5 months ago, formalizing my years-in-the-making journey into the recovery world and process, the similarities between running and sobriety are in the forefront for me. Those first few days, weeks, months, when you first stop drinking are like those first couple of miles of running. You are moving your body and mind and heart out of the comfort or habitual routine and into new, uncomfortable, awkward movement. You are changing your physical environment to rid it of the triggering substances, and changing your routine to avoid the temptation of acquiring alcohol. I often say, the hardest part of running (or any athletic event) is showing up to the start line. When you admit you have a problem, and then start taking the steps to purge your environment and schedule and social circle of triggers, you are basically showing up to the start line. Then, as you go through your first days and weeks and months, and sucky life situations, and dealing with people and circumstances you used to handle with some liquid lube, it’s just like those first 1-3 miles of running. You may say, “This sucks, I suck, I’m calling it quits, it’s not a good day, tomorrow will be better, I give up.”
But you push through those first few miles. If you have been reading about running, or you have runner friends who give you advice (and you actually listen), or you watch those inspiring YouTube videos, you know that even experienced marathoners struggle with the first few miles. Turns out you aren’t a loser, you aren’t a failure destined for couch surfing – you are human (and in my case, you’re almost 47 years old, which I know is a factor). So, you push through the suckiness and you notice it and you shift your focus to your environment, to your breathing, to your posture, to the fact your muscles are getting looser and you’re starting to glisten.
I know that in the recovery world, the more traditional thinking has been, stop drinking and/or using and for now, keep smoking and stuffing your face with crappy food and stay on the couch, whatever it takes, but don’t use. I personally think that this approach isn’t the best, and while I won’t go into it for now (that’s a whole other blog topic), I do think that as I mentioned in this previous blog entry, when you let go of something in your life, a vacuum is created, and it will be filled. I think exercise is a great vacuum-filler and specifically because of what I am talking about today, I find that exercise (in this case, running) can give someone in recovery a valuable way to relate to themselves and to the world, as we acquire new self-awareness and learn new tools. More pointedly – if I am trying to quit drinking, and I find myself constantly back on day 1, when I pair my sobriety efforts with a running plan, I see the parallels. I see that in the same way that I grew my grit muscle by building up my mileage, not quitting even when my brain was trying to convince me that Today Is Not The Day; shopping for new running shoes because tools really do matter; seeking out runners and asking for help; focusing on just getting to that next tree (instead of worrying about mile 5 or 15) – changing my life by acknowledging and addressing a progressive and potentially fatal problem/disease, is really not that different. And requires the same grit and seriousness and determination and commitment, as training for a 5k or a marathon.
Just show up. And keep moving forward, to the next tree. Tune in. Adjust as needed. Get to the next tree. Focus on your breathing. Ask for help and accept it when it comes (because it will). Drink water. Get the right tools for you. Stay in your lane and in your present mile. Celebrate milestones (personal records, finish lines, anniversaries). Help others who aren’t as experienced as you.
The rewards are incredible. Every medal started with the sucky first miles (steps). Every person who has racked up months and years of sobriety had the same sucky first miles (steps). Just keep showing up, and moving forward.
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.