As a performing arts kid, the holidays were a time when my entire extended family would travel to my grandmother’s house, I would be asked on the spot to sing something, or perform something for everyone. One year, I had just finished playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and my cousin had just finished playing Tybalt. We were gathered in the living room eating hors d'oeuvres before Christmas dinner, and my grandmother excitedly exclaimed: “Do the show! Do it!”
As a teenager it was embarrassing and annoying. With retrospect, and I can see that all this was coming from a place of love and admiration. And I appreciate that. But unlike most professions, there is a perception that artists can, and should, “whip out” their art whenever the public feels like it.
“You’re a comedian?” says the stranger on the street. “Tell me a joke!”
You don’t hear folks asking software engineers to write them some code on the sidewalk. But it’s socially acceptable to demand artists to perform their craft at the whim of passerby.
My view on this has softened as I’ve gotten older, and I can see now that in my situation, I just had a grandma who was really, really proud of her grandkids and just wanted to cheer for us all the time. Love you, Nana.
But holiday stress is still real. Whatever your relationship to the holidays, whether it’s your favorite time of year or your least, you’ve definitely experienced some amount of stress as it approaches.
How do you navigate it? Start with an anchor.
An anchor is anything that connects you to the present moment. It could be your breath, or the sensation of rubbing your fingers together, or the feel of your feet on the ground. It can be an outside force too -- maybe you decide that every time walk up or down stairs, you’ll pause a moment and check in with yourself.
Anchors work best when you practice them regularly. You can do this by having a regular mindfulness practice, or you can leave yourself reminders to use your anchor throughout your day. I’ve been known to put post-it’s on my bathroom mirror, on my steering wheel, and in my fridge, that just say: “Breathe.”
Take a moment to imagine your upcoming holiday plans, from beginning to end. Try to be realistic about what you expect. Take note of any moments that you’re worried about, or situations that might cause stress. Imagine yourself coming back, gently, to your anchor in that moment.
Mom’s yelling again about the bread rolls? Breathe in, breathe out.
Sister’s bringing up that old argument from ten years ago? Feel your feet on the floor.
Relax your muscles. Try not to attach to the words coming at you. Hear them, notice what emotions are arising in you, see what’s arising in them. Make a mental note to take care of these emotions later -- maybe a bath, or a long walk.
And then -- redirect. It could be as simple as “Hey, I hear you, but I’m not in a place to talk about that right now. Can you help me get the pie out of the oven?” Or maybe you need to leave the room -- “Hey, give me a moment, I just need to get some air.”
Deciding to act, rather than react, starts with an anchor. The anchor creates space between whatever has just happened, and your reaction. It gives you time to think about how you would like to respond.
Let me know if you give this exercise a try! Or, if you’ve done something else to stay present during the holidays.
I hope very much that you find moments of peace, warmth, and love this holiday season.
In the midst of chaos, stillness.
It is unthinkable that in the middle of moving, preparing for a show and working that I found myself sitting in stillness for a four-hour retreat. Taking this time would have been (and still is) unthinkable a few months ago. When my schedule gets packed, the first thing to go is my mindfulness routine, let alone four hours on a Sunday when I could be working on Enso, or unpacking boxes, or cleaning our old apartment.
Or at least, I had every intention of it being four hours long. (we’ll get to that in a bit)
There are things I sacrificed to take the time for this retreat -- I was also meant to see a friend in their show that afternoon, and that discomfort was very alive in me as I began. But the fact that I can and did make this choice, to cut out the time, was revolutionary for me.
To set up this time I asked my husband to leave me undisturbed and he wonderfully found things to do completely outside the house, so I had the entirety of our new home to myself. Most of the rooms were littered with boxes so I cleared out a little space in the basement and on the outside patio, wrote out my schedule, and jumped in.
I started in my favorite part of the new house, on the deck, facing our giant Catalpa tree. I stood on my yoga mat and asked my body how it would like to move.
As I write this, I am judging how I’m recording this retreat. The thought arising is -- “You shouldn’t be writing this like you know everything. Like you’ve done everything right. Figure out what hasn’t gone well.”
So that’s fun.
Hello, Perpetual/Perfect Student! My Perpetual Student can’t ever be good at anything, and God forbid she should ever express herself in such a way as to suggest that she actually knows things.
