I’ve seen a few posts on social media that have been talking about “keeping busy” and “avoiding boredom”, and it puzzles me. I forget that other people’s experiences can be different to my own.
When I was 12, I realised that I was almost never bored – I had an infinite number of skills to practice, things to research, passions to explore. Even if I was strapped into an airplane seat for 10 hours with nothing to read or watch, I’d practice meditation, or run through mental exercises, or visualise kata in as much detail as I could manage. I used to arrogantly think that it was a sign of my intelligence – that I could always find stimulation, no matter the circumstances. But I think it’s just another part of my funky, perhaps broken brain.
I’m perplexed when I hear about people trying to “keep their minds busy” whilst all this is happening, because I’ve never been busier. As I have mentioned elsewhere, there aren’t enough hours in the day for all the things I want to do. And staying home has streamlined me in a way like never before – without having to visit people, or run errands outside of a weekly shopping trip, I’m getting so much done. I’ve never done more exercise, and reading, and playing, and researching, and watching, and working. And it feels wonderful. The only trouble I’m having is that, now that my workspace is in my homespace, it can sometimes be hard to tear myself away from it and do something less “productive”.
Because that’s what it’s really about. Ever since childhood, I’ve had a burning need to be “productive”. My definition of productive is pretty loose – working, cleaning, googling an idle curiosity I once had, opening (but not necessarily playing) a game that rewards me for logging in every day, watching something new rather than rewatching something I’ve already seen… As long as it’s not “wasting time”, or “unproductive”, it feels important and worthwhile. And my list of “worthwhile” things to do really is infinite – I could spend every waking hour nurturing my physical, mental, and spiritual health without ever taking a step out of the door and actually living my life.
And so I find myself caught in a spiral. Every time I have a sense of achievement, I’m flooded with pleasure. I get a little rush of dopamine that reminds me of getting a gold star sticker next to my name in childhood. And fam, I can’t get enough of that shit. I’ll chase that high all day long. And that’s a problem when it becomes more important to me than my relationships.
I’m working on it. My psychologist and I have talked about it for years, but never quite like this I’m speaking to her tonight, and I think it’ll be a good chance to hash it out and see what comes up.
Last night I was reading “Every Day a Good Day”, an excellent book on tea ceremony and life by Noriko Morishita. In it, she talks about chajin – literally “tea person”. And that (Japanese connotations aside) was exactly who I wanted to be when I was a kid. I’ve always loved the idea of being a tea drinker.
Mature and sagacious like Sixth Uncle.
Classy and sophisticated like Giles.
A warrior and connoisseur like Tanaka.
I used to always have a cup of green tea with me while I was reading (I usually find black tea quite unpleasant), and I recall the pleasure of sitting on a balcony, looking across the lake and over the mountains as I read the Chronicles of Narnia. For a time, every morning I would make a mug of sencha mango, practice taiji or meditation, and take notes on the Tao Te Ching. But truth be told, I don’t know if I ever really liked the tea – it was more the idea of it that resonated with me. To be the tea drinker.
For many years I stopped drinking it entirely – I just never had the urge to have a hot drink. But at my workplace, wanting decorations to fill the empty shelves, I decided to display some tea utensils. Eventually I thought “Maybe I should start offering this to clients,” and started providing sencha, houjicha and matcha. After a while, it became second nature to offer it at the start of every appointment.
The result of course is that I now drink over a litre of tea every day (depending on how many clients I have), and I find that I am enjoying it again for the first time in a decade. I’m not sure if it’s about the taste so much as the experience; there is something beautifully ritualistic about preparing a pot of steeping leaves while sitting down to write or talk. There is something mindful about brewing the tea, and a distinct mental “sharpness” that comes from imbibing the bitter beverage, a practice as old as time. I feel more connected to my ancestors, and to the wisdom they held as they learned to slow down and be present.
I hope my clients enjoy it as much as I do. It’s a beautiful experience to add to the conversation.
