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Constructive laziness part 2: the six principles

In part two of our thrilling series, we take a closer look at the building blocks of a Constructive Laziness practice. In the coming week’s we’ll apply this Constructive Laziness DNA to specific applications, like self care or creative work, but for now, here is the path to creating your own Constructive Laziness practice.

Full text is below the video.

So, here are the steps or basic tenets of the Constructive Laziness practice.

Step 1: Make some space

Whether we’re talking about creative work, getting your business off the ground, or getting serious about recovery or self-care, cramming something into an overfull life is only going to create more stress. And assuming that “it’ll just happen” because of all your good intentions…well, that’s not gonna work either.

So, the first step is to go into your calendar and schedule in blocks of time. Like, literally, schedule in space for this practice. You will not meditate if it’s not in your schedule and while putting it in your calendar doesn’t guarantee it will happen, it makes it far more likely.

The first step in Constructive Laziness is to make space for ourselves. Our lives are not going to make room for us, so we have to actively and consciously claim it.

Step 2: Do the bare minimum

This step is all about gentle outcomes and tiny actions.

Determine for yourself what is the bare minimum you can do today whether it’s at your day job, in the rehearsal studio, on the meditation cushion, or with your family. This is not a vague thing. This is not about phoning it in. This is about getting real and specific about the absolute least you can do in order to fulfill your commitments.

Why? Because you do too much right now. And it’s causing harm. So, in order to discover the full range of possibilities available, you need to tangibly and scientifically find out what the least amount of effort you can put in looks like.

We are not becoming deadbeats, I promise you. We are rigorously finding out what it means to do “enough.”

Step 3: Take breaks so long you get bored

This is where you stop. Truly stop. You come to complete stillness and you allow your body, mind, and spirit to rest and recover fully.

By committing to the bare minimum, you have bypassed the impulse to cram way too much in. Now, you double down by taking big, long, luscious breaks. Real breaks. A break where you eat lunch and all you do is eat the food instead of multitasking on your phone. Where you lie on the couch and watch the breeze moving the curtain. Where you don’t fill that hole in your schedule when a project ends, you just let it hang there, empty.

We are so spun up and spun out that we experience stillness and present moment awareness as boredom. We get really edgy really fast and we reach for something, anything, to distract us. The things we reach for are not helping us.

I’ve written about the magical magnetism of boredom before. But in this practice, I want to encourage you to let boredom (aka stillness aka present moment awareness) be the thing that pulls you forward into the next thing—not your anxiety, not your fear of empty space, not your need to appear productive.

Step 4: Do a bad job

Writer Anne Lamott talks about shitty first drafts and how necessary they are to getting to solid third, fourth, or fifth drafts. I’m a huge fan of Anne and and a huge fan of shitty first drafts. But I want to take this even further than that.

I’m talking about doing the absolute worst job. Like making the most hilariously, operatically bad version of the thing you’re working on. Why? Because perfectionism is paralysis. And doing your worst sets you free. I want you to try this. Be purposefully terrible at what you do. Write the most over-the-top shitty marketing email of all time. Make the half-assest Worst Parent Ever lunch for your kid. Design the most ridiculously bad research project known to humankind. Just trust me and do it.

If you did this well (and by well, I mean awful) you made yourself laugh. You liberated yourself from the chains of perfectionism and you saw very clearly that you did not die from doing a crappy job at something. You also learned something incredible, which is that you can fix it later. Your self-worth doesn’t have to be tied to your performance. You can suck for fun and sport. And then you can give it another go.

You are allowed to iterate and rewrite and have do-overs. You are allowed to be bad at something, try again, and do better.

Step 5: Let it go

This is the part where you step back at the end of the day or the end of the work session and you punch out in the spirit of Fred Flintstone and you run to your stone car and you yabbadabbadoo the hell out of there.

This is not the part where you analyze and evaluate and discover the seventeen ways you did not measure up today. Where you feel guilty for not doing the bare minimum. Or feel guilty for doing the bare minimum and sneak a couple extra hours of work in to make up for it. Or beat yourself up because you were so freaked out by the idea of actually doing something for yourself that you “forgot” to do that self-care or creative work you scheduled in.

Let it go.

Whatever you did today was enough. You did enough. You are enough. Let the rest go. Tomorrow is a new day. And today, you did good.

Step 6: Do it again.

The final step of the Constructive Laziness process is to start the whole shebang again from the top!

This is why ease and rest and lowered expectations are built into the practice. It’s so we have enough energy to do it again. And maybe to do it again and again and again.

Rather than launching yourself over the 60-foot wall your anxiety and perfectionism creates, you lower the bar to about six inches. You remove the panic and the trauma and the feeling that it’s all a huge ordeal. You remove the pressure to get it right the first time and pressure to finish it all in one go.

You make it so easy on yourself that you can do it again tomorrow. And so you do.

I’d love to hear about your experiences trying and applying Constructive Laziness! Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Watch Constructive laziness part 1: the origin story now!

Constructive laziness part 1: the origin story

Tada! A video series! This is the first of a gaggle of posts digging into a practice I developed called (deliciously) Constructive Laziness. Part 1 digs into how and why I created such a thing and who CL can really benefit. Up next: the six steps of a Constructive Laziness practice. Enjoy!

P.S. Full text of the video is below.

The history of Constructive Laziness

I started developing something I call Constructive Laziness in response to my own, terrible, creative practice. I brought all my anxiety, all my perfectionism, and my tendency to overwork into my practice of making theatre—and not only was it ushering me toward early burnout, but it was generating constipated, airless, and inflexible art.

I would kill myself to make something, over-rehearse the juice right out of it, demand way too much of my collaborators, and never be satisfied with the results. Something had to give.

So, Constructive Laziness was born.

I didn’t know what ‘constructive laziness’ meant or what it was, but I knew I needed it. I started by injecting a ridiculous amount of ease into my rehearsal process, and when I started a new work, into my creation process.

But, just a couple of weeks into these investigations, my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Hormonal upheaval, shock, and grief overshadowed everything. But, I had a job and a season of scheduled showings for this new work I was making. So, Constructive Laziness became way more than an approach to creative work. It became a survival strategy.

