Documenting The Journey Of A Man On A Quest For Mindfulness, Peace, and Joy

Category: Exercise and Movement

On Sabbatical – Week 27: Beyond Thankful

GIVING THANKS IN A BIGGER-THAN-USUAL WAY

It’s Thanksgiving week! While the traditional American Thanksgiving spread has been a long-standing favorite meal of mine, the holiday had some extra significance this year, for a few reasons. For starters, I volunteered to prepare four of the side dishes for our extended family of ten. I offered this up because… it felt right. My mother in law was still rehabilitating her broken leg from a car accident a few weeks prior. I’m currently unemployed. I enjoy cooking. I love the combination of mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and cranberries (and whatever else is on the table). So, I scooted out to the store on Monday to gather supplies and beat the last-minute rush on green beans and the like. 

Prepping mashed potatoes, dressing, green bean casserole, and cornbread casserole the day before Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving this year also felt significant because I wrote a sort of prayer to be shared before the feast. I had never done this before, and I was nervous about actually saying the words out loud. The idea came to me, as many of my ideas do, on a hiking trail. I have never identified as a religious person nor as a spiritual person, but lately I have been uncovering a more spiritual side to myself, a side that is open to and invites in the notions of prayer, of contemplative practice, of the possibility of energies unseen, of the possibilities of ancestral spirits being accessible to us, if we allow them in. And so, while I was hiking around and considering what my ideal November would look like, I thought about Thanksgiving, and this family gathering felt important to me. This is also around the time of year that my partner’s father died when she was a child, so Thanksgiving has always had an extra significance, an extra weight to it, ever since I joined the Moravetz tribe. In Thanksgiving’s past, we would typically share in a brief, uncomfortable (for me), semi-automatic Grace, the same Grace (I learned) that my partner and her family would say around the dinner table as a kid. It always felt a bit awkward to me, since this was the only meal of the year where Grace would be said, and it was rather abruptly hopped into and hopped out of, and then we carried on. As the years have gone on and our family has grown with the addition of little ones, getting everyone together, at the table, waiting to eat, and attentive for a moment of unity had drifted away from the routine.

After reading Thubten Chodron’s The Compassionate Kitchen, in which she describes in great detail the rituals around food practiced at her Buddhist abbey in Newport, WA (where the only food that’s consumed is the food that is donated), I had been contemplating my own consumption practices. How mindful am I when I cook? When I eat? Am I happy with my relationship to my food? My big takeaway from this book was a newfound interest in the following notion: taking a moment before eating the food on my plate to stop and to think about and appreciate the food, its source, how it made its way to me, and how it will nourish me. For me, for now, it doesn’t have to be an elaborate series of prescribed verses or have any level of formality to it; I just want to have a more consistent state of mindfulness in the moments before and while I nourish myself.

Applying this concept to a Thanksgiving prayer, I spoke the following words into my Voice Memos while hiking, and I later transcribed them so I could read them for my family at the table: 

PRAYER OF THANKS
Let us give thanks for togetherness, for the privilege and the great fortune of being able to gather as a family. As a healthy, mostly functional family. This gift of life that we all enjoy is amplified especially when we share in that life, together.

We express our gratitude to have so much. To have the resources to enjoy such a magnificent feast. We give thanks to everyone and everything involved in bringing this nourishing food to our table: To the farmers who grew the crops, to the workers who transported, organized, and distributed the food to us, to the bird and the pig which gave their lives to sustain ours. to all of you, we give thanks.

Let us celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday as did our ancestors. Not our colonial American predecessors, but our far reaching ancestors, who would celebrate the fall harvest and its bounty with an expression of togetherness, of sharing, of generosity, and of gratitude. Let us hold their spirit in our hearts, and let us carry forward their spirits for future generations.

May we also hold space in our hearts for those who are not here with us tonight. May this family continue to grow in its ability and skill of creating space for sadness and grief. To find comfort in the discomfort of loss, or the discomfort of anything really. the presence of those not here in body is still felt in mind and heart, and so long as we tell their stories, remember their stories, they are not gone. Even though their bodies may have returned to the earth, their spirit lives on through us.

I’d like to give a special thanks for (my mother in law), who, when she was our age, when she was growing up and raising her family, worked her ass off, saved and invested prudently, and positioned her family and descendants to have more easeful lives than she had. That type of forward thinking, a down the line sacrifice that has no immediate pay off… it’s something special. And so to you, we give thanks.

May our lives be filled with joy and compassion for ourselves and for others, today, and every day.

Cheers to family!