A friend of mine recently made a post on facebook about not having enough spoons to learn about changing the world, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
This morning I found myself driving home wondering what I’d do before work. I had a few hours, and most of my primary needs were met, so I could use the remaining time and spoons to invest in the person I wanted to grow into.
I’d already exercised, so I was feeling great about that.
Maybe I could do that creative writing I’ve been putting off for a few days? The ideas in my head are slowly leaking away, and it would be good to capture a few of them. Or what about that beautiful line in iambic pentameter that’s stuck in my head? Perhaps it’s the start of a poem.
Or maybe I could use the time to journal, to work through some of the internal conflict, to heal old wounds and let go of some of my fear.
Maybe it would be best to organise stuff for work. Goodness knows I could use an EFTPOS service, and so many doctors are waiting to hear back from me but I don’t have a means of faxing them just yet.
I could read one of those many books on my shelves that I’ve bought with the intention of developing myself and my knowledge in counselling?
Or I could read news articles, get political and look at opportunities to volunteer with the causes I’m passionate about.
There’s also those friends who have messaged me and am waiting to hear back about some fairly important stuff that’s going on for them.
Then again maybe I could spend the time investing in my relationship, become closer to Beth and strengthening the bonds between us.
Or I could practice tea ceremony, and try and refresh myself on chabako before our next lesson. The time with Sensei is precious now, and I want to learn what I can without her so that I can make the most of my time with her. (Not to mention that I’m borrowing her tea box while she’s in Tokyo, and I feel unworthy of it unless I appreciate it more.)
I guess I could use the time to clean; the dust bunnies are quickly becoming the dominant inhabitants of the house that we’re sharing with them. And I did promise myself I’d start weeding a few times a week, and that was months ago.
Speaking of months ago, I’ve loaned the piano to my brother more times than I’ve played it since moving house. Isn’t it worth regaining my old skill and creating beautiful music?
All these things ran through my head, and when I got home I didn’t do any of them. I helped Beth run some errands I promised we’d do together, and then by the time I got home I was completely out of spoons and needed to crash. And that was so fricking frustrating.
I’m reminded that life is even harder for Beth, because even on a bad day I generally have more spoons than her. But there are so many things I care about, so much I want to do, and it bothers me greatly that I must let so many of them slide. Sometimes I feel like a Sim, watching all of my need-meters decaying over time, and as I desperately top up something in the red, a bunch more slide into yellow. And I look at people who work full time, and study, and have kids all at once, and… I just can’t comprehend it. Most days I feel overwhelmed with the few responsibilities I currently have. Maybe I’m just not built for the 40 hour work week.
I also want to acknowledge that I am not the only person alive who has encountered this experience. If anyone has any advice, I’d definitely be open to hearing it!
I think my last blog post might have been a tad dramatic. I was feeling hurt and confused that a part of myself that I love so much (my quiet, solitary, reflective nature) wasn’t really gelling with a friend, and I spent a few hours wondering if there was something wrong with me. Then, with some prompting from Beth, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a wrongness, it was just a difference that wasn’t being valued in that moment. I felt so validated that I swung hard the other way, doubling down on my quiet and thoughtful nature, and I really overcompensated for a bit there.
I am not a deep and resounding ocean. But I can be.
I love quiet, and careful, and measured speech. I often struggle with smalltalk, and thrive when I jump straight into the deep and meaningfuls with people.
But I also love lightness, and silliness, and occasionally mind-numbingly trashy entertainment. There’s so much heaviness in my life in terms of the work, the learning, and the healing I do every day, and sometimes I need levity. It’s not my strongest suit, but it is a side of me.
I’m so prone to seriousness it must be jarring for my friends. Thanks for sticking around fam ♥
I’ve been playing a bunch of Breath of the Wild lately, and I’ve been thinking of my energy levels in terms of Link’s stamina wheel.