The practice refined itself and was put to the test as I dealt with three further pregnancy losses, a complete mental/emotional/spiritual breakdown, a job that kept needing me to do it, several creative projects, and, over the past eight-plus months, the wild ride of an almost-full term pregnancy.

I have put Constructive Laziness through the wringer and it keeps proving itself to be amazing and applicable to a bunch of different contexts.

Who it’s for

So, who is constructive laziness for?

This practice is for perfectionists. It’s for anxious people. It’s for sensitives and intuitives.  It’s for overwhelmed, overachieving overworkers. It’s for those of us who feel like we have to prove ourselves every single day, whether we actually do or not. For the people who put both feet on the gas when our bodies, minds, and souls are begging us to pump the brake.

Constructive laziness basic principles

This practice can be applied in a lot of directions, which we’ll get into in future videos. But the basic principles are very simple:

  1. Inject an absurd amount of ease into what you do.
  2. Do less as a means to accomplishing more.
  3. Process is more important than outcomes.

If you are an overachieving anxious perfectionist, your sense of what is “enough” is completely skewed. What you think of as lazy is what most folks would call “doing a good job.” So what we’re doing here with Constructive Laziness is working directly against your habitual tendencies to work way too hard, cut yourself too little slack, and expect way more of yourself than is reasonable.

You never let yourself come to a complete stop. Your engine is always running and it’s revving way too high. Because don’t let yourself rest, you get tired—and not even because you’re necessarily working so hard—just kind of by being alive, you tire yourself out.

But here’s where things get complicated: the more exhausted you get, the more you demand of yourself. Nothing is ever good enough. Which creates an impossible dynamic. So, you never feel like you’re moving forward as much as you want and it leads to things like burnout, procrastination, and giving up.

Constructive Laziness asks you to rest early and rest often. It asks you lower the stakes and by doing so, get more done. It asks you to acknowledge that this is a process, not an all-or-nothing gun-to-your-head one-shot deal that determines your value as a human being.

Next up: the six steps of a Constructive Laziness process

The magic of boredom

During the summer as a kid, I remember being bored. I remember being bored a lot throughout childhood, actually. I also remember playing epic games of pretend, creating elaborate music videos and soap operas, and going on a ton of neighborhood adventures.

What I didn’t know when I was small was that the boredom was connected to the fun, creative stuff. It might have even caused it.

This article about letting kids be bored in the summer is getting shared around the social media space right now. Let’s us grown-ups take serious note.

Boredom is creative fuel

When I first started developing Constructive Laziness (something you’ll be hearing about a lot more on this blog in the coming weeks), it was purely as a creative tool. I needed to find a way of working that didn’t flare my anxiety and perfectionism, and make me choke the life out of whatever I was making.

“Take breaks so long you get bored” became one of the central tenets of this nascent practice. When I figured this out, it felt like discovering fire. The longer the breaks I took while working in the studio, the more productive my work became.

Why?

Because boredom leads to curiosity and creativity. A bored mind is an open one. It’s a mind that notices. It’s a mind that wonders and wanders and reaches.

Take a long enough break and you’ll find yourself noodling with the next scene or tracing light patterns with your hands or attempting to hold your legs in the air with as little muscular effort as possible. In other words: you’ll experiment. You’ll get creative. You’ll do the weird shit that kids do with their bodies, minds, and the spaces they occupy also known as…play.

Allowing boredom

But, when’s the last time you were well and truly bored?

We reach for our phones without even thinking about it every chance we get. We work too much. We put too much on ‘the list.’ We feel guilty and weird if there’s empty space in our lives. We don’t know how to relax.

I had a friend once who worked herself sick with a more-than-full-time job and a bunch of freelance clients. She and her partner would zip off on whirlwind four-day trips to Mendoza, then she’d come home and look into buying yet-another rental property. Even her down time was exhausting.

Finally, her body began to talk loud enough that she listened. A close-call with cancer helped her reorganize her priorities and she decided to stop. For at least six months. She took a break long enough she got bored. And getting bored was actually a conscious part of her plan. She’d been running on automatic for so many years, she was curious about what she might be drawn to on the other side.

To me, this was the wisest and most ballsy move she could have made.

Our culture doesn’t value stopping. And it doesn’t value boredom. We’re just like over-programmed kids. We jump from one project or job or hobby or relationship to the next without any space between. We pack our minds full of cat memes, catastrophe, and conflict. We stuff our schedule full of work, parenting, consuming, surviving.

What would happen if we stopped? Long enough to get bored. Long enough for that boredom to turn into something else.

I’ve written about using your intuition to clarify your dreams, but boredom can be just as powerful. If you create space for it.

Escaping the escape hatches

So how do you build a practice around boredom?

Week #5 of The Artist’s Way process is one of the hardest weeks. It’s the one where Julia Cameron tells you not to read anything. No reading. None. Not even a take-out menu. Most folks try to wriggle out of it. They bluster about having to read for their jobs, having to stay current with the news. They throw up blocks and resistance like nobody’s business. They huff, “Ridiculous!” They quit the program.

This is how deep our fear of empty space goes. This is how rigorous a boredom practice needs to be.

But in order to get bored, we need to deke around our escape hatches—those habitual patterns that operate a little like static in our lives. Take note of your own personal favorites. Get really honest about them.

Here, I’ll go first:

  • reaching for my phone and cycling through this obsessive loop: Facebook, email, work chat, repeat;
  • switching between probably five different books;
  • batch- or binge-watching TV (betcha can’t watch just one!);
  • “pre-worrying” about things that may or may not turn out to be actual problems in my future life;
  • just sittin’ there procrastinating;
  • eyeballing various points of entropy in my apartment and feeling defeat and/or failure; and
  • food (thinking obsessing about what my next meal will be, fantasizing about treats I desire and deserve, calculating the distance between my body and said treats, trying to figure out what to make with the four unrelated, possibly rancid ingredients in my fridge, complaining about having to acquire, prepare, and clean up after food. There’s just a whole lot of time eaten up by food. Pun intended.)

These are the things standing in the way of boredom. I’m sure there are more. And when my escape hatches and my self-care practices meet? Whoa. I could spend a whole morning procrastinating about meditating.