When the moment came, when we were all sitting down and it felt as good a time as any to announce that I had some words to say, I could feel a nervous anxiety spike within me. It was like that moment in karaoke when your name is called, it’s your turn to sing, and you have to make your way to the microphone and wait until the music kicks in. There were these pivotal few seconds where I sat at the table, with my hand holding my phone under the table, having a frantic mental debate with myself. “Am I really going to do this? What if it’s too long? What if the kids interrupt me? Am I doing this for me to show off my writing, or do I actually believe it will bring the family closer together and model the behavior I wish for our family? People have already started eating; did I miss my moment?” And with one deep belly breath, I shut off the mental chatter and announced that I had written a little something that I wanted to share. 

It was much harder to get the words out than I had anticipated. I’d already spoken these words once into my Voice Memos with no problem; why was it so hard to get them out now? I found myself getting choked up in the throat and hot in the face, even at the “easy” parts of the prayer. Nerves. I’ve gotten this way before, and I realize now that it happens most often when I actually deeply care about what it is I’m saying. I could read some sort of written verse to an audience of 1,000 people, but when it comes to heartfelt, meaningful words that I’ve written, and it was to an audience of the people I care about most… woof! Much harder. I did manage to get through it, though, and afterward I felt proud and relieved. I think my family was relieved too, relieved they could stop letting their food get cold. 

I want to continue doing things I believe in, no matter how hard they are to do. 

 

I DON’T ENJOY THE OUTDOORS; I NEED IT

On Tuesday of this week, I was really having an existential start to my day. “Existential crisis” is too big of a phrase, but the internal struggles I was having felt existential for sure. It’s like my mind is a big soup pot. I’ve been throwing all of these inputs into the pot – Tony Riddle‘s inspiring barefoot runs and natural lifestyle, the Minimalists on the Ten Percent Happier podcast talking about getting rid of the stuff that doesn’t bring you joy or have a purpose, working on decluttering our own house and the umpteen steps it’s going to take to move to Costa Rica, meditating and watching my own thoughts, talking with a financial advisor about how we’re investing, managing, and donating our money, countless conversations with my partner about her learnings and about our shared trajectory – and I’m having a hard time seeing clearly through the mind soup and envisioning my actual ideal existence for right now, today.

I contemplate about this often, and there are times where it continues to elude me. It’s typically the abundance of choice that gets to me. There are so many “could’s” with how I could spend my time. Where to start? What to do now? I’m often seeking for the “right” answer to this question. I’ve learned that when I get lost or stuck or overwhelmed, it’s time to change things up and move my body. 

Piggybacking on what I’d been reminded of by listening to The Minimalists, I picked one room in our house to look for stuff to get rid of and ended up grabbing 15 junk items to dispose of. Immediately I felt a little bit better, one half-inch farther down the path of decluttering our lives. After this, I went out for a walk in the snow and sun in 35 degree temps. It’s becoming more and more evident to me that I don’t just like hiking and walking around outside; I need it.

I get so many mental downloads from the practice of walking around in nature and focusing on: mindfulness, mindful breathing, mindful steps, mindful listening. Amós Rodriguez, one of the participants on the show Alone, taught me that “my sphere of disturbance should be smaller than me sphere of awareness.” I think about this often as I make my way through the woods. The nature, the movement, and the absence of distraction clear my head, and so often do I get zapped with an “aha moment” from my own inner voice: new thoughts for what I now am almost certain is going to become a podcast, answers to my various relationship anxieties, realizations about questions I’m pondering, they all just… appear. On this particular walk, I enjoyed the cycle of walking, actively clearing the mind, getting inevitably zapped by an insight, stopping to squat and write it down or voice memo it, and then getting up and starting the cycle over again. Moving meditation is a highly effective technique for me. 

Resting the body and mind on a snowy trailside hill.

On Wednesday, after making mashed potatoes with my kid (one of the four side dishes we were preparing for Thanksgiving) I once again went for a walk, alone, this time to the nearby lake instead of the woodland trails I so often favor for hiking. This spot is where this week’s featured image comes from. There are some steps that not many use which lead down to the waterfront on the western banks of the lake, and I found a perfectly situated downed tree with a comfortable, level seat right about 12-18 inches off the ground, directly facing the sun. At around 3pm in the Minnesota winter, the view was sublime, unencumbered by bush or branches, with a clear view of the wide open, frosted lake. It’s about a 15 minute walk from my front door. I am grateful to live somewhere with access to choice spots in nature like this. I am grateful to myself for seeking and appreciating this simple, costless pleasure. 

On Saturday I again headed outside. I sought out the lakeside sit spot again, and this time I did a formal meditation by the lake, by which I mean I focused on my breath and did nothing else. Even though the temperature barely crested 50 degrees Fahrenheit, I had the sun beaming directly at me and some wind protection from the trees to my one side. The jacket came off.  The cool breeze was invigorating and the wind gusts, rather than swaying me off my perch, actually anchored me deeper into my sit spot. When my body reacted to the wind by sinking deeper into the earth, that’s when I knew I was “in the zone.” The lake was mostly frozen, but on this warm day, the area at the lake’s edge had thawed. The soil and sand were wet. The smell of wet earth and decomposing leaves filled my nostrils with each inbreath. It was pleasant, like Earth’s rich odor was nourishing me somehow. 