I love her, but she’s not helping right now. Come back later when I have time to address you.
I moved through some yoga positions. My mind was ping ponging with lists. I tried to focus on sensations as I moved -- the light, the warmth, my shaking muscles, my breath. The thought of -- “I better wrap this up so that Jordan can come home. You are keeping him out of the house” -- kept arising. When it did, I would repeat, “He’s okay. I’m okay.” This allowed me to return to the present for a short while but this was a thought that returned throughout my retreat.
I like asking my body how it would like to move, but it’s very hard to let go of The Planner. She was also very present as I moved through my planned retreat.
When my timer went off, I tried to practice walking meditation as I turned it off and walked downstairs to the basement, where I had set up my meditation cushion. I even tried closing my eyes as I walked down the stairs, feeling my feet and the texture of the floor. Everything is new in this house so getting to experience it in this way was fun and exciting. It felt like I was introducing myself to the space. I still very much feel that this is not our house yet and that we are guests here.
I sat down to meditate. I started with a 10-count breath exercise, in which each exhale is counted, and you try to reach 10 without your mind drifting from the sensation of your breath. I was pulled away several times by The Planner.
I journaled, and shifted to practicing Unconditional Loving Reassurances. This is a practice in which you create unconditionally loving phrases to say to yourself when your mind generates unhelpful/hurtful/anxious thoughts.
I was not looking forward to this. I felt this resistance to having to come up with responses to the stuff in my head because it’s not always effective. Or it’s temporarily effective for a very particular circumstance. I wasn’t sure that I would actually come up with anything. But I laid down, and rested my hands on my heart and abdomen, and brought back the two prominent voices that had been showing up throughout the retreat -- the Planner and the Perpetual Student. I tried to ask myself, what would you say to someone else’s Planner/Perpetual Student? I came up with:
To the Planner: You are adequate to whatever experience happens next. Happiness rests in presence, where you are.
To the Perpetual Student: You know enough to know that you don’t know everything. You are strong. You are kind. You are have something worth hearing.
I went upstairs for a Mindful Dessert. I had this whole plan where I was going to do a meal but with moving, we basically didn’t have any food in the house, just a homemade pie from a friend as a housewarming gift. So, that’s what I ate. (thanks Alana!!) I enjoyed the initial experience but by the end I could feel the sugar really riling me up and making my thoughts bounce around again. I’d never noticed that effect from sugar before, so distinctly!
Mindfully eating dessert meant that this part of my retreat, which was supposed to be 45 minutes, lasted about 10 or 15. And I had been moving through other parts of the retreat faster than intended -- I think because at the back of my mind was still the fact that it was getting late and I felt like I was keeping Jordan out of the house.
I couldn’t remember exactly how to do the Body Scan exercise I learned from Peace in Schools, so I tried following body sensations as they arose -- there's an itch, tingling in my leg, pain in my thigh, etc... but it was hard to use my body sensations as an anchor. I felt like the sensations were all over and bouncing around. So I did some stretching and releasing and that helped settle my mind.
I also noticed that the things my mind was drifting to during the Body Scan were different. I wasn’t drifting to my to-do list anymore, I was daydreaming. The kind I get when I’m really relaxed. I definitely did not expect to reach that state of “settled” during this retreat.
Creating the mindful art was the part I had been looking forward to the most. I had our big Catalpa tree in our backyard in my head. There were a few moments when I noticed some shoulds floating in and out of my head -- it should look like this, etc. I tried to breathe when I caught those thoughts.
Next time, I think I’d like to give myself permission to really go abstract, to focus on the sensation of the chalk on the paper. And maybe set up a towel and water to clean my hands afterward. ;)
I soon realized that this was not going to be a four-hour retreat, because I was nearing the end of my retreat schedule. The full retreat ended up being about 2.5 hours. My Perpetual/Perfect Student was really unhappy with this. I felt like I wasn’t doing the full assignment. And just as that thought entered my head, I heard the garage door open and Jordan had come home.
I wrote in my journal: “Just heard the garage door open which means Jordan is home. So maybe this is okay. Maybe I’ll see if I can take a walk? Or maybe it’s just okay that this is what it is. I made time where there wasn’t. That in and of itself is valuable.”