Boredom is actually difficult to achieve. And one must be conscious about cultivating it.

Conscious boredom

I now give myself afternoons where I practice Doing Nothing. It’s freaking HARD, y’all. And really not as pointless as it sounds. When I gently and continually guide myself away from reaching for escape hatches (which is a form of meditation), I create a gap. That gap is precious and fleeting and powerful.

Because, friends, it’s the gap between things that pulls us forward into the realm of dreams.

If I allow that gap to be there, stretchy and billowing and light, eventually something will pull me. I will be drawn to the things I actually desire. Instead of picking up my phone, I’ll pick up my piece of rose quartz. Instead of staring at the TV, I’ll stare at my tiny potted tree. I’ll reach for my sketchbook instead of my Kindle.

What happens after that is nothing short of magical.

As I sit there, gazing at my tiny potted tree (whose name is Happy Plant), I begin to notice things. Three new baby leaves starting. An interesting row of dots along one of the broader, larger leaves. Soil that needs watering. I feel a desire to tend to this plant, and so I do. I water the tree and somehow I can feel its appreciation. I think about how satisfying and beautiful it is to tend to a living thing. To care for something. To notice its progress and its subtle transformation.

I might think about ways I could care more tenderly for other beings in my life. Or for myself. I might contemplate how much joy I could generate by tending to other plants. What if I started a garden? I might wonder where Happy Plant grows natively and think about traveling there. I might contemplate which environments help me to thrive.

My desire, curiosity, and impulses are now free to take me absolutely anywhere. I am generative. I am dreaming. I am creating my life, instead of being pushed around by it.

I have subverted the frenetic feedback loop of constant stimulus. I’ve embraced empty space. More profoundly, I’ve created agency within myself. Presence of mind. Nuanced awareness. I’ve tapped into the world as it is—stretchy, billowing—not as “productivity” would have me see it—tight-arsed and urgent.

This stretchy, malleable space is the space I grew up in. This is the space where, after my boredom pulled me forward, I started creating scenes, epic dramas, characters. I became a storyteller here. A maker of plays. Down in the basement on a misshapen piece of green carpet, dress-up box yawning wide, I became myself on the other side of boredom. Why would this be different now, decades later?

What lies are we carrying about what it means to be adult?

I have a friend whose child is homeschooled. Her school work only takes up about half of the day, leaving her several open hours. “What does she do with that time?” I asked my friend. “She builds worlds,” he said.

How has boredom led you to build worlds? What world is asking to be built now?

On survival mode

Exhibit A: She unexpectedly got pregnant and then married. They were living long distance, until he moved to Canada when the baby was born. But his business was in the US, so they went down south, only to get “invited to leave the country” a year later. They arrived back in Canada with a toddler and $200. They made things work but just months before they opened their restaurant, baby #2 showed up. Surprise! But still, she felt guilty that she hadn’t moved forward creatively. She hadn’t made anything in years. Was she still an artist?

Exhibit B: She spent four years in a depression, facing down suicide several times, surgery, weight gain, eviction. She moved in with her mom and only just got her own place and a job three months ago. She was a finalist in a comedy competition a few weeks back—her first time doing stand-up—but the thought of doing it again is exhausting and overwhelming. She wants to work on her one-woman-show, but can’t find the energy. Is she self-sabotaging?

Exhibit C: Within one calendar year, they went from a three-week hospital stay to coming out as transgender, ending their marriage, starting a new relationship, parenting two kids through major transition, and navigating their own transition. So…how’s the novel coming along?

It’s easy to see from the outside, or with hindsight, but when we’re deep in weeds of survival, we rarely understand—or give enough credit for—how much of ourselves that takes.

There’s a huge difference between survival mode and creation mode. How do you tell which is which?

But first, a word about ableism

Our cultural obsession with productivity and the expectation that we all adhere to a continuous robotic level of output is deeply messed up.

It causes serious damage.

No person can be—or should be expected to be—consistent or competent or functional all of the time.

We are human. Shit goes down.

All of us experience periods when we don’t have the room for a single goal or aspiration—we are working our asses off just to stay above water. Sometimes, no matter how hard we paddle for breath, we sink and struggle. These times can last weeks; they can last months or years. For folks experiencing structural oppression, they can last generations.

But somehow, we all feel the pressure to constantly lose weight and get raises and travel the world and create masterpieces.

Sometimes, the masterpiece is making a hundred bucks last until Friday. Sometimes, the weight loss we need is to drop the pressure of unreasonable goals.

And I say this as a person obsessed with dreams.

Accepting the fact of survival

The main reason I could make my Paris dream a reality—besides unbelievable amounts of privilege—was surrendering to survival mode…for six years.

Dreams and creative work couldn’t happen until my divorce, depression, and cripplingly low self-worth were addressed. That meant learning about self-care and, more essentially, self-love, doing a lot of work in therapy, and rebuilding my life from the ground up. It meant getting sidelined by a rage that lasted two years and finding a way through that. It meant figuring out a balance between income-earning work and the hours and hours of unpaid labor it takes to stay mentally, physically, and psychically healthy (an ongoing, lifelong project).

Once I’d come to a place of relative competency with all of that, I had the psychic room to dwell on What Might Be. And I had the spoons to spare to make a start at it.

(If you have not heard about Spoon Theory, drop everything right now and read up.)

And now: acknowledge yourself

So. If you are in survival mode or are coming to suspect that’s what’s going on, I urge you to be gentle with yourself.

Instead of beating yourself up for being 40 and not having your novel done, how about acknowledging yourself for surviving debilitating illness, loss, litigation, career transition, or, for God’s sake, gender transition? Instead of looking at all you haven’t done and haven’t accomplished, how about giving yourself some credit for what you’ve endured, what you’ve been through and breathed through? Instead of measuring yourself against other people’s performances of success—the photos of babies, the awards, the show dates, the weddings—how about giving yourself a trophy for the valiant effort of paying rent and making it through today.

I mean it. This is not a consolation prize or a participation award.

This is a real and deep acknowledgement of the improbable act of survival. The heroic effort of staying here with us on Planet Earth. The majestic display of human resilience in the face of adversity, change, illness, oppression, catastrophe, and a culture who believes you should be a smiling robot.