On Sunday, I closed out the week with a run. It was 38 degrees. I ran for about two miles, pushed through the first hump of temptation to stop and turn around (which often happens when I run without a specific length or destination in mind), and then found a patch of roadside grass that had been mowed. You know, how sometimes cities will mow a 3-4 foot swath of grass if there’s some grassland-y type land next to the road or trail? Anyway, this patch of grass called to me. There was no snow on it. The grass was almost green still. If there was ever a time and place for me to give barefoot running a try, the place was here, and the time was now. I kicked off my shoes and socks and I ran barefoot in late November in Minnesota for about a mile. First I was carrying the shoes, then I changed tactics and tossed them into the deeper grass for later retrieval. The ground was cold and squishy, but it didn’t bother me. It felt nice. Running without shoes, I immediately noticed that I paid way more attention to the ground. I took shorter strides. I used my whole foot. And I smiled. It was not painful. It was invigorating. I felt like I could have gone forever like that, were it not for the concrete separating me from my home.

NEIGHBORS ARE WHERE COMMUNITY BUILDING STARTS

My neighbors are redoing their kitchen and main floor. Big project. They needed to move a bunch of stuff around their house to get ready for the workers. I offered to help out. To my pleasure, they accepted the offer. 

I bring this up only to say this; I wish I was more neighborly with my neighbors. Like, old school neighborly. As Kristyn often ponders–why do we have seven houses in our cul de sac, and we also have seven snowblowers and seven lawn mowers? Is all this individual stuff-acquiring really necessary? How much cheaper and easier would life be if we worked together as neighbors more often? Took turns watching each others kids, took turns making meals, had a snowblowing committee and a gardening committee. Why do we all grow tomatoes in our own gardens? No one can ever eat them all! 

I know it sounds kind of perverse, but I was sincerely delighted that my neighbors let me carry their furniture up and down their stairs for an hour or two. That is what neighbors are freaking for! 

AVATAR IS NON-FICTION

One evening this week, Kristyn and I watched Avatar. I’d been wanting to rewatch this movie ever since I read its mention in the book Active Hope. Once I looked up how to stream Avatar, and was reminded it’s a James Cameron creation (the incredible Canadian filmmaker also responsible for Titanic, The Terminator, and Aliens), it leapt up to the top of my must-watch queue (which currently consists of zero other shows).   

There is so much about Avatar that I love. Other than a slight issue with a sort of “saviorism,” where the outsider protagonist is able to come into this new culture and save them from oppression, the rest of the film really works for me. The metaphors to real life are correct, even if they are portrayed with a fictional species on a fictional planet in a futuristic setting; humans are extracting precious resources with reckless abandon, disregarding who might be harmed, all for the sake of economic growth. Colonialism, capitalism, white privilege… it’s all there. These are the lessons we should be paying attention to. I hope the future Avatar movies continue on these themes and adapt them for our current times.

I also loved how the Na’vi people were portrayed (the indigenous people of the moon Pandora). They were super connected to their land; the “training” sequence showed it all. When Neytiri is teaching Jake their ways, she shows him what fruit to eat, how to fall from the top of the forest canopy and use the trees and plants to break one’s fall (a lesson which later saves Jake’s life), and they are so connected to the land that they even literally connect their minds to horse-like and dragon-like creatures through a cord in their long hair braid. There’s also a powerful scene when the Na’vi people band together to attempt to channel the power of Ewya (their sort of “source”, Mother-Nature-type energy) in a ritual to heal the human Grace, who has suffered a bullet wound. In that scene, the tribe of a few hundred Na’vi are all squatting low to the ground in a restful low squat, hands on each other’s shoulders, swaying back and forth in front of the tree of souls. Watching this was like watching the definition of connection to land for me. 

Avatar Eywa

I mostly am mentioning our watching of Avatar because of a comment Kristyn made as we debriefed after watching. As we were discussing how the metaphors and symbolism in the movie are so spot on, she remarked, “Movies like The Matrix and Avatar should be considered non-fiction.” After a chuckle, I realized I think she’s onto something. I’m not an uber-fan of science fiction, but I’ve enjoyed the genre my whole life, and I think the thing that separates the great science fiction and fantasy stories from the lesser ones is that they are basically non-fiction – they are so relatable and the themes are so resonant to our actual lives. I wonder if that’s how scriptwriters and novelists think; I’m going to create a fantasy world with some interesting characters as the “container,” and then inject a bunch of actual scenarios, emotions, and problems from everyday life. There’s probably a little more to it than that. Or is there? 

