On NBC's delightful mockumentary Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope -- a tirelessly optimistic, type-A personality who juggles her job at the parks department, a seat on the city council, a fiancé, friendships and being the "self-appointed emotional guardian" of everyone in her life. She is a wide-eyed ball of energy determined to make life better for every person in the town of Pawnee. Leslie is intended to be a hilarious caricature of a woman trying to do a thousand things at once. However, when compared with many of us, she's actually not much of an exaggeration.
Women today feel like we must do everything, and do it perfectly. We seek challenging careers, meaningful volunteer work, self-empowerment, deep relationships, and on top of everything else, feel responsible for the well-being of our loved ones. We tend to believe that the world will stop spinning if we take even a moment's rest from maintaining these goals. In an effort to keep a handle on everything, we end up losing ourselves.
In my life, this is where meditation comes in. Meditation is where I learn to put down all the balls I'm juggling and let them be, if only for fifteen minutes a day. Meditation allows me to be where I am, instead of chasing after the next thing I have to do or regretting something I did earlier. One of my favorite guided meditations is narrated by Sharon Salzberg on the CD accompanying her book Real Happiness. I love this meditation because of the self-compassion that Salzberg encourages. She acknowledges that our minds wander during meditation and sees that not as a weakness, but as the core of meditation:
At the end of the meditation, Salzberg reminds the listeners that we can carry this lesson into our daily lives. Instead of focusing on a negative thought and kicking ourselves, we can extend a little grace to ourselves. We can breathe and let it go. I appreciate this, because it shows me that peace does not mean that nothing is going on around me. Peace means that I do not get carried away by the chaos around me. Alice Domar also addresses this process of letting go in her wonderful book Healing Mind, Healthy Woman. I frequently reflect on an anecdote from one of Domar's patients, who had left house one morning to discover her car had a flat tire. She relates,
The moment that we realize our attention has wandered is the magic moment of the practice, because that's the moment we have the chance to be really different. Instead of judging ourselves, and berating ourselves, and condemning ourselves, we can be gentle with ourselves. We can be kind. Simply let go, and see if you can begin again. Bring your attention back to the feeling of the breath.
'Before, I'd have said to myself, 'This is the beginning of another bad day.' Instead, I said 'That was a bad fifteen minutes.' It may seem minor, but that shift made all the difference.'
This woman was putting into practice the meditative process of releasing and beginning again.
Domar explains that, though counterintuitive, this practice of learning to let go can actually enhance a woman's sense of control over her life. She cites studies showing that a sense of helplessness can create massive physical and emotional stress. We as women need a more truthful sense of what is within our sphere of influence and what is outside it. Then, we can drop the burdens outside our control and focus our energies on problems we really can solve. This sense of self-efficacy drastically improves health and quality of life. Alice Domar beautifully sums up the balance that is so vital:
...the woman with healthy control has a deep-seated belief in her own ability to change stressful circumstances, or at least her reactions to them. She therefore has confidence that she can improve the conditions of her life and health. She does not believe she is responsible for everyone else's problems, for the behavior of loved ones, or for causing a terrible disease in herself. Indeed, she does not believe that she has absolute control over most outcomes, because she accepts that certain factors are, alas, out of her control.
The passage above is underlined several times in my copy of Healing Mind, Healthy Woman because I would love to be that woman. It does not come naturally. My first instinct is to be a Leslie Knope. I want to be a powerhouse of energy taking care of everyone and everything around me. However, following that instinct has already lead me to burnout. Now, I am taking small steps toward shifting my viewpoint. I meditate to reclaim some of that energy I expend. I meditate because it teaches me that my thoughts are clouds, moving across the sky without changing it. I meditate because it empowers me.
Of course, all of these zen feelings are tested daily, as I work in customer service. Today, I practiced letting go. I had a phone call with a very difficult customer and after I hung up, I took several deep breaths. I was so tempted to take the person's bad attitude personally. I wanted to harbor resentment for his comments. Instead, I dropped it and started over. I acknowledged that I could not control this person's negativity. I could control whether I let that negativity determine the rest of my day. Armed with that sense of control, I stopped and focused. I reminded myself that I am a good person. I am great at my job and proud of the organization I represent. This customer was just a cloud in my sky. When the phone rang again, I answered smiling.
Domar, Alice D., and Henry Dreher. Healing Mind, Healthy Woman: Using the Mind-body Connection to Manage Stress and Take Control of Your Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1996. Print.
Salzberg, Sharon. Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation : A 28-day Program. New York: Workman Pub., 2011. Print.