This morning when I woke up and it was was about 15% full. With coffee, by the time I got to work it was about 30%. A little more time, a few cups of green tea, and I got it up to 70%.
My first appointment of the day dropped it to about 55%. And then, if I had stayed for lunch surrounded by my colleagues, I’m sure it would have gone down to 40. But instead I left the office, slowing the decline at least, so that I’ll probably be around 50% by the time I get back into work. Might be a double coffee day, though that has mixed results.
I wonder if life is like this for everyone. Maybe I just need more sleep.
It’s been a busy day. I woke up at 7 having had some troubling nightmares. Dreams of trying my hardest and still failing, because people changed things without telling me, or I was utterly in the wrong place at the wrong time. I woke up angry and cold, grumpy and tired, and it took me an hour to convince myself that the small pleasure of staying in bed scrolling through facebook was not as tempting as the prospect of getting up and doing something better with my time.
Feeling sorry for myself, I watched anime, waiting to feel less miserable. No such luck. After an hour, while I was enjoying the minor distraction, I was feeling frustrated and now stressed that time was running short. It’s such a hard choice for me to get up and embrace life rather than curl up and seek pleasure after a rough night.
The day was busy – apart from one game of Overwatch, it was very “productive”. I cleaned, ran errands with Beth, wrote emails and prepared for supervision. I met with people, I got things done, and I moved quickly and efficiently, crossing 14 things off my To-Do List (some of them taking several hours).
And yet, the more focussed I became on completing tasks, the more desperate I was to continue completing tasks. I began to spiral, trying to do more and more with less and less. I began micromanaging my time into fifteen minute blocks again, thinking “Well if I can finish dinner by 6, that’ll give me enough time to eat before training. It’ll take me two hours to cook, so I need to start by 4. I’ll get home at 4:30, so I’ll need to cook faster, or just take time out of my digestion time slot and go to training full…” Getting more and more desperate, stealing more and more time, falling further and further behind and always playing catchup. And always thinking of the next couple of items on the list, wondering how I’ll fit them in today, knowing deep down that it’s impossible but still feeling frustrated that I can’t find a way to make it happen.
Before karate, I wrote a note in my phone to bring up with my counsellor.
“I’m super stressed at the moment. I’ve vomited twice in three days and am feeling anxious every day. I feel so stressed all the time – like I’m drowning, the waves crashing over my head, and I’m exhausted. I have just enough strength to keep kicking to get my head above water for just long enough to take enough breath to just keep kicking. There are so many things that I wanted to do today that I didn’t get around to, and I’m drowning I’m drowning I’m drowning.
I keep feeling like I’m going to cry.”
It was hard for me to get into karate, but I did. The longer I did it, the more I enjoyed it, until the end my heart was light and my mind was sharp. I was tired, it’s true, but I was happy. And then as I got in the car to go home, I began to think of that To-Do List and I started to feel the weight again. But before I let it gain too much momentum, I wanted to write this down to remind myself later:
Xin, there are times when you become so stressed you lose perspective. You focus on the minutae, getting closer and closer to the details without having any sight of the big picture. You’ve stepped out of Flow and you haven’t even noticed it. In those moments you really get caught up in how important it is to write one more email, or cross one more thing off the list; when you start stealing time because you don’t have enough to do the things you feel you need to. It is precisely at those moments you need to Slow. The Fuck. Down.
Practice some mindfulness. Do some yoga. Have a shower. Go for a run or a hike. Breathe, watch something, play something. Hit the reset button however you can.
And don’t expect to hit it within five minutes. If your distress levels are super high, it’s going to take a little while to properly bring them back down into the green. And it’s so damn important that you get them back in the green, because when you’re in Flow, when you’re one with the Tao, when you’re centred and calm, you’re making good decisions. You’re using your time and energy well, in ways that count. You’re noticing how you are and what you need, and you’re making informed decisions about what to do with yourself. That is you at your best, and it is super important to spend as much of every day as possible in that zone. Make time for it. Because if you’re a slave to your To-Do List, none of it matters.
