Recognizing Patterns

Sad Sunflowers
Sad Sunflowers

Nothing really grows in my backyard, except for some opportune weeds in the spring and fall. We have large patches of empty sand (this is Florida, after all) and little patches of brave grass. We planted hibiscus that have never grown taller than hip-level and don’t bloom unless heavily fertilized. When digging the holes for the hibiscus, I found rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. I decided to try sunflowers, since they didn’t need big holes dug for the seeds. But I didn’t realize that with a yard full of rocks, the sunflowers would have nowhere to establish good root systems to support their tall stems. They were very pretty to start, but then wilted before we were ever able to harvest the seeds. I finally recognized that growing the plants I used to grow in Texas just wasn’t going to work in Florida, and especially not in my back yard. With all the rocks.

Sometimes it takes a lot of repetition to break through to realization.

In our daily writing, we will repeat ourselves from day to day, week to week. There’s nothing wrong with this, unless what we’re repeatedly documenting is a cause of distress. Like water to a fish, like the air we breathe, things we live with and through on a daily basis are just a given, not to be considered as needful of change, until we connect the dots between the alcohol and the dull ache we try to drown with it, between the binging (not necessarily food – could be shopping, gambling, hoarding) and the emotional hole inside we’re trying to fill, between the chaos in our lives and the person who seems to always be at the center of it.

Sometimes we just need the patterns written out in black and white in order to be able to see them at all. And sometimes we need to see them again and again and again. And so we write.

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Writing for Discovery

Our lives are so busy nowadays that we rarely stop to think about what we’re thinking. Or even take enough time to actually think what we’re thinking. Thoughts zoom around, competing with television, radio, movies, plus the near- entirety of the world’s knowledge that we can now carry in our pockets and whip out at the first dreaded sign of having a moment’s idle time. Daydreaming, mulling over, ruminating – all take a backseat to the immediacy and retinal overstimulation of Candy Crush and Bejeweled on the playing-card-sized computers we carry around with us. I know it seems like a symbiotic relationship, but I have a secret suspicion our smart phones are more parasitic than beneficial, and may actually be our new digital overlords to whom we have yet to realize our level of enslavement. But I digress.

Unplug. Pick up your writing utensil of choice. (This is mine.) Start writing. Just let the words flow. After a little while, you’ll get to the end of the obvious things in the forefront of your mind. Resist the urge to check Facebook. Or Twitter. Or whatever your electronic crack-du-jour is. Write “I feel…” on the page and then see what your hand writes after it. Do it again. Ten more times. Whenever something you write surprises you, write some more about that. Or maybe “I want…” or “I think…” would be better starters for you. This exercise is for giving yourself time to actually think out the thoughts that sometimes flit away too fast or are constantly preempted by other concerns or distractions. Time to feel the feelings that are too often squashed with chocolate chip cookies and ten more games of Solitaire.

During my writing time this morning, I decided to write out a WANT! list and then rate the items so I could decide what I might purchase next. I discovered that most of the things I wanted to put on my WANT! list weren’t things I could get with money. I discovered that I pretty much have all the stuff I need. What I really want is more time for writing. And realizing that, I can make a plan. And so can you.

Daily Journaling aka “Morning Pages”

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron introduces us to the concept of “Morning Pages”: three notebook pages worth of freewriting in longhand. At about 250 words per page, this adds up to about 750 words, which some people consider the main point. I really think the mind-body connection works better – for me, anyway – when I put pencil to paper rather than fingers to keyboard. Maybe it’s due to my age and the fact that keyboarding (the writing form formerly known as “typing”) didn’t start for me until well into my teens that makes my long-hand journaling a more effective meditation/concentration tool for me.

