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Staying in My Own Lane

The older I get, the more things I wish I knew. There are whole subject areas I would love to learn more about—like architecture and psychology—and then there are skills and talents, like speaking French, playing the piano, carpentry, and the ability to keep a plant alive longer than a day. Even as old as I am, I think it’s possible that I could still glean at least a little about each of these pursuits. But if I died tomorrow, the thing I would most want to have mastered is being able to sit at least somewhat comfortably in myself as the rest of the world speeds by.

My job in my family growing up was to fix things. I didn’t have to repair actual physical items, but calming the emotional chaos that occurred regularly fell to me. I reassured my mother, I gave her advice, I suggested possible directions when she felt stymied, and I made sure she felt loved and cared for, never lonely. Granted that was a lot for a kid, but it actually taught me some great life skills. Unfortunately, what it didn’t do is teach me to think about what advice I needed or how to calm myself in the face of trouble.

I’m entering my 70th year this week. I doubt there is a better time to learn to stay in myself and appreciate this moment.

I have learned those things minimally over the years, but I can still go from 0 to 60 when there is a problem—or even the hint of one. My first reaction is rarely to take a deep breath, ground myself in the moment, and remind myself that everything is going to be fine. Instead, it’s to let my brain go to all of the many ways that things might not be fine and then I start planning for the impending disaster. As I told someone recently, if I sense the possibility of something going awry, I am emotionally en route to the scene of the accident and picking through the wreckage before anything has even occurred.

During this pandemic, Jodi and I have taken up meditation. We did it following an online course taught by “Happiness Lab” host Laurie Santos. The class, titled “The Art of Well-Being,” focused on how much time we spend doing things that we think are going to make us happy. Many of those efforts do result in some happiness, but it’s not always long-lasting or even effective. As she explains, earning a bunch of money or finding a mate or getting a great job are all satisfying, but we might feel better overall for a longer period of time if we focused on simpler behaviors like movement, gratitude, savoring moments in our lives, and meditation. If you just glance at that list, it’s easy to see that those activities all have to do with ourselves—things we can do with our bodies and our minds. There’s no trying to control the moment, no emphasis on changing anything outside of ourselves, and no attention paid to trying to get other people to feel good so we can relax and feel good ourselves.

In our daily, 10-minute guided meditations, our narrator talks about “equanimity,” the ability to remain calm and strong in the face of difficulty, “not pushing away or grabbing onto” any experience or thought. When I first heard that, I wanted to grab onto it. I couldn’t think of anything that sounded better in the world than just letting life evolve and sitting in myself while it did. Then I started trying to do it. The first thing I did was notice how often I didn’t have equanimity—how many times just the mention of a person or an idea caused me to clench my fists or tighten my shoulders. I started being aware of how often certain scenarios prompted me to imagine disaster, complete with whole, stressful lines of thinking that I totally invented.

I'm working on learning more about some of the things I wish I knew. I’ve already found some books to read about architecture, and I’m taking a French class on Babbel. But the thing I long for most is equanimity. The irony, of course, is that the more I indulge that longing, the more elusive it is. When I get to experience it is when I quit gripping and grabbing, when I relax my shoulders, notice what’s happening right now, breathe deeply and just trust. I’m entering my 70th year this week. I doubt there is a better time to learn to stay in myself and appreciate this moment.

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