Stillness & Movement

How often are you still?

No tv. No phone. No kids or partner or pets. Just…

Silence?

How do we begin cultivating a life of presence? I believe we begin with silence. We so seldom afford ourselves the time necessary to hear our own, internal voice. It simply isn’t built into our culture. Like most of you, I spent a lot of my life rushing around. There was school and then work, and then parenting and more work.

After I lost my brother, I felt like I woke up to my own life, a life I had been living all along while feeling only a fraction of it. And then COVID hit, and suddenly there was time. Time to explore what it would take to sustain this newfound connection to self. Time to learn. Time to heal.

I read. I listened to endless podcasts. I attended virtual workshops and, eventually, in-person ones too. I became determined to create a daily routine that I could carry with me when I returned to work in person and that would continue to feed my ability to remain present. There were four elements that I found extremely helpful.

  1. Silence
  2. Movement
  3. Setting Intention
  4. Gratitude

It was a painful season of trial and error. After several months of trying different variations, I realized the problem was not entirely me. The problem was, in part, our culture. From the moment we begin school, we’re taught to start early, move fast, and be as productive as possible. There’s little room to begin one’s day with clarity and intention. Little time for stillness. Which, cumulatively, can mean that there’s little time to be present in one’s own life

My first barrier was changing my mindset around who my time was obligated to. I felt incredibly guilty spending time that didn’t actually seem to produce anything. It seemed so indulgent. Selfish even. I had to let go of that and lean into the realization that anything I attempt to do during my day would be meaningless if it wasn’t connected to my authentic self.

The second barrier was in finding the actual time. As a teacher, my workday started early. As a mother, my mornings always felt a little crazy. But mornings were the best option for me. I was inevitably beat at the end of the work day and still had to cook dinner, tackle household chores, attend meetings, help with homework, etc. Often, there was leftover work that demanded my evening time.

Still, it was challenging. Despite my ardent desire to be otherwise, I am not a morning person. I am deeply and irrevocably, entirely genetically, a night owl. It’s never been an option for me to rise at 5am. Any attempt to do so has resulted in sleep deprivation and the unleashing of my inner ogre. So let me give you permission right now to ignore all those super-peppy advice givers who might try to convince you that the best people in the world rise at 5 or even 4am. Most of those enthusiasts are angling toward increased productivity. That is not our goal. Our goal is to be authentically and fully present within our own lives… not filling it to the brim with more obligations. Also, sleep is critical to your mental and physical wellbeing.

You have to make this work for you. If you’ve got kids… mornings are already a marathon. One suggestion is to free as much time as you can by prepping your morning the night before. Lunches packed, outfits picked, backpacks and shoes by the door, etc. You might also consider having a conversation with your boss about creating a work culture that supports a more balanced lifestyle. Ask for a later start time or pitch ways that your company might incorporate mindfulness practices into its day. Arm yourself with research that demonstrates how doing so can increase productivity.

If it’s still an impossibility, see if you can protect a window of time in the evening. Spend a week observing how you use your time at the end of the day, and see if there’s something you might be able to give up. Sitting on that couch in front of the tv or scrolling through our phones is an extremely tempting way to end our day. It might be the time we relax with our partner, or it might be that we’re too damn tired to do anything else. But it’s a trap to believe that either of those are offering any real rest.

The continued stimulation to our brains and emotions can really deplete and prove detrimental in the long run. Ten minutes of silence can help you feel unplugged from your day far more than an hour of tv! (Full disclosure- I am someone who loves to curl up on the couch with a good Netflix series. It is such a soothing distraction. It obliviates the rest of reality. It is the most delicious, socially acceptable drug in existence. But it is still that… a drug. And like all things, it should be kept in balance.)

Like most things we do in the course of a day, tv or social media are habits, created consciously or unconsciously. Breaking those habits and starting new ones is a learning process. You are unlikely to arrive at any new behavior through sheer willpower and discipline. Approaching it with that mindset will most likely result in a perceived sense of failure and a whole lot of guilt. After many failed attempts of my own, I decided to first focus my time on learning about habits themselves. This should be everyone’s starting point. I highly recommend Katy Milkman’s interview on The Next Big Idea and James Clear’s newsletter, which will give you the foundational blocks to building strong habits. Once you get that down, you can plug in any or all of the below…

Let’s jump into the Daily Four!


Silence.

This is the big one. This is the one on which everything else hinges. It is the practice of contemplative silence. This is the space where you learn to recognize your own voice. It is simple and hard and unspeakably powerful.

Few of us are ever taught to hear our own, authentic voice. Too often, we confuse this for our thoughts. But thoughts are simply patterns instilled during early childhood and further honed by the influences of school, media, work, and culture. Simply put: our thoughts lie. Our heads are full of voices that are not our own. (For more info and an antidote, check out this awesome 15 minute TED Talk with Albert Hobohm).