NATURALLY BETTER RESEARCH – A SURPRISING FIND 

As I embark on this Naturally Better journey (I am still defining what that even means), I felt compelled to poll my friends and followers (all four of them). I created a survey and sent it out to my network. I’ve done this on occasion in my life, creating a survey and badgering people to fill it out. I enjoy learning how other people think, and, sometimes, I like doing it in a measurable, quantifiable way (as opposed to having a bunch of anecdotal conversations).

One of the reasons I enjoy surveying people is that I like to get data to compare myself and my own thoughts to a larger group. I like to learn if I am an outlier or if I’m closer to average. When I sold advertising for a living, countless times I would run into objections that sounded like this: “Does anyone even watch the TV news? I don’t,” and, “The only time I watch the news is at 10pm, so that’s when I want my commercials to run,” and, “Has anyone ever clicked on those Google ads? I always skip right past those.” Everybody thinks they are average. Every person thinks they are in the middle of every bell curve. Nobody thinks they are special. Nobody thinks they are different. We all consider ourselves “the average consumer,” “the average homeowner,” or “just another parent.” The truth is – we can’t all be average at everything! This is why I like gathering more data points. A data point of one (i.e. my life, my experience), while it may be a very important data point to me (because it’s me!), is still only one data point. I am not statistically significant of the market or of all people. When it comes to getting good sleep, maybe I’m pretty average, but when it comes to weekly exercise, maybe I’m more disciplined than most people, even though to me my routine feels “normal.”

With my first survey that would help inform my future work with Naturally Better, I wanted to keep it short. I asked three multiple choice questions, all with the same multiple choice answers. I wanted to learn what fundamental aspect of our everyday lives people want to get better at most. Then, I wanted to learn how that changes if they change the focus from themselves getting better to the future of humanity getting better. 

The results of the survey are below. If you’d like to take the survey yourself before reading further, you can do so at this link – Kevin’s Simple Survey. If enough people add to the responses, I’ll republish this article in the future with the updated findings. 

Question 1

Here are the results to the first question – If you could instantly be better at one of these, which one would you pick?

 

When people were asked about their own self improvement, their top choices were Exercise more regularly and Experience fulfilling relationships more often and more deeply. So people want to get better at Exercise and Relationships above things like Sleep, Meditation, Eating, and Living in Harmony With Resources. 

Question 2

I then asked – If you could pick a second one, which one would you pick?

Here we see much more of a mixed bag. Sleep got the most votes, but it’s pretty spread out. My takeaway here is that once you get down past our first burning desire for improvement, we are individuals that have different growth edges. 

Then came the kicker – Above all else, which of these does our world need us all to do the most for the long term benefit of humanity and life as we know it?

Question 3

Here we see a huge shift in the responses, with the overwhelming winner being: Live in greater harmony with my resources. 

I have two takeaways from this.

First, it’s worth noting that when we focus on self, our responses are more varied, but when we focus on all people, our response was much more uniform. As we widen our perspective, as we zoom out beyond self and community and country and politics and get all the way out humanity, regardless of our backgrounds and identities, we tend to agree. This notion gives me hope. 

Second, I find it very interesting that when we look at our own lives and we examine what we want to get better about ourselves, most say the top priorities are Exercise and Relationships, but when we think about what’s most important for the long term collective, we say it’s Resources

This begs the question–why? Why aren’t our personal aspirations more in line with what we know is needed for a viable future for our grandchildren? I could theorize, but instead I plan to have some conversations about this with people smarter than I to see what can be discovered here.  

One thing I do now “know” from this utterly unscientific survey of a mere 31 of my friends: no one gives a rip about meditation and journaling. 

On Sabbatical – Week 25: Commitment to Practice

TO RUN OR NOT TO RUN?

I started out this week as I start out many weeks – creating and then staring at a long list of aspirations for the week, wondering where to begin. As always, exercise is on the list. On Monday, as I pondered the week ahead, I knew I wanted to make exercise a priority, and on that particular day I was feeling drawn to go for a run. The idea of going for a run felt right. I was telling myself, however, that I want to have the discipline to do exercises I’m not as good at, exercises I don’t have as much strength or practice in, like strength training or yoga. What’s the better approach to take? Listen to (what feels like) my intuition and do the body movement practice that comes more naturally to me (running), or is taking a more challenging route the way to go? Of course, part of the answer to that question lies in my goal, my objective: what am I trying to accomplish with the exercise? I’m not training for a marathon. I’m not training to join the AVP Tour. I’m not training to become a yoga instructor. For now, I settled with the goal of simply moving my body for an extended period of time in whatever way it wants to. I went for a run. It felt great. And yet, I think I have some work to do to hammer out a sustainable exercise routine I can stick with and and commit to through the winter. 