What in the world could I find to write 750-ish words about every morning, you might ask. Here are a few of the things that show up in my journal:

  • Re-hash of yesterday’s events
  • My feelings concerning yesterday’s events
  • Interesting dreams
  • Things I gotta do today
  • Thinking through some idea by writing it out and taking the time to actually consider different aspects of it
  • Coming chores, errands, events
  • My feelings and/or attitudes about coming chores, errands, events
  • Weird thoughts I have that I don’t really want to say out loud to anyone  – at least not yet
  • Story ideas
  • Short-term and long-term planning and goals
  • Affirmations

Julia makes the point that in the beginning, most people seem to stall out at around the half-way mark, having written a little over 300 words of immediately obvious things-happening-in-my-life-this-minute that we all hold and juggle in the front of our minds. Pushing through and continuing to write after that point is when the magic starts to happen. Things you’ve been trying to avoid thinking about, that you really need to be thinking about, start to surface, sneaking out from behind the “I don’t have time to think about this” barrier we all erect with our constant busy-ness.

Next post – just what the benefits of all that self-discovery might be.

Building An Affirmation

Highlands Hammock State Park - a path through the flats
Highlands Hammock State Park – a path through the flats

Building an effective affirmation can be kinda tricky when you’re first starting out. So many of us have things we want to change, bad habits we want to let go of, that sometimes it’s difficult to not include in the affirmation the thing you’re trying to get away from. Remember the old joke about trying not to think of a pink elephant? Once the image is in your mind, it’s hard to get away from it. And it’s the same thing with affirmations. You want to be sure that you don’t mention, in the affirmation, the thing you’re trying to get away from, because your brain doesn’t recognize negatives. Just like trying to not think of that pink elephant, anything you include will be brought to mind, which is, with stuff you want to lose, the exact opposite of your goal. For example, say you want to quit smoking. You can’t make an effective affirmation that includes the words “smoking” or “cigarette” because that will just get you thinking about needing a smoke break.

You also want to make the affirmations be in the present tense. If you put the action in the future, then your brain is always going to lazily put off action until a later time, because the affirmation doesn’t apply to now. You don’t want to write “I will…” or “I intend…” or any passive verbs that put the action at some time other than this moment.

Some possible choices, some of which may also work for other things, too, are:

 

I make healthy choices. (This one would also work with your desire to make healthy dietary choices, or healthy relationship choices, etc.)

My health improves every moment, with every breath.

With every breath, I fill my lungs with clean, fresh air.

 

An affirmation I used for a really long time, in order to correct a long series of poor choices, was:

I release anything that is not for my higher good and ask it to release me.

Another thing to keep in mind, at least for me, is brevity. Some affirmations I’ve come across that others have written, just seem to go on and on. Since I choose one or two to write in my daily journal, five times each, having an affirmation that takes up two or three lines makes me less likely to choose that one, and less likely to be able to remember it during the course of the day to replace any negative self-talk I catch myself using.

My affirmations for today? I act on my intentions (like writing this blog post) and I attract my highest good (because who doesn’t want that?).

 

Affirmation Defined

af·firm

verb \ə-ˈfərm\

: to say that something is true in a confident way

: to show a strong belief in or dedication to (something, such as an important idea)

In Cognitive Therapy, the counseling client is directed to pay attention to “self-talk”, the internal dialogue we each have running in the backs of our minds. If one is depressed, chances are very good that the internal dialogue is negative in nature, and contributes to the persisting depression. The client is directed to pay attention to these thoughts, examine them on a rational, objective basis, and reformulate them in a way that is not so self-deprecating.

For example, if a person makes a mistake, no matter how trivial, and their immediate internal chatter is, “I’m so stupid! Why do I always make these stupid mistakes??”, he is instructed to mentally take a step back, acknowledge that he is a fallible human being, just like everyone else, and to also acknowledge that one mistake is not ‘always’, that he does well with this tasks for the most part, and is not stupid, but has merely made a small mistake. This is very difficult for some people, especially if their negative self-talk is a perpetuation of comments directed at them by authority figures during their formative years. Often people are able to pinpoint the origins of these negative thoughts to parents or teachers, when they realize that sometimes these thoughts actually manifest in the negative adult’s voice within their memories.