Learning to attune to our own voice is a profound act. I came to it through meditation but fine-tuned the process through Hoffman Institute’s Quadrinity check, a four-part guided check-in with your body, emotions, intellect, and spirit. It’s a little woo-woo at first blush (because, we humans have become so adept at living in complete oblivion to our body’s needs, or even our own feelings, that anything pointing us inward can feel startling at first encounter). But it’s a fan favorite among celebrities and plebians alike, and I believe it’s a life-changing practice. We seldom make space to tune into ourselves. (Psst… Hoffman offers daily, live sessions on their Instagram feed!)

I’m also a huge fan of Ten Percent Happier’s app, which gives you all the goods to get started on meditation, if that’s the route you choose. I cannot stress enough that there is no perfect way to do this. We all want to believe we will jump in and nail it right away, but this is a practice that takes time to develop. Kristin Neff’s meditations on self-compassion (found through Ten Percent’s app or, additionally, on her website) are incredible, because they remind us to extend compassion to ourselves, especially when we’re trying something new. Her research is a game-changer!

For a more faith-based route to meditation, you might consider the World Community of Christian Meditation and Richard Rohr’s daily contemplations through the Center for Action and Contemplation! A word of caution to those who have a daily practice of prayer. Many of us who were raised in the church were taught that prayer is petition… a time to list wants and needs for ourselves and those we love. As such, we’ve been programmed to spend that time talking. But one cannot talk and listen at the same time. If you are of a faith that believes God resides within, then you must create the stillness to hear God’s voice. This will, inevitably, connect you to your own.

Regardless of how you get there, taking the time to ground yourself each day can have a significant impact on your nervous system, your brain activity, and even the way you interact with others (more science here). I suggest beginning with 10 minutes until you have firmly developed the habit, and then increasing your time as you are able. Remember, it’s about forming the habit first. Be patient and compassionate with yourself.

Movement.

This one is pretty simple. We already know that exercise is good for our physical health, but an abundance of recent research demonstrates its profound impact on mental health.

Research shows that 30 minutes of moderate movement (walking, dancing, jogging) at least three times a week can reduce anxiety, depression, and mood swings. This, in turn, helps inform our thoughts and allows us to be more present in our days. The good news is, the 30 minutes can be broken into smaller chunks throughout the day.

Again, it’s all about creating the habit. When I started, I set aside a full hour at the gym. That didn’t prove to be realistic in the long-run, so I’ve found other ways to build movement in to my morning. A really good starting point is 10 minutes of meditation, 10 minutes of dance or sun salutations or jumping jacks, and another ten for the last two items on our list. Once you have solidly built the routine and experienced the positive impacts of it, you can begin to increase your time in every area.

Intention.

Here’s the deal. You cannot get where you’re going if you haven’t chosen a destination. Every single day, we make that choice, whether it is conscious or unconscious.

In the immediacy of our life demands, it can feel like we just need to get through it. We need to get the kids to school. We need to finish that project for work. We need groceries and hair cuts and dentist appointments and all the things that take up so much space in our brain. But under all of that, days, weeks, months, and years are going by. We can live these days up on the surface in a flurry of activity and frenzy of productivity, or we can decide where those days will move us internally.

Remember those thoughts that lie? This is the time to challenge them. Pay attention to the first thoughts on your mind each day and the last each night. Mine are usually a mental catalog of my failures, the ways I’ve fallen short, the things I should have done, and the person I wish I had been. All lies. Use this five-minute window to write down or say out loud the truths that counter those lies. This is the truth of who you are. Allow your intent for each day to move you toward those truths.

Gratitude.

This… is it. This has been one of the most life-changing practices I have encountered. It is simple. You list three things you are grateful for each day.

But also… it’s hard. Our brains are wired for survival. We spend a lot of time thinking about our deficits and failures because, historically, deficits and failures could mean death. For most of my life, I ended my day reviewing the laundry list of the inadequacies in my own life. It included my failures, the things I didn’t have (which reflected my failure to obtain them), and a comparison to everyone I knew who I perceived to be better and more successful than me.

You can imagine how I felt when I woke up each morning.

When I began this practice, it profoundly changed the way I think about my life. But let me be honest… this practice took the longest to establish. I kept trying it on my own, and I kept brushing it off. It wasn’t until I committed to doing it in a group text with a small number of friends that it really took root. At the beginning, I would actually think, “This day was ridiculously hard. There’s nothing I can find to be grateful for.”

Yep.

Just to clarify…. I have breath in my lungs, without disease. I have a roof over my head, food on my table, and a car to get me where I need to go. There have been times in my life where I have not had some or all of these things (excluding the breath in my lungs). I do not live in a country where there is war. I do not live in a country where women cannot drive or go to school or hold a job or bare their skin in public. I have plenty to be grateful for.

Now, if you really want to spice it up, add in three things you’ve done well each day. For some reason, we are entirely comfortable lamenting our failures- to ourselves and to others- but we seem to be entirely uncomfortable voicing our successes. Especially women. We’ve trained our brains to be our worst enemy. We beat ourselves up endlessly. We really struggles to celebrate our wins.

Let’s teach our brains to be our biggest cheerleaders. I promise it won’t make you a narcissist. In fact, narcissistic behavior is actually rooted in the deep-seated belief that one is not good enough. We can let that go!

WE DID IT!

THE DAILY FOUR

Silence

Movement

Intent

Gratitude