It is also an acknowledgement of what you’ve given up. The dreams you’ve sidelined. The goals you’ve put on the shelf. The selves you’ve stripped. The things you had to let go of so you could face the job at hand.

The labor of survival

If you are in survival mode, it’s usually not because you want to be. Most of us working to stay level would love to aspire to great and glorious adventures. And so, there’s resistance to deal with, too. Or rather: acceptance that needs to happen. Grieving. Some anger.

But, I have to say, there is beauty, too.

There’s a liberating and radical simplicity to saying ‘fuck you’ to fitness plans and watercolor classes in favor of early bedtimes and focused recovery. I got a secret thrill out of relentlessly and shamelessly clearing my calendar during my year of miscarriage. Nope, nope, nope. Nothing that steals my energy gets to stay.

I no longer had room for bullshit. And if you’re in survival, neither do you.

The work of survival is beautiful work.

You do what’s best for you, no matter what. You put what is essential first and you ruthlessly remove the rest. You pare down. You get lean. You get real about self-care. Really real. You surrender. And there, you find a power you didn’t know you had.

You see who is really there for you. The numbers are small, but the people are extraordinary.

If you can release the energy-thieves of resistance and anger quickly, you might have a whisper of creativity to spare. Not, maybe to write screenplays or plan expeditions, but to let your survival be artful and a little lovely.

To find pleasure the 20-ounce coffee you need to get through the night shift, instead of guilt or self-recrimination. To find relief in the sleepless overwhelm of new parenthood. Liberation in no longer trying so hard to appear perfect and together and in control. Compassion in the midst of hard loss.

Survival is human work. The work of flesh and blood and souls. It is not the realm of shiny, smiling robots, but a path of warriors who have faced the enormity of this human life and, somehow, kept breathing.

How are you navigating survival? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Can’t stop, won’t stop

So, you get through a really rough, chaotic time where you did more than your fair share of heavy-lifting and you think, ‘Ah, I’ve done it. It’s over. I can rest.’ And then, exactly seven minutes later, the Next F*cking Thing hits and all your special occasion, top shelf uncharitable thoughts come out, along with some flying spittle.

Life as a grown-up human feels relentless. It seems there’s no respite, or not nearly enough. Especially for those of us who are bad at relaxing (raises hand).

Looking for rest in all the wrong places

We think that if we go through all this struggle and strain, the universe should balance out somehow and give us a break. And the thought of that rest, that dangling carrot of peace, is partly what gets us through the rough times, but somehow we never actually get a good grip on the carrot even if we get a chance to catch up.

Why? Oh, because we made it up. Yeah, the carrot isn’t a thing.

There’s no vacation on the other end. That’s the bad news. The good news is, there’s a whole other way to look at it.

Look for the spaces between things

Where we get hung up is this idea of Big Effort = Big Rest. We see things in these large chunks when really, it’s better to bring it down the pixel level or the molecular one.

Taking things down to the microscopic, zooming right in, we get to see all sorts of lovely space around and between things, like the gaps between cells under a microscope.

We see that A Stressful Day is not one thing, but many things. Many things surrounded by buffers of space, like commutes or bathroom breaks or waiting in line at the impound lot where you can rest your attention on a nice, long inhale and a big, beautiful exhale. Spaces where, because the trains are all effed, you need to walk to the appointment and move at a slower pace.

This can be a practice—looking for the spaces around things. It can be practice to place yourself consciously in those spaces instead of rushing through the transitions. To make something of them. To find peace within them. To rest all the way through the process instead of hoping it arrives at the end.

Get your finger off the trigger

Problem is, the mind wants to latch on to how small these spaces are, and how they are drudgery, too, like all the other drudgery. Going to the bathroom isn’t a break! How can I possibly find peace while squatting over a reeking john with toilet paper stuck to my shoe?!

And I say: Chill, dear mind. Use your powers for good.

We get to train our cute brainboxes to see about anything. And thus far, they’ve practiced seeing the solid block of intensity. They’ve practiced seeing lack and ‘here we go again.’ They’ve rehearsed the “I’m so stressed ouuuuuuuut” speech for so long, they’ve forgotten there are other scripts to perform…and to write.

But, the first step is noticing what storylines are running on automatic. And how they’re contributing to your overall freaked-outedness. And if there’s a way to just delicately lift the needle off the record player and start looking around for other tunes to play.

Create consciously

And now, having practiced seeing lovely empty spaces, having raised a sceptical eyebrow at habitual storylines, having shifted the onus of great power and great responsibility onto your capable, muscular shoulders, you become an artist.

You peer into these variously shaped spaces with curiosity and creativity—and you think, ‘What shall I make in here?’

Is this a moment where I make a ritual of observing the trees I pass on the way to the subway? All the different tree personalities? How green they look in in the rain? How the wind moves them and shapes their branches?

Is this a moment where, in the in-breath between the kids leaving and the work email binging, I take up a pen and write several sentences all in a row? Whether it’s a journal practice or a novel or a I-dunno-I-just-have-this-idea.

It might even be the kind of moment where you see a pattern you’re ready to stop. A boundary that it’s time to build. A hole you patch up, for real this time, instead of leaking your precious life force out of it and giving away your power.

And I should tell you there’s no limit to possibility here.

A dear friend of mine and I have created an imaginary escape hatch for days that are Entirely Too Much. It’s a magical place called Fuckthisshit Island and no one is invited there but us. We have BBQs and fancy cocktails and dig our toes into the warm sand. We leave all the bullshit behind and take a moment to catch our breath.

Choose again

So then, the task is to gently build a little muscle around making these conscious choices.

We don’t need to make an epic project out of it. It’s just seeing, ah, I can do this again. And if you can do it again then it can become a real thing in your life. You create a habit, you make something, but more deeply affecting than that: you build trust.

Trust starts to knit itself between the part of you that really needs a rope to hang onto when things get squirrelly and the part of you that knows, now, how to make that happen.

Because it isn’t necessarily Life And The Universe keeping you from rest or from the space to create, it’s that subtle, fragile trust in yourself. That when the opportunity comes, you won’t sell yourself out.

