Being Still

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The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.

A friend posted that on Facebook this morning, and it is sticking with me as I move through the day.

This is the time of the year when everything starts to move faster, and gets crazier. Every year around December 1 I try to consciously shut that down for myself.

We celebrate a secular Christmas (tree, gifts) and Hanukkah (lighting the menorah). What I love about both tree and menorah is the lights. As much as Christmas is not my favorite holiday (my parents worked in retail when I was growing up, so December was synonymous with stress), I’ve always liked the lights. I love decorating the tree and then darkening the room to watch it glow. I like that about the Hanukkah candles as well (that and the sound of my girls reciting the prayers, which they learned in preschool at a temple, and which I think my dad, who was Jewish, would appreciate).

If I focus on that glow and the quiet, and let that be the central idea of the December holidays, I’m able to stay with the peaceful part of it, and not get caught up in the low roar that starts now and goes on for the next five weeks. I’m able to better consider what it means to celebrate the end of another year.

In fact, I’ve found that being still is a great way to handle any stressful or negative situation. It goes against my nature — or what I’ve always assumed my nature to be — not to have an instant, passionate emotional reaction when something intense is going on. With practice, I’m learning to rein in the reactive part — even if I feel the emotion like a punch in the stomach. As it turns out, being still and letting others react instead, or letting situations come untangled on their own, actually works — just about every single time.

It’s not that you’re being passive or avoiding things. You just don’t have to jump on a feeling of anger or frustration or desperation right then and there. In fact, it’s often a really bad idea to do so. When I look back at the moments in my life where I did something I wish I hadn’t, I see that it’s because I reacted in a knee-jerk way, when it would have been smarter to take a step back, pause, breathe, and take time to get some perspective on what was happening and how I felt about it.

The times I’ve reacted in the heat of the moment, I did so because I had some sort of need that I imagined must be satisfied right then. I wanted the other person to justify what I was feeling, or I wanted them to feel as bad as I did. Or maybe I just didn’t want to feel it at all, so by trying to connect, I was attempting to get rid of it. Either way, I didn’t give myself time to really get a handle on the situation. I didn’t hear all I needed to hear.

Lots of emotions feel bad to sit with, but pushing them away doesn’t make them go away. Letting myself be uncomfortable often results in my moving through whatever it is, hearing its truth, and leaving it behind.

So. This is a good time of year to practice being still, to imagine a nice, porous boundary around you, one that gives you a little breathing space. It doesn’t shut people or feelings out — it lets in what’s useful and what serves you. It allows you to maintain the stillness needed to engage with everything, and everyone, in a more graceful way.

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Slowing Down

There is a lot to be said for being deliberate. For making decisions from a calm, collected place. So many times we (or at least I) make the most critical choices from a place of panic and stress and heightened emotion, whether it’s warranted or not. But I’ve realized this: Aside from snap decisions made in an emergency, there’s next to nothing that can’t wait for you to gather yourself, consider, and then decide rationally.

I find that I can trust my instincts better if I first take some time to listen to them.

Most of the time when I just react, it turns out to be a mistake. We all have those moments etched in our mind, those situations we think back on and wish we’d waited — a day, an hour, even a second — before we acted a certain way or said a certain thing. There can be a lot of regret and guilt associated with reacting without thinking first.

My mother, a new widow, is feeling overwhelmed by all the things she’s had to do since my father passed away, only about six weeks ago. All the paperwork, thank-you notes, visits to the social security office. Then there are the larger decisions she has yet to make, actions she has yet to take, such as packing up his things, deciding whether she’ll move out of our house, deciding whether she’ll move out of the Chicago area. She can’t bring herself to go there yet, which I completely understand and support. She shouldn’t, yet. But I do keep reminding her that even the littler things (like the thank-you notes) don’t all need to happen right this minute.

Of course, the details keep her occupied, which obviously helps her right now, so there’s that. But to address that overwhelmed-ness a bit, at least, I always suggest to her that she slow down and take her time.

This is easier said than done, I realize. I used to be horrible at it. I was one big ball of reaction. It wasn’t always a total disaster, but I often felt like I hadn’t reacted in the best way I could, or the way I truly wanted to. It takes practice to take the time you need — and to let others know you need it, sometimes. It’s like learning to say no when you’re a “yes” girl. Ultimately, though, creating these boundaries for yourself gives you the space to make the choices that are right for you, and you’ll be more satisfied with the outcomes and even with your interactions.

This works on not completely critical moments too — on annoying little snafus, problems and disagreements that crop up in your daily activities. Recently a small setback in a project had me lying awake at night stressing out. I was trying to think of alternatives, and none of them seemed right. The issue wasn’t a big deal, but it was sort of the icing on a project I’d worked hard on and that I’m proud of. I wanted it to be great, not just good enough.

There wasn’t much I could do, so I didn’t really do anything but stew a bit — and then it all worked out. A friend’s brother had the solution, fixed the file, and just like that, the problem evaporated.

Sometimes, if you don’t do anything, obstacles just give up on their own.

It’s pretty great to think there’s power in slowing things down, in taking time and space. In actually doing nothing. If you enjoy being in control, you could actually look at this as a way of maintaining control, instead of feeling out of control in your premature reaction. By doing nothing, you are doing something.

It’s also a relief to realize you don’t have to instantly know the right answer or have the right comeback or have an inside line on exactly which action is right. I used to consider it my own personal failing that I couldn’t do that. But now I know I don’t have to. Really, that I shouldn’t.