Affirmations are a very strong tool in the reversal of negative self-talk. Sometimes it’s hard not to think to yourself, upon repeating an affirmation that’s important to you, “but that’s a lie!” If you’re always late, and want to improve your punctuality, you might try an affirmation along the lines of “I am always five minutes early.” If you’re always 15 minutes late, your brain is going to immediately tell you that this is an incorrect statement because “I’m always late!” Well, where did “I’m always late” come from? How long have you been telling yourself that? How long have you been affirming your chronic tardiness? Is that your mother’s voice you hear in the back of your mind asking you why you can’t ever be on time? (My personal affirmation for punctuality is “I am always in the right place at the right time” – kind of an affirmed agreement between me and the universe.)

I use affirmations on a daily basis. At first, I used only affirmations others had written, and sometimes I still do, but now I also craft my own when I have a very specific idea I want to reinforce to myself. My last post mentioned my current top affirmation, I act on my intentions. Some secondary ones that appear in rotation are: I am healthy and whole, which addresses some current health issues; I envision my life as a want it to be, from Unity’s Daily Word, to help me get past the “I can’ts” that I continue to work through; I attract my highest good, one that I really liked the sound of when I read it in one of Louise Hay‘s books .

Next, we’ll talk about some good sources for affirmations and also how to craft your own. Also, please share any affirmations you find helpful.

Morning Affirmations

I try to journal every morning, and by “journal”, I mean that, in keeping with Julie Cameron’s direction in The Artist’s Way, I write three pages of long-hand, stream-of-consciousness, brain dump into a 99-cent (sometimes half that at Back-To-School sales) composition book.  On good writing days, I am journaling at my writing desk with my morning coffee before ever setting foot into the office or even looking at the computer from the doorway. And at the end of my 3-page (or more if there’s a lot going on) daily entry, I choose one or two affirmations to write out, five times each.

My primary affirmation, one that I’m really trying to fully incorporate into my on-going inner dialogue is:

I act on my intentions.

I have lots of ideas, lots of things I would like to do, but I am not skilled at turning ideas into plans and then plans into goals. The bigger things I really want to do get smothered under all the little day-to-day things that I have to do just to make a life. Eating. Grooming. Cleaning. Working. Interacting with human and canine housemates. Unwinding at the end of the day. Without intending, the days just all seem to drift away, not unhappily, but unremarkably, and with no concrete representation of their passing.

I set up this blog over a year ago, with the intention of blogging a book from it. And since then, I’ve thought about it a lot. Thought, considered, internally composed, made chapter lists and sample outlines, and pretty much everything but actually writing blog posts here. But today, when I have less writing time than I normally do due to morning meetings, I have come into the office with the express intent of really getting started here. After mere months and hundreds of repetitions of this affirmation, it seems to have finally taken hold.

Back to the Beginning

I don’t know how many years ago it was that I picked up a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, but that was my first introduction to the idea of daily journaling. I have used Morning Pages off and on to help me process my thoughts during difficult times in my life, to help me figure out what I wanted to do with my life, to try to root out the source of a depression or malaise. When things were going well, I was less likely to journal. When things were horrible, I would write and write and write, trying to make sense of the worlds inside and outside my head.

When I worked in a halfway house for people transitioning from the psychiatric ward to (hopefully) independent living, the residents were encouraged to journal as a way to safely and constructively process negative feelings and work through difficult moods and mental states. When I later worked at a halfway house for parolees and probationers, I would tell them that a journal is like a cheap, portable shrink. I also encouraged them to journal, although I followed that up with the offer of access to the shredder as privacy is really non-existent when there are six grown men in bunk beds in what had formerly been a somewhat roomy hotel room.

Last summer, I started journaling on a daily basis, as the beginning of a daily writing ritual, and a few weeks ago, I opened up Julia’s book to again read and work through the twelve weeks of exercises. Although I had remembered that she recommended Morning Pages on a daily basis, three pages of longhand, I had forgotten that it should be done quickly, as a stream-of-consciousness sort of brain dump, kinda like clearing out the cobwebs from the long night. When I remember that I’m supposed to be writing S-O-C, without really thinking or lifting up my pen at all, I find that things I hadn’t thought through fully come out in surprising ways, my pen moving along before I have a chance to mentally edit what will appear on the page.  And it usually takes less than 20 minutes, even with the addition of affirmations (more on that later) at the end of the entry.