That you’ll allow yourself to notice the spaces and to bring gentleness into your experience. That you’ll fill the spaces well and for your highest good. That when the chance to fill the spaces comes again, you’ll build the muscles you really want to build. The present, creative, funny ones.

The muscle to hold a spacious moment in your hands like a tiny bird and ask, “Should we sing now? Should we sleep? Or should we fly?”

Finding your way back to center

I launched a book two weeks ago. A few days before that, I wrote a different book in an intensive three-day workshop process, while co-facilitating said workshop. All told, it was two or three weeks of solid work without a day off. Followed by a week of emotional fall-out (aka constant crying) from some Unexpected Interpersonal Drama the popped up along the way.

Not the worst it’s ever been by any stretch, but definitely a taxing time.

At the end of it, facing my first free day, I felt this tense combination of urgently needing to relax and a complete inability to let myself rest. It was like my engine was still revving alarmingly high and I’d forgotten how to shut it off.

Before my own personal self-care awakening, I spent years in this state. And based on many conversations I’ve had over the past few weeks, many of us do.

Relaxation is a skill

We think it should be innate and obvious—but we practice the opposite so rigorously, running ourselves into the ground with stress and overwork and a compulsion to Go and Do, that relaxation becomes forgotten wisdom. Rest, recovery, relaxation, self-care. All of these things are actual skill sets that we get almost no encouragement to practice. Until it’s too late.

So, how do we find our way back to center when we’ve spun out of balance?

Look it in the eye

The first step, as always, is awareness. A little self-check of ‘hey girl, looks like you’re off the rails’ is often enough to start the process. This isn’t an invitation for a bunch of criticism and recrimination. We don’t need to dogpile punishment on top of a white-hot engine that has momentarily forgotten how to gear down. We just need a gentle, Psst, It’s Time from the little internal voice who always knows what’s what.

A reminder that even if we’ve forgotten how to kill the ignition, we can at least take both feet off the gas pedal to start.

Remember what worked before

In my case, I had this hilarious blank. I’ve spent years building up a massive personal toolbox of self-care practices, but at the moment I needed them, I forgot every single one.

So, just take a minute and calmly think back to what has worked in the past. It doesn’t have to be a huge deal—you don’t have to concoct a huge lavender-scented antioxidant recovery strategy for yourself right now.

You just need to remember one or two things that worked to settle you, and do them.

For me, it was a bath. A 20-minute bath with some sea salt and a couple drops of essential oils. I did this two or three days in a row and it was enough to start the process of unravelling the parts that were wound-up tight.

Trust your tools

Is a sea salt bath the silver bullet that’s going to save your entire life and solve all your problems? Nope, but it’s going to be the One Thing that reminds you of All The Other Things that really work to bring you back into balance.

That bath is going to remind you that you haven’t spent time around big trees and silence in awhile, and you’re going to get yourself to a park or a forest. It’s going to remind you about eating well and drinking enough water. It’s going to let you know that it’s totally okay to book an extra therapy appointment or acupuncture treatment. That what you need is a really great hug and an afternoon reading young adult novels.

It reminds you to make conscious choices on behalf of yourself.

These individual practices bring the big picture back into focus: that going deep with self-care has always served you, and it’s safe—and appropriate and necessary—to do that now.

Clear some space

This is where I tell you to say no. This is where I ask you point-blank if that other person’s needs are really and truly more important than your own well-being.

This is where I ask you how far down the Minimizing Your Own Health road you really want to travel. And where I ask you, gently but firmly, to not go to that barbecue party and not acquiesce to that unreasonable deadline and not offer yourself up as punching bag and serving wench to anyone who walks by.

I want you to nope out on anything that asks you to draw fumes from your already-empty tank for someone else’s benefit.

Does this mean you are offloading all adult responsibility and becoming a self-serving hermit? Uh, no. It means you’re taking a hot second, a solid week, or as long as it damn well takes to feel like yourself again, which is the adultest thing I’ve ever heard of to do.

Chill out about chilling out

There’s a thing that can happen where because you risked a lot to actually take care of yourself for a minute, you feel like you have to Achieve Ultimate Wellness And Personal Transformation.

I give that a no.

It would serve you way better to do a half-ass job at relaxing. For you to stare off into space and completely forget that you were planning to make a decaf almond milk latté, listen to Bach, and read the Dalai Lama’s writings.

Try doing nothing and see how difficult that actually is.

Rest and recovery are not things to accomplish or perform. They aren’t boxes to tick. This isn’t status-update-worthy stuff.

It’s sweaty pajamas and asking for help with the dishes. It’s making it to the farmer’s market, not because you’re going to post about it on Instagram, but because holy God those strawberries are so shinyredsublime they heal a part of you. Because pressing your forehead to the trunk of an ancient oak grounds you. Because watching a bird take a bath in a puddle is so simple and beautiful, it unwinds some of the burdensome complication you didn’t know you were carrying.

Get permission if you need it

Years ago, my psychiatrist would advise me to do the bare minimum. I loved her for that. Now, I keep a couple of friends close to me who, when I can’t seem to let myself off the hook, will do it for me.

These “permission slip friends” are folks who know how hard you work, who see how you put a hundred-and-ten into everything you do, and how deeply you serve everyone in your life. These are people who have your highest self in mind at all times. These are the people who you call when you need permission to phone it in for a second in order to get yourself right.

One of my dearest friends created a beautiful hand-painted sign that reads: Permission granted.

We could all use a sign like that.

What do you do when you can’t seem to slow the spin cycle? Share your strategies in the comments below.

 

Inner work, outer effort

The process of realizing dreams or bringing creative projects to life is always a balance between internal and external work.

This is, for me, a distinction between dreams and goals. Goals and goal setting always has this kind of aggressive rah-rah quality of articulating a specific, measurable goal, giving yourself a deadline, and Doing All The Things to get that shit done. Lose ten pounds by Christmas! Sell a million copies by April 2020! Get married and have a kid by…ech.

I used to love goals. But honestly, after My Lost Year, focusing on outcomes and taking on arbitrary, anxiety-provoking deadlines no longer resonates. Too much stuff has gone sideways in my life for me to feel okay within the rigid structure of goals.