So, I let it be. I went out and checked in with Jordan -- he was fine with me continuing my retreat but I could see that he also needed help at the apartment. So I decided to let it go and go help.
I like to hold on tightly to things. My ideas, my expectations, my dreams, my plans. But it was really empowering to have created a plan, to be presented with a new alternative, and to decide that I was going to go that direction. I could have stayed home and extended my retreat. But ultimately, if mindfulness, and personal retreats, and self-care, isn’t ultimately intended to help other people when they need it, what’s the point?
I created time and space for me. It wasn’t as much as I originally intended. But I got SO MUCH out of that time. And because of that, I felt able to help Jordan.
I kinda think that’s the point.
This is quite long -- if you’ve made it this far, KUDOS, and THANK YOU.
Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or qualms about creating a retreat of your own.
ORIGINAL RETREAT SCHEDULE:
Night Before: Set up the space.
9:00a - Paint an Enso
9:05a - 9:30a: Mindful Yoga
9:30a - 10:50a: Sitting Meditation - Breath, LovingKindness meditation, Tong Len
10:50a - 11:15: Mindful journaling - what am I present to?
11:15a - 11:30a: Practice Self-Compassion: Unconditional, loving reassurances
11:30a - 12:15p: Mindful Eating - Lunch
12:15p - 12:30: Body Scan
12:30 - 12:45p: Mindful Art - Create with chalk pastels on a big, big sheet of paper
12:45p - 1:00p: Journalling final reflections
1:00p - 1:05p: Paint an Enso
ACTUAL RETREAT SCHEDULE:
5:00p - Paint an Enso using my sumi-e board
5:05p - Mindful Yoga
5:25p - Sitting Meditation
5:45p - Mindful Journaling
6:05p - Practicing Self-Compassion
6:20p - Mindful Eating
6:35p - Body Scan
6:50p - Mindful Art
7:05p - Journal Reflections
7:20p - Paint an Enso using my sumi-e board
7:25p - Help Jordan.
You ever experience this?
Maybe you texted someone and they haven’t texted you back yet.
Your brain starts cookin’ up some story about how they must be angry with you — and in reviewing the last time you saw each other, now you’re seeing all those memories through this they-must-hate-me lens.
By the end of the day you’re convinced that your friendship is over and now you’re just waiting for the big blow-out. And also, certainly this is the end of the world and the end of all good things forever and always.
And then, a text:
“hey what’s up?”
Our brains are built to tell stories. We’re really good at it. But sometimes we make stories before any real, true thing has happened yet. And we buy into them.
It’s a protection instinct. Brace for the blow.
I do this ALL. THE. TIME.
What I’ve been trying the last few weeks is to ask myself, when Anxiety arrives:
“What stories am I telling myself about this moment?”
What are the true, unbiased things that have happened?
I texted her.
She hasn't texted me back. Period.
The story I'm telling myself is that the reason she hasn't texted me back is because I did something to make her angry with me.
But she hasn't told me she's angry with me. There's no reality in this story.
So, the next question is: Why do I get hooked by this story?
Everyone gets "hooked" by different stories. I get hooked by "imposter syndrome" stories. I get hooked by stories about whether my friends like me. Those stories might not hook you -- but maybe a story about how you're supposed to look, for example, is the one that hooks you.
The reason one story might hook me, but not hook you, is totally dependent on my experiences, and how I've responded to them in the past. That friend I'm waiting for a text from? She's never told me she doesn't like me, and in fact, quite the opposite -- but it's something I've told myself in moments of doubt, repeatedly, out of fear from past experiences where I was hurt by someone I trusted and loved.
The more I repeat this pattern of
Doubt --> Fear --> I did something wrong --> She doesn't like me,
I'm literally carving and recarving a neural pathway in my brain. It gets easier and easier for my brain to jump from Doubt to She doesn't like me.
And it becomes a hook that takes me out of reality and the present moment, and into this story that I've been crafting for years.
The story might end up being true and it might end up being false. But 9 times out of 10 it’s a story about something that hasn’t actually happened.
And if I can just stay present, it allows me to worry less about the future, and just tackle hard things as they come, instead of always be in “oh-shit-oh-shit” mode.
I can literally create a new neural pathway in my brain:
Doubt --> Fear --> I did something wrong --> HOLD UP, girl. That's a Story.