COMMITMENT TO MEDITATION

This is the week I took the idea of meditating regularly and turned it into a practice. I meditated every morning for twenty minutes before the family woke up, including Saturday and Sunday. I even snuck in an extra afternoon session on Sunday. 

Before I go on about this, I have to admit I have Jon Kabat-Zinn’s words ringing in my ears from his book Wherever You Go, There You Are. I’m paraphrasing, but he says that if you find yourself wanting to talk about meditation, about how great it is, about its benefits, about how other people should try it… you should take it as a sign your mind is a little too active and go meditate some more. 

I don’t take his advice lightly, and I’m holding it mindfully as I write these words. My intention with proceeding about my experience in my first full week of consistent meditation is not to preach nor to entice nor to persuade; it is simply to document my own experience.

So far I have been using the Headspace app. I’ve used the app before, albeit inconsistently. I like the idea of using a roadmap that someone with expertise has developed, so that’s what I’m doing. In the app, they have a course called Headspace 365, which is a meditation program with one lesson per day for an entire year, and it’s from the very earliest version of Headspace. This is where I’m starting my journey. I had dabbled with this before, so I’ve picked it up where I left off, with a series called Take 20, where I meditate for twenty minutes for twenty days in a row. 

Here are the things I observed and thought about during my first week of consistent meditation practice:

I’m noticing interesting things happen with my body as I sit on a cushion on the floor for twenty minutes. After a few minutes of settling in to the meditation, I will make tiny body adjustments to remain comfortable. I notice my spine making soft “cracks” as it realigns itself. I notice my sinuses audibly opening up.

I notice just how tight the muscles and tendons around my hips and pelvis are. In order to be able to meditate for longer stretches at a time, I’m going to have to spend extra time working on hip mobility and flexibility. 

Diaphragm diaphragm diaphragm… it’s what I focus on most when meditating. The uncomfortable sensation in my hips are always the main area I notice when I do the body scan my meditation teacher instructs toward the beginning of the sit. Focusing on diaphragmatic breathing allows me to maintain an erect but not rigid posture, by using my diaphragm to expand and contract the belly as I breathe. I kind of just discovered this on my own, but I wish someone had taught it to me sooner! 

I love how the teacher queues the end of the meditation. After concentrating the mind on the breath for about twenty minutes, the final prompt is to “let your mind be totally free.” In that moment, you let go of any concentration and let the mind do whatever it wants. If it wants to think, let it think. If it wants to be still, let it be still. It’s that moment when I feel like I really see what’s on my mind, in my subconscious. Sometimes there’s a flurry of activity. Other times, it’s actually more still than when I was focused on the breath. One day this week, in this final stage of the meditation, I had a flash of Yellowstone National Park, and then of going outside today, and then (randomly) of brushing my teeth with charcoal. And then I thought of my friends, spending more time with those I love and hold dear, to deepen and enrich those relationships before we move to Costa Rica in summer 2023. It’s interesting to observe my thoughts without judgment, let them come and go, and then look back at them later for further consideration. 

During most of the meditations I’ve done in the past two weeks, the same thought has surfaced at some point or another: “Next time I’m about to meditate, I’m going to grab my journal in addition to the cushion.” I have yet to remember to do so. One day this week, when I was feeling it was an especially potent meditation with important insights surfacing left and right, I again reminded myself to grab a journal next time, to be able to jot down insights either as they come up or immediately after the meditation is over. But, as meditation training goes, I then do my best to cast that thought, like all thoughts, aside. I tend to visualize dumping the thought into the river, as you might toss a stick or a leaf into a river and watch it float downstream, out of sight, out of mind. But as I cast aside the thought of grabbing a journal next time, another thought surfaced. 

I was reminded of a Paul McCartney interview I heard where he explained that many times when he and John Lennon were crafting a new song, they wouldn’t necessarily write it down or record it right away (say, if they were in a hotel room). The interviewer asked Paul something like, “Weren’t you afraid you’d forget the song, or some piece of it?” Sir Paul replied, “Not really. We knew that if the song was good enough, we’d remember it. How could we expect the song to be a hit and get stuck in a large audience’s ears if it wasn’t catchy enough to get stuck in our own heads?” And it occurred to me during meditation that I could apply the same principle to the thoughts that come during this contemplative state, this state where I’m concentrating on letting thoughts come and go with no attachment, no effort to remember them, just noticing that they are there, and as soon as I notice them, I return my attention to my breath. If I have an insight that feels so important that I have to stop meditation to write it down in a journal, then it’s probably an important enough insight that I will inevitably remember it after the meditation is over. The cost of breaking the meditative state is high, because it takes some time to sink into that present awareness, at least for a beginning meditator like me. So, perhaps I don’t really need the journal nearby, after all. 