But I do have dreams and very clear aspirations, some of which come with specific timelines. And I know these things will change me on some deep, alchemical level. Because the juicy stuff always does.

Dreams bump you up against all your stuff: limiting beliefs, unprocessed pain, and your own individual cosmic curriculum of lessons and areas for growth. They also take a lot of hard, boots-on-the-ground work.

Dream doing always involves efforting on the inside and the outside.

Which is why getting attached to goal-like outcomes is a dangerous gig. You may think that, say, writing your screenplay is about starting your career as a professional screenwriter and selling your first script. But this project may be actually about developing a writing practice and learning to self-promote. The outcome of selling a script is your (and your ego’s) idea of what this project is ‘for,’ but your cosmic curriculum might be different.

So, let’s just jump over to the idea of a cosmic curriculum (and I promise I’ll stop using that term).

We all have a path. Whether it was determined before we arrived on the planet or whether it’s being written as it’s being lived is really irrelevant. You are here to be, do, and learn very specific things. You don’t get a course syllabus printed out for you at the beginning of life. You find out about your assignments as you live them out.

And, once again, we continually bump up against our ego as we move through our assignments, who has definite opinions about what should be on the curriculum: fame! loads of money! sexy brunch every Sunday! easily identifiable markers of success which come at regular and predictable intervals!

This is why we’re so baffled when our expectations aren’t met by the outcomes of our projects and dreams…because we believe our egos to be in line with our path.

What we seek are outcomes. What we get is growth.

Case in point: In 2011, about a year after I arrived in New York, I did a long run of a show I made. My intention, and my material need at the time, was to make money. Our goal was to sell tickets and get paid. That didn’t happen. Throughout the seven weeks of the run, I freaked out about how we were failing to achieve our goals. I was so obsessed with how much or how little revenue we were bringing in that I couldn’t see the true function of this production.

Over the course of the run, we attracted something like 20 or 30 reviews. Everything from major news outlets to well respected magazines to bloggers moved to write about the work. This? Is unheard of.

One reviewer attended what ended up being a private, one-on-one performance. Before the show started, I was devastated and crushed there was no one in the audience but her. But that show turned out to be the single most intimate, magical performance I’ve ever done in my life.

The purpose and results of that production, while not ones I sought, formed the perfect set-up for what came in the two years following: big international tours that relied heavily on our press coverage for their success, and the beginnings of me learning to actually trust the process.

Often the roadblocks we encounter come from ‘inside the house.’

A need to inhabit a new, leadership role can force you to look at old, unresolved feelings of unworthiness. These feelings must be worked through or you can’t fully become a leader. The inner work is necessary for the outer work to get done.

These moments of internal effort often have the effect of pausing progress or activity on the external level. Which can be provoking. It might make you feel like the internal work is a distraction or taking you off course. It might feel like a waste of time. I assure you, it’s as much a part of the success of this project as any other effort.

The key is to be aware of what’s happening.

I was just part of another project where the intended outcome was money. Money, however, was the last thing that was coming to us. What came instead were communication problems, interpersonal confusion, and frustration. Finally, I realized I needed to let go of the money outcome completely and focus in on understanding what the actual (larger, deeper) purpose of this project was. When I did, I saw that I needed shift into a heart-centered place of compassion and serve the project from that place. I stepped into a spiritual leadership role I had neither acknowledged or fulfilled in my quest for dollars.

Then, of course, everything in the project started to flow—the external work could progress unabated because the internal work had been done.

So much of the personal and spiritual progress I’ve made in my life is thanks to my biggest dreams and creative endeavors. My dreams have asked me to face deep-seated fears and the way I keep myself small. These are not self-help side-projects—they’re necessary for moving forward with the project at hand.

Think of them as assignments within the larger assignments of our dreams.

The beauty of realizing dreams is not that we get to check a box that something got done or achieved. The real purpose and value of pursuing our dreams is that they ask us to grow as human beings. Dreams and creative work will always offer us opportunities for hard work where we roll up our sleeves and get things done. But they’ll also offer us the vulnerable, foundation-layer opportunity to look at ourselves and transform ways we don’t expect, but deeply need.

What is your dream asking of you now? How does it want you to grow?

On having a backup plan

As a young artist, my dad always used to encourage me to have a fallback plan. The deeper I got into my creative work, the more looming this nebulous thing became.

Fallback.

What did it mean?

I assumed it meant there was no effing way I’d make a living in theatre and dance. Or it meant that I would probably fail, so I should have something else ready to occupy my time and pay the bills.

Over the years, it got so I wasn’t able to think about my creative passions without Plan B sidling up beside it, like a plus-one at a party. I didn’t necessarily invite the backup plan, but there it was, drinking rum punch.

Eventually, that connection solidified even more. Like: if I am creating, then a backup plan must be present.

This caused a series of problems.

First, it assumed that the creative work was not the backup plan. That these were two distinct, and probably antagonistic, entities. It implied that the backup plan would pay the bills and the creative work would not. And buried in all of that was the assumption that paying bills should be part of my creative work’s job description in the first place.

But, should it?

In the history of Melanie Makes Art, which began when I was a toddler, making money has almost never been part of the motivation, drive, and urgency to express my human experience in various forms.

Granted, Paying Bills becomes prevalent in life at a certain point. But why did it get suddenly and fervently get mushed together with creativity like an incredibly high-stakes blind date? Jane, meet Susan. Susan, meet Jane. You two will be moving in together now.

This doesn’t mean income can’t be part of the motivation to do creative work, or that motivations can’t change over time. But the danger comes when unconscious associations happen in our brains without our consent. Beliefs like these limit us in ways we aren’t aware of, because we can’t even see them. We don’t know they’re operating or how they got in.

And yet: there they are.

Somewhere along the way, Art + Backup Plan got linked in my brain. And Money was the unexamined bassline rumbling underneath it all.

So, for fun, let’s just sit for a moment and give a new idea some space:

Creativity can exist separately from a backup plan.

God, what could it mean for us?