My earliest memories of alcohol were smelling it on the breath of one of my neighbours, Ken. My brother and I played with his kids a lot, and it was always a bit of a risk knocking on his door to invite them to play. His temperament changed like the wind: sometimes he was friendly and inviting, other times he told us to piss off, but almost always he was wearing a white singlet, his eyes were bloodshot and there was a can of beer in his hand.
My parents weren’t really big drinkers – maybe once or twice a year, my father would have some wine or beer with a friend. Sometimes my brother and I would sneak a sip. Invariably I found it disgusting, but my brother pretended to like it so I did too. We both wanted to be grown-up, I think, and it had been made clear to us that alcohol was only for grown-ups and we thought we were ready. Childhood’s weird like that.
All throughout my life though, the message had been drilled into me through my mother’s fear: only bad people drink alcohol. It’s dangerous. It’s something scary, to be avoided in the same way that you wouldn’t want to be around a glowing radioactive isotope. No amount is ever okay: one sip is terrible, one whole glass is just a disaster.
I remember my mother’s shocked face when when I ordered a glass of whisky along with my uncles at my cousin’s wedding. I was 22 at the time, and while she didn’t outright forbid me, after every sip she’d say that I didn’t have to drink any more. After I’d finished half of glass and was thinking about stopping, she pounced on my hesitation and moved it away from me, before I could decide for myself.
I thought about rebelling: about going somewhere private with my friends and drinking a whole bottle of vodka or whatever, just to rub it in her face, to wrest back some control of my life. And I guess I did a little. I drank one or two Vodka Cruisers after graduating high school. I’d have a small glass of Baileys every couple of months, trying to acquire the taste as I sought comfort or sophistication. I’d have a sip of Jack Daniel’s and coke at a party, but the smell reminded me too much of my neighbour Ken, and I never really enjoyed any of it.
The fact is, in those environments I never felt safe. The people around me, work colleagues, people from school, my brother and his friends, they were never people that I trusted. And so, surrounded by these almost-enemies, I’d become very scared as they became more and more exuberant, had fewer inhibitions, less control over their words and actions. I’d want to leave, because the vibe of the party seemed to be about getting drunk and doing regretful things and then laughing about it in the morning. None of that gelled with me, and I started practicing telling people that I didn’t really like parties, so thank you for the invitation but I wouldn’t be attending.
I broke this rule once, taking a chance by going to an after party with people I’d come to love. I’d been volunteering with them all week to help disadvantaged kids have an amazing time on camp, and each and every one of them seemed so incredibly kind and polite and generous. Then at the afterparty, the masks seemed to fall and it seemed to me that everyone was ready to become mean and crude and vulgar at a moment’s notice. I didn’t really attend any parties after that.
The first time I really enjoyed drinking was when I went down south with a group of pretty good friends. We weren’t super close, but they were all decent people. We drank Jaeger bombs and champagne, played ridiculous hide and seek, scratched each other’s hands in a bloody game of spoons, and passed the evening in wild delight. It was the first time I ever got so drunk that my reflexes were affected, and I was endlessly fascinated by the delayed response time: I’d wave my hand in front of my face and giggle that it took a split second for my hand to react to the command.
I still don’t really know what “drunk” means, but to me, I think of it as falling over when I try to walk, or having my response time dulled noticeably. But I guess it’s true that while that may be my upper limit, there are certainly people who drink until they vomit or pass out, who have no memory of the night’s events. It’s kind of hard for me to conceptualise because I encounter such people so infrequently, and at a great distance.
But recently, I caught up with some friends for dinner, and (between the three of us) we just managed to polish off one glass of wine. I probably only drank a quarter of it, but even so I had trouble finding my feet when I stood up to leave, and decided I’d better let my friend drive. I have to say though, it was such a delightful evening. Everything seemed unreasonably funny, and I felt calm and happy and confident. Rather than changing my personality, the wine seemed to enhance my sense of self: like I could be more of myself without worrying about anything. To loosen some of that meticulous self-control I always strive to maintain.