Toward the end of the week, I had one, one , stretch of five consecutive inhales and exhales where I felt a true lightness, a deep sense of ease, where I was holding no tension in either my body or my mind. This was new, and it felt utterly peaceful and brilliant. These few seconds were a window into the bliss a continued meditation practice might lead to.

The most epic meditation moment of the week, though, came not during my steady early morning practice, but in the bonus session I snuck in Sunday afternoon. We were just finishing “family bathtime” in our bath (with a rotation of adults and kids until everyone’s had a turn), and one of my kids was still lingering in the bath, playing calmly. My wife and other kid were already downstairs, and as I got changed, I noticed a potential opportunity for some quiet me time, so I sat down on my bedroom floor, within eyesight of my kid in our bath, but facing the window, away from my kid. Had I not seized this moment and done exactly as I had done,  I would have missed the chance to hear her sing. There’s a song in Mary Poppins called “Feed The Birds,” and as my kid was gently playing with a plastic duck in the bath, she gently cooed this lyric over and over, “…Though her words are simple and few, listen, listen, she’s calling to you.” As I sat ten feet away, eyes closed and facing a quarter-turn away from her, it was as if my daughter was speaking in the third person, talking to me subconsciously through her song. Her words were simple and few, and she was calling to me. It was as if she was saying, “I am able to hold this state of calm because you are showing me what calm looks like, and I am living out my true nature right now, which is to sing this beautiful song.” In this moment, I could feel joy radiating throughout my entire body. It was deliciously soothing, to have this reciprocal and positively reinforcing state of calm between my child and I. 

When she was done singing, she continued to play, and another cool thing happened. I was able to hear her playing aloud to herself (pretending to be the voice of the duck and of herself) without actually processing the words, without having any attachment to or effort of following the plot or story, just noticing the sonic quality of her voice, noticing that the sound brought me pleasure and happiness. It was like when you’re in a play room with a kid, and they are busy playing with their toys and you are busy reading a book; you can hear them playing, but you’re busy with your own thoughts or activity so you don’t actually know what they’re saying. It was like that, except I didn’t have any distractions. No book, no phone… I was just sitting there, but mindfully tuned in enough to just let her talking wash past me as calming but meaningless noise. It almost felt like I was able to be like a baby, a baby that hears the soothingness of its mother’s voice, even though it hasn’t the faintest clue what she’s saying. I could hear the lighthearted, earnestly loving tone my daughter was imparting onto her aquatic Dora the Explorer mermaid toy, and I was able to stay focused on my breath enough to NOT be processing the actual language, but to be moved by her sincerity and affection she was emitting. It’s incredible what sitting and actively doing nothing can do! 

NATURALLY BETTER

It’s time to put this idea out into the world. I came up with an idea for a project I’d like to pursue this week. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve written in my journal about it, the more I’ve read things adjacent to this idea… the more it makes we want to pursue the idea. 

The name of the concept is – Naturally Better. I even created a splash page for this idea that I will build out over time, which can be viewed here – KevinCarlow.com/Naturally-Better.

What is it? Is it a podcast? An essay? A book? I don’t know exactly. I know I want to document the journey of creating it. The idea goes something like this. 

Naturally Better is for people who want to get better and improve their lives, naturally. In the post-industrial, technological age that we’re in, humans have come to rely on and live with machines more and more. We sit in chairs, stare at screens, crank up thermostats, and eat food wrapped in plastic. Is this natural? This is not the way our ancestors lived for millions of years. Our ancestors lived in ways that were in balance with nature and the earth.

Naturally Better will examine what it means to get better. How can we improve, have ambition, improve as a person, as communities, as nations, as a species, and as a planet? What is needed most to get better? Most would argue that the conditions of life now are vastly improved from how they were 200 years ago, at least by many metrics: infant mortality, average life expectancy, management of diseases, % of people in poverty… This looks like progress. But we are also now seeing that our current systems are not sustainable. Our systems rely on non-renewable resources – fossil fuels. This is a finite resource that has an end. Plus, we are in overshoot – we overproduce and overconsume. So… how do we get better, in a natural way? 

At the same time of wanting to get better and make progress in the right ways, we also want to explore what it means to accept how things are right now. That you are enough, what you have is enough, and that getting “better” might actually mean learning to appreciate and accept what is, to live with a sense of satisfiability, and just in that understanding and accepting, we can become better.

We’ll explore what it means to be better. A better version of one’s self. Does that mean adding new skills to your arsenal, learning new things to be a more whole and rounded person? Or does it mean chipping away at our outer shells, the layers of assumptions we’ve acquired through the years of growing up and being in society, so that we can chip away at the true best self that’s already inside each one of us? Does better mean change, or does better mean learning to accept what is?

We’ll explore natural ways to live better, to feel better, to improve wellness and happiness. Body movement and exercise, natural foods, sleep, ways to live more sustainably, ways to be more in tune with our natural bodily systems, to affect them and be in more control.