If our creative work was free from backup plannery:

  • We could just do our creative work. Like, actually focus on it. Without feeling like we’ve left the stove on or forgotten our kid in a Target parking lot.
  • We might feel super motivated to kick all kinds of ass.
  • We might also discover we’re terrified. That the backup plan was our security blankie and, now that it’s gone, we’re really wigged out.
  • We might feel pressure. Uh oh, we’re actually on the hook for producing something.
  • The problem of paying bills would still exist and still be a thing we need to figure out. But it’s over there now. A little further away, like at least three inches.
  • We might feel lighter and looser, or we might feel untethered and lost.
  • We might fail at our creative thing and be mortally embarrassed and/or disappointed.

Okay. So nobody dies from cutting the lil’ imaginary umbilical cord between Dreams and Plan Bs. The sky does not fall. The earth’s crust does not crack.

But all of our problems don’t suddenly solve themselves, either.

In fact, we may have more problems. Raw feelings like fear and pressure to produce and vulnerability. Which might attract some tag-along barnacles like resistance and futility. We might have to encounter failure. And then we might wonder what the point of creative work is.

So, it’s worth acknowledging that we actually get some pay-off from this backup plan thing.

Plan B keeps a whole lot of complication at bay. It lets you have one foot in and one foot out of your dreams. It allows you not to fully commit, or to risk, or to fail. It’s a back-alley permission slip to not be 100% authentically you and, as a bonus, you get to blame someone else for it! Thanks Dad. Your backup plan crap kept me from being a really successful artist.

Oh dear.

Now, what the hell do you do?

For my money, you find a really comfy spot on the couch and settle in for a spell. Because this is officially A Lot To Process. In unpacking the unexamined connections between Plan B and your dream, you’ve also had to confront a bunch of big feelings about letting those two things be separate, and in the process realized that the payoff from not fully committing to your creative stuff may be holding you back, but that committing to it might mean failure and humiliation.

Here, have a muffin. Still warm.

Okay.

So, here’s the real stuff. I only personally know one or two artists (and by know, I mean, like, I’ve met them in person a couple of times) who don’t have something resembling a side gig, day job, or patchwork of various forms of hustle in addition to their artistic practice. In fact, even the artists I know who can live off their art and solely their art still earn income from projects that are more work-for-hire than their own pristine artistic vision.

There is no Artist Rule Book in which it’s stated: Thou art not a real artist if thou hast a side gig.

So, reframing the backup plan as a standard issue day job is a possible strategy.

But. It’s not really about that, is it?

It’s about the commitment piece. Fully inhabiting your unruly, creative, authentic self. Without reserve. Both feet in. No backup plan.

There is no fallback to being 100% You.

Even though being you is, at times, terrifying, expensive, confusing, complicated, inconvenient, upsetting, boring, exhilarating, unappetizing, exhausting, and about sixty-seven other very descriptive words.

Can I posit here that it’s not your creative work that needs to be divested from the heavy burden of The No-Fail QuikPay Securify Backup Plan 2000, but…you?

That your trembling, beautiful, tender-unfurling-leaf of a self just needs to be allowed some real breathing room? Without the pressure to deliver or perform? That you get to be an artist because you say you’re an artist and that self-defining is your right (and possibly your superpower)? And that the expansive, airy quality of running around naked with no backup plan has its own unexpected payoff, I promise?

You as naked, authentic person might fail. You might feel pain, or you might cause it. You might fully commit to a thing that just stops appealing to you at a certain point along the way. You might change your mind seventy-eight times. You might have dozens of false starts and never get a project off the ground and give up completely and sell the farm and dye your hair green and say fuck it all, I’m going to live on a boat and homeschool my children.

All of this is totally okay. I believe it’s what scientists call Living.

But, we can choose to live without burdening ourselves unnecessarily. And punishing ourselves for not carrying that weight “well.”

C’mon.

Set it down. Let’s go skinny dipping.

 

Peeking under the hood: on avoidance

I have a friend going through divorce right now, and the money thing is really messing her up. So much so that she finds herself falling asleep inches from her laptop with The Sopranos playing because she’s terrified of giving her mind any space. Give that thing an inch, she thinks, and that core fear, that horrible anxiety, those whispers about security and scarcity will turn into an impossible roar.

We are so afraid of What’s Down There that we avoid looking at ourselves at all costs.

We think we’re irreparably damaged, filled with violent, chaotic pain that’s waiting to consume us. We’re terrified we’ll drown.

Oddly enough, this is how we know we’re getting somewhere.

If your ego (that sage, but stunted Protector Of The Status Quo) has the rabid dogs barking this close to your conscious mind, you’re closer to a breakthrough than you think. Remember the ego fights dirty and it fights to win. It will do anything and everything to survive because its survival means keeping everything the same. The big trouble is, your default impulse is growth. Progression. Evolution. Expansion.

This makes the ego really, really uncomfortable. So it blows up your core fears into giant fun house mirror monsters and goads you into turning away from change.

This cannot and will not work. You’re built for transformation. You are wired for spreading your freaking wings and taking flight. But, you’re also human. And our species has gotten a lot of mileage out of backing the eff away from suffering.

Let me set the scene.

So, your ego parks this barking, rabid dog by the door marked Obviously Where You Should Go Next. And you walk up to the door, get terrified, and walk away. Maybe you try again the next day, maybe you put if off ’til the weekend. But then weekend comes and you’re busy with kids, so you think: Monday, Monday. And you do sincerely, earnestly glance at that door again on Monday, but ugh, that dog is still there, and workstufflatelaundryblah. So you walk away. And you walk away. It really doesn’t take long, like a week maybe, before the walking away becomes stone-cold avoidance and you’re binge-watching Nurse Jackie, unable to deal with your life (*raises hand).

This will-I-or-won’t-I dynamic takes a lot of time and energy. It’s layered in with shame, self-recrimination, and accumulating feelings of failure. It’s sitting on top of a nice foundation of whatever core fear your friendly ego has poked and inflamed. Avoidance bleeds outward from the original problem or situation and takes over everything. And the net result is a massive and painful disconnection with yourself.

Because, my darling, you are all of these things. The transformation, the fear, the urge, the avoidance, all of it. And it’s okay.

The solution is not a large thing. (It never is, by the way.) It’s a tiny, tiny thing. It’s to sit down right now wherever you are (and okay, if you can’t sit, just do it standing in line at the bank or hanging one-handed from the monkey bars) and take five big, beautiful, mindful breaths. Right now. Do it. I know “it’s stupid” but do it anyway.

