Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Showing Up

Working with my coach Sarah for the past few years, there’s been one practice that I’ve been using consistently: showing up. The practice of showing up has different meanings for me in different contexts. The most basic meaning is, literally, showing up. You can’t do anything if you don’t show up first. I use this basic form of showing up when practicing mindfulness meditation. I schedule 20 minutes in my day to sit quietly and observe what happens. If a thought pops into my head, I note it and move on. If my mind wanders, I use my breathing to re-center myself. No judgment; no attachment. Having a goal or setting expectations is counter-productive. I just show up.

I describe the second form of showing up as priming the pump. Two weeks ago, I noticed that I wasn’t celebrating. I had just done something awesome—something that I had avoided doing for years—and afterwards, I was totally blasé about it. Like, it was no big deal and not even worth mentioning. That struck me as seriously messed up, and I resolved to address it. How I celebrate (or don’t celebrate) has been a recurring topic of conversation in my work with Sarah, but I had never taken it on. I did start a gratitude journal, but feeling grateful for what I have is different than celebrating what I do. I say that I’m self-deprecating, but in reality, I often sell myself short. But, how do I even begin thinking about celebrating when it is such an alien concept to me? To prime my pump, I brainstormed a short list of questions to ask myself in a week. My plan was to sit down and do a bit of free-thinking. Well, knowing that it was going to have to show up in a few days to answer those questions, my brain got to work. I felt myself analyzing past experiences and organizing my thoughts as I washed the dishes and took a shower. By the time I sat down to write, my head was brimming with fresh thoughts and insights. Scheduling a concrete activity that I’m going to have to show up for puts my brain and body into motion so that I am prepared to take it on. It primes my pump.

I started running again this summer. Nothing major: two miles a day, three days a week. Getting back into shape felt great and the endorphins did wonders for my outlook. But I stopped running in November and—combined with a touch of seasonal affective disorder—my mood and productivity dipped. At the same time I was thinking about how I celebrated, I was also thinking about how I spent my time off. I decided to explore an indoor physical recreational activity. Improving my balance, flexibility, and general physical confidence had been on my agenda for a while, and the first thought was yoga. But yoga didn’t speak to me and my first experience with it hadn’t been positive. When I allowed my mind to roam for a bit, two activities popped into my head: a martial art and rock climbing. The thought of taking up a martial art or rock climbing terrifies me, and I was not ready to make that commitment. How could I dip my toe into the water without diving in? The local community education program sends me a catalog every season, and I was pretty sure the winter catalog was sitting in my junk mail pile. I committed to checking to see if the catalog was there by the end of the week. It seemed easy enough, but it took me a few days to work up my nerve, show up, and check the pile. The catalog was there. Even though I hadn’t committed to doing anything else, I flipped through the catalog to the adult physical fitness section and there they were: a kickboxing for beginners class and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu for beginners class. I haven’t quite made the commitment, but I know that I’m going to take one of those classes in the spring. I think of this form of showing up as removing unknowns and clearing obstacles. If I show up to remove one obstacle, I almost always follow through and complete the entire task. It’s fear of the unknown that holds me back.

I discovered a fourth form of showing up on Friday when I was reflecting on my week. Back in November, I noticed that I was doing most of my reflection and planning work when I was preparing for my weekly session with Sarah. I decided that I wanted to take more initiative in my reflecting and planning, so I re-scheduled my time with Sarah so that we were talking once a month instead of once a week. Doing that at the same time the days were getting shorter and I had stopped running may not have been the best idea. I found myself drifting, going for weeks without a plan. But then I experimented with a new system. I designed a series of prompts that I use to reflect on Friday and plan on Sunday. Instead of sitting down and facing a blank sheet of paper, the pre-written prompts allow me to interview myself. All I have to do is show up. At first, I thought I was practicing the first form of showing up. But then I noticed something weird. I’ve reflected and planned for seven consecutive weeks now and—no matter my mood or how primed I am—when I sit down and give myself a quiet space to think and write, something incredible always pours out. It has happened every week, and every week I am stunned by the depth and quality of my output. I often start writing feeling as though my brain is empty. Oh, this will be a short writing session, I tell myself, but it’s important for me to show up. Two hours later, I’ve had multiple breakthroughs and I’m still going strong.

If you were to ask me when I’ve been at my best, I would answer without hesitation. I was at my best when I was a classroom teacher spending time with students. No matter how I was feeling at the time or what was on my mind, when a student approached me, I was totally there for him: insightful, powerful, and wise. I always knew what to say to comfort him, and I always knew what to ask to guide him. I could stretch myself to rise to any occasion. I describe the feeling as being fully in the moment. In contrast, when I’m around adults, it’s like my head is in a fog and… oh no, did I really just say that? When I sit down to work on my 5-year vision, that vision of myself with students is a touchstone for me. That’s how I want to feel. That’s who I want to be. Well, on Friday, I put two and two together and recognized that the feeling I get after showing up to do my reflection and planning work is the exact same feeling I got after working with students. It struck me like a thunderclap.

There is a mantra that I tried once. While I liked it, it didn’t take hold. “I am enough.” I suspect, like my first stab at keeping a gratitude journal, I wasn’t equipped to get the most out of it at the time. But now I think I get it. When I spent time with students, I was enough. There were no caveats. It didn’t depend on any conditions or any preparation. I was enough, and the outcome was incredible. Because I was enough, I felt powerful, secure, and confident… which only made me even more powerful, secure, and confident. I trusted myself to show up, so I did show up. Sitting down to do my reflection and planning work for seven consecutive weeks—showing up to write when I often feel as though my tank is running on empty—only to discover that there is beautiful prose and thinking just lurking beneath the surface, ready to pour out if I give myself half a chance… well, the feeling is indescribable. It’s showing up and knowing that the fireworks aren’t far behind. In fact, the fireworks are me. I am enough. Now I really do feel like celebrating.