We’ll talk to people who are experts in ways of living more naturally: plant experts, homesteaders, food scientists, sleep experts, meditation, somatics, rewilding, yoga, movement…

We’ll discuss why we hesitate to be outside more. For children, the outdoors is a place of endless wonder. Why and when does that stop?

I live in the digital age. I didn’t choose that; I was born into it. So what can I do with the unchangeable conditions I was born into and still live as naturally as my conditioning will allow? What new conditions can I create to improve my connection with nature? 

Naturally Better is for the everyday person. Rare are the people that become masters, world-renowned experts in their fields. There are a lot of aspects to our lives – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we buy, our relationships, our careers, our sleep, hobbies – how can we become experts at all of that? This podcast aims to explore the most important topics to a naturally better life and uncover simple, but not easy, steps anyone can take to nudge their existence in a more natural direction. 

My ultimate goal with Naturally Better is to heal myself and learn more about becoming more natural, and share these lessons so they can spread to others to help heal the world, and in that way I can do the thing that I feel uniquely situated to do. 

Of course, all of this might change over the coming weeks, but now that I’ve put it out there for the internet, there’s only one way to go – forward! 

On Sabbatical – Week 11: Parenting Wizardry At The Pediatric Dentist

MUTUAL ADMIRATION ON A MORNING RUN

I started out the week going for an early morning run with a friend. It was the first time we’d gone for a run together. When the pandemic first hit and I was getting into running as a new hobby, this friend was already a well-established runner with several marathons under his belt. From the comfort of my screen, I would observe his progress on social media and aspire to be able to run that far, that often. He was the source of my inspiration for creating a running mile-tracking spreadsheet. In the two years I was marathon training – 2020 and 2021 – I became obsessed with tracking my miles on this spreadsheet. The moment I would get back from a run, I’d look to see exactly how many miles I’d clocked using the Strava app and would immediately input that data into my spreadsheet, which tracks my miles by week, by month, and by year. What I loved about this process was the ability to track progress over time. One or two week’s worth of data was pretty meaningless, but by sticking to this process over the course of multiple years, I now have all kinds of fun ways to analyze how my spring months compare to summer months, or how my June 2021 compared to a June of a younger Kevin. They say “what gets measured gets done,” and thanks in part to the idea of this little tracking document from my friend, I was able to complete the Twin Cities Marathon in October 2021.

Running miles clocked in 2021

 

While I admire this friend for his running dedication and ability, on this morning run we went on, I felt his reciprocal admiration of me. He was genuinely interested, curious, and excited for me with the course of life that I’m on. He had specific questions about why and how we plan to move to Costa Rica. It feels very weird writing this, but it felt like in him I have a “fan.” Someone out there who is… not so much happy for me, or cheering me on, but… a fan of what I’m doing. It’s a good feeling, to feel like someone is into you, is picking up what you’re putting down. It gives me reassurance that I’m on the right track, that I’m making good choices, that going on sabbatical was the right move at the right time, and that I’m living out that sabbatical well. I’m not on sabbatical to seek any sort of external validation, but I can’t deny that it feels good to receive it. At one point he even drew a parallel from what my blog could become to the blog of Mr. Money Mustache, one of the most popular blogs on the internet about living with financial independence, retiring early, and customizing your lifestyle. This makes it the second time someone close to me has brought this up. How many people have to tell you something before it goes from trivial comment to substantial notion? 

IMPRESSING THE DENTIST

“We don’t see this. Ever.” That’s what I was told while taking my four year old to the dentist. “We don’t see this” is a phrase one typically does not want to hear while at the dentist, but in this case, it was a compliment.

As any parent knows, trips to the children’s dentist are usually lower on the list of ideal ways to spend time with a kid. Kids are scared of the dentist. And why wouldn’t they be? Ultra-bright lights, pokey instruments, masked-up strangers getting up in your grill – a child going to the dentist is basically the adult equivalent of entering a torture chamber. Because they are scared, they have a hard time following the instructions of the hygienist and the dentist. Even getting in a normal brush or floss, which is not a big problem at home, was proving difficult for the hygienist. She was asking my kid to open their mouth for a brushing, and my kid was saying “No, I don’t want to” and squirming the other way. This hygienist did what I’m sure she has done for twenty years in the profession, trying this and that tactic to get my kid on board: saying things like “it won’t hurt” or “it is just like brushing your teeth at home” and reminding her she’ll get to pick a prize when we’re all done. I was observing this from the bench 5 feet away and let it go for a few moments, but I felt like I knew what was needed and stepped in to intervene. 