Good. Thank you.

And now I want to you to do The Next Small Thing, which is probably something like Drink A Glass Of Water or Rip Your Eyeballs Away From Instagram And Get In The Car Because You Are For-Real Late. Do that thing and then there will be the next one, which is Eat Something Green or Notice The Blossoming Trees As You Walk or Respond To That Email Where You Have To Say No To Someone.

Start to notice that your day is full of these moments and micro-choices.

And that the dynamic of stuckness and panicking on the other end of stuckness doesn’t have to run your day. It doesn’t have to be insurmountable. You can dismantle avoidance by pressing gently on the gas when you feel your body or your intuition or your alarm clock say, ‘It’s time.’ You can soften its edges by busting out five big-ass breaths. You can allow yourself to fail at these small things and live to tell the tale. You can bring an element of curiosity to the whole gig and ask, ‘What if?’ before, say, letting yourself go for an aimless meandering walk instead of timeboxing your life into efficient oblivion.

And once you’ve built up a nice résumé of accomplishments like Ate Lunch Before 3pm/Contemplating Murder and Responded To Passive-Aggressive Text Message, you can glance over at that door again. And that dog.

Oh! I should tell you. That dog isn’t actually there.

Take a pink rubber eraser and squeak-squeak-squeak that thing out. Imaginary dog. Made-up bullshit. Never existed. Good, okay. Now, look at that door. The one marked Obviously Where You’re Headed Next. And contemplate this idea:

Whenever you approach a new level of development, you must pass through a threshold.

This threshold might require you to jettison some old belief structure that doesn’t jive with the incoming new world order, or you may need to address some old fears or traumas that have held you back. This is a rite of passage, pay-the-piper kind of thing.

It’s not the funnest thing in the world, I recognize. But this is Growth in a nutshell. You outgrow a skin, and you have to shed it. Old pain, outdated beliefs, unworkable fears…these are the skins you peel off as you progress.

All this to say, while there is no frothing canine guarding the door, there may be a bit of discomfort ahead. But, you’re good for it. Because it’s no more discomfort than some of the other line items on your résumé: Setting Boundaries With An Unreasonable Five-Year-Old, Going To That Divorce Mediation Meeting, Looking The Cashier In The Eye While Paying With Food Stamps.

Avoidance is an attempt to escape pain.

But, we are humans, so pain is inevitable. It’s just that our imaginations get out of control and we imagine our pain to be much larger and more overwhelming than it needs to be. We can practice taking tiny doses of discomfort one at a time, and witnessing ourselves succeed at them. Sitting Down To Meditate Even Though It’s Been Two Weeks Months. Turning Off Netflix And Going To Bed. Making Actual Dinner. Using Your Hand To Pick Up A Journal Instead Of A Smartphone. Trying Just Trying To Forgive.

These are not tiny, pointless things in the face of some massive ordeal.

This is movement and momentum. This is building strength. This is witnessing your own power. This is loving the wholeness of yourself. This…is progress.

What are you avoiding right now? What skin do you need to shed in order to grow? Share in the comments below.

Stepping into the fray

I didn’t want to meditate this morning. I’ve been doing this meditation practice with ice lately, training myself to focus in the presence of discomfort. It’s not pleasant (that’s the point), but it’s effective, and I moved around my house in the space before entering discomfort with that cagey resistance that most of us know really well.

I knew I had to go in, but I wished that I didn’t.

I did the practice, and that cagey resistance was waiting again on the other side when it came to going for a walk. It’s a perfect spring day—I don’t know what my problem was. Sometimes, I resist the best things for the dumbest reasons. I went for my walk and I passed a polling station and I wondered if part of that dodgy vibe I’m picking up is because today is the NY primary and a lot of people are on serious tenterhooks. This whole country is, when you think about it.

It feels like a verge we’d never be on, but here we are.

And aren’t we always here? In one way or another?

That cagey resistance is part of my every day. So is that feeling of being on the verge. Of being one step away from a fray I’m always going to have to enter.

And there’s a feeling of wanting to run and hide, but also a feeling of not wanting that at all. This subtle, internal push-pull locks me up and makes it all much harder than it needs to be. Most times the answer is to just do the thing. Stop fretting at the side of the pool and get in already. It’ll only be cold for a second.

This is how it is with change. We know it’ll be uncomfortable—we’re not stupid. But, we forget that’s not the point.

The discomfort isn’t what we’re choosing, it’s the change.

Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like a choice, though. It feels like you’re forced into a situation of sinking or swimming and maybe you resent the part of it you didn’t choose. But, you’re here, in the water, so you’d best get on with things. I felt that way when I got divorced. I didn’t want to be single, but the person I was married to was leaving, and that’s just what was happening. Resistance hung me up for awhile, but eventually I understood that I needed to set about choosing how I wanted to be single because that’s what I was now.

Same with the miscarriages. Same with every time depression comes to call.

And honestly? Same with every day I wake up and resist the practices that are keeping me alive. Every time I face down some Big New Something like moving or really learning to be an ally or trying to get pregnant again.

We’re always on the verge. We’re always stepping into the fray.

We’re always making that giant choice to face What Is and act without knowing how things will turn out.

I want to acknowledge that in you. Because sometimes what might seem like the Tiniest Nothing Thing, like, do I wear a dress today? is the opposite of tiny. Ask any transgendered person. And sometimes what we’re facing down is speaking the truth in the face of oppression or acting directly against accepted ways of existing. Sometimes, there could be consequences that are really painful, and that’s the risk we’re taking when we step in.

That cagey resistance thinks it’s trying to save our lives. But it doesn’t actually have that power.

The only thing that will save us is to walk right off the edge and see what happens on the way down.

You can’t stay on the edge forever. It doesn’t actually work that way because that edge isn’t safe. There are scary consequences there, too. Which isn’t to say There Is No Safe Space. It’s just not where you think.

The safest place you can be is at the moment mid-step when your foot has left resistance, your weight has shifted, and gravity is pulling you toward What Is.

That moment of free-fall is the safest place in the world.

What are you resisting right now? What’s waiting for you on the other side? Share in the comments below.