self-expression for the self-strong


Blue-Collar Zen

I grew up dancing on the poverty line. Both of my parents were hard workers in their own ways, and both of them taught me the value of a dollar – and the value of earning that dollar.

The three of us – my mom, my dad, and eleven-year-old me – built a two-story house on an acre of land. Just us. My dad designed the blueprints, and we raised up a house on a windy hill outside of town. I wired outlets, installed insulation (so itchy), painted walls, and nailed whatever needed nailing, plus helped clear the yard of broken branches, plant grass, and spread gravel for the driveway.

I know what work feels like. It’s not the capital-w-Work that people exult about like a vocation or the heart’s ultimate passion – it’s just work. It’s a series of things you do to get shit done.

And to me, work feels good.

It can be tedious, boring, exhausting, and unpleasant, but there’s still a zone I can find where it feels good. Sweating in the sun or freezing in the snow, struggling with fiddly details or hauling as much weight as my body can move, work feels good.

There’s a zen to that zone, you see. Where the discomfort is less important than the movement, the progress. Where one thing gets done at a time, smoothly, steadily, and it’s just like walking – one foot in front of the other, simple as that.

Mistakes can be made. Breaks can be taken. Distractions can turn the head. But in the end, there is a sturdy heartbeat in doing work, doing it at a sustainable pace, and doing it right and well. It’s a forward momentum that’s as good for the worker as it is for the work being done.

Even in the digital age, working with websites and emails and entirely virtual things, I can fall into the stride of work and make it feel good, feel right, feel hard-but-not-painful. Being in the zone keeps “busy” from being “stressful” and “productive” from being “burnt out.”

How do you feel about work? What do you do to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed when your plate’s overflowing?

The Zen of Clean Spaces

(A thousand thanks to Cazzy for suggesting this topic.)

Have you heard about the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm? “As above, so below” – or “as within, so without”?

Not only is it true, it can apply to the state of your surroundings and how they relate to the state of your head. While some people are very comfortable in a cozy clutter, others need spaciousness and cleared surfaces before their minds can tackle new ideas or large projects; some people prefer low, intimate lighting, while others function best in streaming sunlight that floods the room.

However you prefer your living or working space to be – and for the sake of this post, we’re talking about spaces over which you have some control, rather than a sterilized cubicle that you can’t personalize – you can change your space to suit you. And changing your outside space helps change your inside space, as well, making room for the flow of your work and play.

Personally, I like an individualized, clean place to live. I like having pictures and books and furniture that is distinctly Mine and Me, in colors that appeal to me, arranged in ways that usually cover the walls but leave the rooms themselves quite open. Having a bunch of clutter or mess distresses and distracts me.

Turns out, I am not a very good writer when I am distressed and distracted. I’m not very happy when I’m distressed or distracted. So, the first step to clearing my head is to clear the table.

I tidy up – I don’t care for the sound of the phrase, but it’s apt – by putting things where they belong. Even if that means piling the laundry in the corner, at least it’s not strewn across the floor; likewise, the dishes get stacked in the sink, even if they don’t get washed right then and there. I clean the litter boxes, take out the trash, light some delicious incense, and may even vacuum – having the air smell good and the floor feel clean beneath my bare feet are Very Important to my sense of space.

The state of my surroundings can have an almost palpable atmosphere to me. If my home (or wherever I am – a restaurant, my workplace) feels bright, open, spacious, and clear, I feel expansive and happy and competent. If the space around me feels crowded, dim, unclean, or “foggy,” I feel uncomfortable and small and inclined to hide in a corner.

What about you? How do your like your space to feel – and what do you do to make it happen?

Seeking Zen

It’s something I often say – “seeking zen.” In fact, it was almost the name of this blog.

I don’t mean I’m striving for enlightenment.

It means I’m not striving. I’m not straining.

I’m moving. Smoothly. Slowly. Water finding its channel.

Towards a place of balance. “Zen.” Peace.

Not a place lacking emotion, thought, or action.

But a place where feelings, words, and motion stem from a balanced center.

Balance is dynamic. Mindfulness is constant.

As soon as I stop seeking, the zen vanishes, because I’ve stopped paying attention to where it is.

I am always, always seeking zen. Are you?

“I’m freaking out.”

You’re okay. As you are, right now, in the middle of losing your shit, you are okay.

Let the intensity out. Sob until you stop shaking so much. Punch the living hell out of an inanimate object that won’t break your hand. Scream and shout. Say all the words in your head. Spit them, snarl them, wail them. Get them out of your head.

Good. Now. Slow your breathing. Just a little bit.

Stop clenching your muscles. Just a little bit.

Feel the anger or grief or fear or whatever you’re feeling. Find where it’s centered – your stomach, your fists, your throat, your heart. Let it go. If you can’t, then loosen your grasp. Just a little bit.

Listen to the thoughts in your head. Find the ones that are talking to you, the ones that tell you that you’re weak or stupid, the ones that demand that you get your shit together and stop melting down. Tell yourself, instead, that you are okay. You’re not over-reacting. You’re not weak. You’re not psychotic. You’re okay. That’s the only thing you need to tell yourself right now – you’re okay.

Take a deeper breath. Relax your muscles a little more. Let go of this powerful emotion you’re feeling.

Turn your attention to the space around you. If you don’t have much physical space, make mental space. Focus on the air next to your skin, then slowly expand outwards. Feel all the space in the room. It’s open. It’s safe. It’s yours. Close your eyes and make the space as big as you want it to be.

If there is something outside of your body that keeps bringing you back to your pain, like a phone or a picture or a locked door, imagine removing it from your space. Wrap it up, zap it out, cut all lines that link it to you.

Focus on your space. Breathe a little more slowly. Relax. Let go.

When you feel calm, or calmer, then turn your mind. Think of one single, simple, happy thing. Simplicity is important: don’t think of something complicated enough to have pros and cons. We only want pros right now. Just one, single, simple thing that brings you nothing but joy.

Keep breathing. If you start thinking of your pain again, gently refocus on your joy. Don’t yell at yourself for drifting; don’t feel guilty; don’t tense up. Just breathe. In. Out. In. Out.

Remind yourself that you’re okay. And keep breathing.