And writing those words scares me a little. I can imagine how easy it would be for me to start using alcohol as a crutch in social situations. To chase that comfortable, relaxed high on a regular basis. I know from experience that I am prone to addiction, and I think it would be incredibly hard for me to stop drinking. That fear I have is important, because I know what’s at stake, and how easy it is to fall into that pit.
What does the fear say to me?
“Don’t drink! Alcohol is bad for you, and anyone who drinks is bad!”
“I don’t like being around people who are drunk. It’s scary, and I hate having to look after them.”
“One drink could lead to two, and two could lead to more, and then you’ll become a drunk, and that will be very hard for you and your family. You’ll be a disgrace, and no one will love you.”
“There are so many stories, from work and from the news, of people getting drunk and doing terrible things. Killing people, crashing cars. You don’t want to be like those people do you?”
(And, just while I’m thinking of it, the reasons I haven’t done illicit drugs are all of the above, plus the thought “You’ve heard of stories of people having bad reactions after using even once. You don’t want to take that chance do you? Especially if it results in a lifelong experience of psychosis?”)
Some of those fears are mine. Others belong to loved ones who have passed them to me. I don’t really know how to let go of them, but… I think I do. I want to be careful when drinking, but I also want to drink again. To enjoy delightful, maybe slightly wild adventures in safe and good company. To lean into what Cassio called the “custom of entertainment”, without ending up calling it “the enemy [that people put] in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should, with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!” (Yes, I re-read Othello Act 2, Scene 3 just for those lines.)
I have many questions and no clear answers. If you enjoy drinking, or have overcome such worries yourself, I’d love to hear about it.
Someone once described me as “measured”, and it was one of the kindest gifts they ever gave me. If I had to sum myself up in one word, I think that might be it.
In karate when I see an opening, it’s like I carefully measure out exactly what percentage of my strength to use when I hit them: just enough to land it, not enough to harm them.
In counselling, I respond with exactly the right amount of empathy, and say precisely what I think might be useful to their healing.
When writing, I mentally lay out all the words that might suit my purpose and carefully choose the right ones to convey my message and tone.
This is what “measured” means to me.
The word “composed” also suits me wonderfully. I’ve learned that the way one holds onesself can get one pretty far through dangerous waters.
There are people in some circles who know me as The Mountain Goat.
Those who know me best are not surprised when I take short detours during hikes. I run across logs suspended over ravines, climb boulders leaning over cliff faces, and bound from my to rock to cross a raging rapid. It’s because my superpower is this: I can traverse difficult terrain faster than anyone else I’ve ever met.
To put it in video game terms, I think my Class Specialisation was to unlock the perk that highlights the objects I need so I know how to make a path. The dry, flat, stable rocks with enough surface area to be a foothold appear in red to me, and the wet, steep and unstable rocks all appear in yellow so I can easily avoid them. In this way, I can literally run through unstable terrain, choosing where to place my foot as it’s falling. And I’ve almost never lost my footing doing this. Furthermore, I instinctively know how much energy a certain incline will require when I take in the angles at a glance, and within a split second I can change course to choose the path that will use the least energy (even if it has a few tricky leaps to start with).
My quirk is best deployed when I’m moving upwards: it’s easy to scale a waterfall or bound up a creek, hopping from rock to rock (knowing how much pressure to use when I land so I don’t slip on the wet surfaces). It’s much harder trying to go the other way.
But you know? If I think of climbing down as “ascending while falling”, it’s actually way easier. I throw myself from rock to rock, trusting in my superpower to run the equations for me and keep me safe until I find myself on solid ground again.
I think there’s a metaphor in there somewhere about life. Oh well.