I can train my brain to acknowledge stories as they arise, and see them for exactly that:
Just a story.
Does this land for you? Let me know in the comments below.
P.S. Here's a video on neural plasticity demonstrating the ability of the brain to adapt and change with mindfulness:
My final assignment with my Peace in Schools mindfulness training, is to create my very own, four-hour retreat.
So I thought I’d share my process with you, so that you can create one for yourself, too!
Let’s start with WHY. Why create a retreat for yourself? Well, as Peace in Schools says, “We often talk in mindfulness about giving ourselves the gift of our own attention.”
What arises when we give ourselves attention?
In my busy day, I frequently push thoughts aside because I need to focus on the task at hand. Nothing wrong with that! In fact, it’s necessary to function and be our best self.
But I find that if I push aside, and push aside, and push aside, and I don’t create time at the end of my day to stop and give attention to those things pushed aside, Anxiety arises. Or sometimes, Frustration, frequently partnered with his good pal, Displaced-Irritation.
I’m thinking of this retreat as an opportunity to invite in what I have been pushing aside.
There are big changes happening in my life right now -- so I am also seeing this as an opportunity to widen my focus for a little bit. Instead of just getting through the day’s tasks, pull back. See the bigger picture. And of course, note what arises.
As best I can, I’m letting go of any expectations for this retreat. I’m not expecting it to be calming and relaxing, but I’m also not expecting to start balling after examining my innermost truths. Both of those things might happen. Or neither. Regardless, I trust that I am adequate to experience whatever arises, and be okay.
At least, this is what I’m aiming for. This is what I’m practicing. Can’t make any promises to be perfect. ;) But practice is what it’s all about, right?
Alright. Let’s build this thing.
Like any good recipe, let’s start with the ingredients.
You will need:
FOUR HOURS OF TIME:
My husband and I are in the midst of closing on a house, so I’ve scheduled my retreat to happen on a day that I *hope* will allow me to practice in the new house. I think that this would be a really lovely way to introduce myself to this house and kickstart our life in it.
I’ve already told my husband which day it is, what room I’ll be in, and that he’s not allowed to come bug me unless it’s an emergency. Boundaries, baby!
I know that I’m going to want to do some mindful movement, so I’m planning on wearing something comfortable but not so comfy that I’m tempted to just take a nap. ;) I want to feel good in whatever I’m wearing.
No tech is a little tricky because I was thinking I’d use my phone to track time. I guess this means I’m going out to get some sort of clock! I’ll update you when I do.
I’ve planned my retreat for the morning, when my mind is clearest. If you’re not a morning person, don’t feel like you have to do your retreat then. Schedule it for the best time of day that works for your schedule and your ability to focus.
So! For my meal, I’ll be having a yummy lunch! I think I’m going to make a really big salad with all my favorite things. And a cookie. A really, really good chocolate chip cookie. I’m already excited.
SOMEWHERE TO PRACTICE:
Like I said, I’m really hoping that I’ll be able to host the retreat in our new house. But if not, I’m planning on doing part of it in my apartment and part of it at the park that’s near us.
You can see my retreat schedule by joining our amazing Patrons for as a little as $1/mo! Enso Patrons support our work every month and are an invaluable source of support and consistent income for our growing non-profit.
When you join, you'll get access to tons of behind-the-scenes content that we only post for Patrons, and of course all the public stuff too. <3
Take a minute, check it out. And THANK YOU.
Ever found yourself struggling to stay present in rehearsal?
Maybe you’ve got a to-do list nagging at you, or maybe you’re wrestling with that voice telling you you’re not good enough. Maybe there’s some rough waves you’re navigating in your personal life.
Sometimes, I want to be present in rehearsal. I want to be able to let go of whatever is in my head, and connect with my partner. But I just can’t seem to get grounded.
Here is a mini-meditation you can try to lovingly bring your mind back to your scene work:
Take a big deep breath, get back in there, and kick some ass.
Be sure to do what you told your body you were going to do -- actually tend to yourself the way that you need when you get home! Journaling, taking a walk, meditating, jumping in the bath...all great ways of tending to arising fear/anxiety/criticisms/negative self-talk.
How do you handle your Imposter Syndrome or Inner Critic when they arrive in rehearsal? Comment below!
Caitlin & The Ensemble