Within ten seconds, my kid went from squirming refusal to calm, still, and mouth open. All I did was sit by their side, calmly held their hand, and said something to the effect of, “Kid, I know you are probably feeling a little nervous right now. That’s normal. All that’s going to happen is she is going to brush your teeth. This is a special toothbrush that makes a buzzing noise, but its gentle. It almost tickles on your teeth. Do you want to feel the tickle?” It was much less about my words, though, than it was about the presence I brought by shifting the energy in the space. The hygienist was able to proceed with the rest of her process, and I went back to sit on the bench. 

When she had a moment, the hygienist looked over at me and said, “This just doesn’t happen. How did you do that?” By which I thought she meant, “Most times when a kid this age is showing signs of fear and discomfort, there’s nothing we can do to get them calm enough to proceed. What type of wizardry have I just witnessed here, sir?”

The answer is practice. I practice controlling my own energy, my breath, my attitude, my nervous system. Sometimes I practice this when I am already in a state of relative calm, like when I wake up in the morning and meditate first thing. Other times I am practicing this control in the face of an external stimulus that is knocking me out of balance in some way. With practice, I am learning to tune in to my body’s signals, to recognize when my systems are getting out of whack, and to have the tools to realign and reset. In this instance at the pediatric dentist, as I watched this kind hygienist struggle with my defiant, scared child, I could feel my chest tighten and my body temperature rising (I usually feel the heat in my cheeks first). If I’m feeling that way just by watching, I could only imagine how my kid was feeling. So with one deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, I reset, moved slowly toward my kid, and made sure that my holding of her hand was as gentle and relaxed as possible. When I spoke, I spoke slowly. Warmly. It was the energy of this calm presence that I transferred to her. And it’s only through practice on myself that I can even begin to think about transferring positivity to others. 

It felt pretty darn good to receive that compliment from someone who’s spent their career working with kids! 

This type of somatic attunement I am learning from Kristyn With A Why who is in turn learning it from, among other sources, Carmen Spagnola. Gotta give credit where credit is due! 

KIDS SAY THE BEST THINGS

To cap off the week, one of my kids was, once again, asking questions. This particular time the line of questioning was about being famous. “Dad, what does it mean to be famous?” I did my best to explain that someone who is famous is someone that a lot of people know. It could be a singer, or an actor, or a writer, or someone in our government, but no matter what the person is really good at, they are famous because a lot of people know who they are. My kid listened, considered, and finally replied,

“I think you are the opposite of famous.”


Oh, and also I took my kids to nature camp this week, hence the featured image on this post. The rest of the week was filled up with prepping and planning for our longest, most epic trip as a family – a 16-day road trip to Canada – which is coming up next! 

Raising the bar… and then lowering it

Last week I turned 36. One year before that, on my 35th birthday, I started the day with the goal of running ten miles – the farthest I’d ever run. On mile nine of that run I was feeling good; my spirits were up and my body was performing well. Somewhere in the that ninth mile I spontaneously decided to try to go for a half marathon distance, which I successfully completed. Miles 11, 12, and 13 were tough. It was a mental battle. I remember telling myself, “You can do it. Raise the bar. Don’t worry about how slow you’re running. Just don’t quit and eventually you will get there.” I mentally repeated the mantra I learned from Jocko Willink on Tim Ferriss’ blog/podcast: “Not dead. Can’t quit.”

I still remember the feeling immediately after that run; it was a rush, a feeling of pride, excitement, and illumination. Illuminating to me that us humans can push our bodies much farther than we think we can, if only we can muster the mental willpower to push us beyond our preconceived limits. 

In the weeks leading up to my 36th birthday, I had the goal of repeating the “half marathon birthday run” and making a tradition out of it. This year I started running a whole month earlier than 2020 and had clocked about 60 miles more on the road than the same time the previous year; however, I was also taken out by a cold for six days in late April and another six days in early May, causing a large dent in my training plan. 

So when the day came, May 16 2021, I did the opposite of the year before. I didn’t raise my bar. I lowered it. As I got ready for the morning run, I set my goal down from 13.1 miles to 10. In the midst of that run, I lowered the bar again and stopped at 9 miles. And you know what? I couldn’t be happier. 

Why? Because there’s more to last year’s story. After pushing myself to complete that impromptu half marathon, I paid a price. Right away I felt exhilarated, euphoric, alive. But, I couldn’t run for a week after that. I was sore in new places. I needed longer to recover. My body wasn’t sufficiently trained for that distance. 

This year, I ran nine miles (still my longest of the year), didn’t feel much strain, and felt great after. One day later, I was up at 5:45am for an early morning jaunt around the neighborhood lake, breathing in the fresh spring air and waking up to the day with the birds, bunnies, deer, and sun. 

I still believe we are capable of more greatness than we think we are, and it’s usually just our own mental blocks that are in the way. But I now also see the value in knowing your limits, listening to and being in tune with your body, and being in it for the long game. 

Grit gets you places you didn’t think you could reach. 

Wisdom is knowing when to unleash your inner grit. 

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