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We went away, for three days. With no access to the internet and no phone reception. Which turned out to be a wonderful experience, as I was thinking about what I want for 2015. I reflected on 2014 and felt a sense of pride that we had made it through our gloriously exhausting year. 2015 feels rushed already, with many significant milestones to hit, a PhD thesis and papers to write, a new kindergarten to settle into (along with fairly working-family-unfriendly kindergarten drop-off times). I felt apprehensive and nervous; so it was a relief to have three days away from the relentless flashing red notifications of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, to think and reflect.

But first, our holiday. We went to Daylesford, Spa capital of Victoria, though none of us got any spa time. (We did put the kids into the spa in our cottage but they were terrified!) Grandma came along for moral support. We stayed at Bergamo, a lovely two-bedroom cottage in the middle of peaceful countryside. They provided us free-range eggs for breakfast, and little goodies like this:

I saved this chocolate all to myself. The kids were having none of it!!!
I saved this chocolate all to myself. The kids were having none of it!!!

We visited a lavender farm, and had an outstanding Ploughman’s Lunch Platter; our kids were pleasantly surprised to be allowed to eat nothing but carbs that day (breadsticks and crackers, anyone?) and we enjoyed the peace that comes with said children eating bread. We wandered the lavender fields, saw lots of farm animals, and bought some lavender honey and essential oil.

Bowl of carbs on the right was consumed by the kidlets with gusto.
Bowl of carbs on the right was consumed by the kidlets with gusto.
We had many peaceful moments like this. These are my kids - I usually don't post photos of them to protect their privacy. But aren't they adorable? :)
We had many peaceful moments like this. These are my kids – I usually don’t post photos of them to protect their privacy. But aren’t they adorable? :)

On the way home, we stopped by a trout farm where each child caught one trout within minutes (not sure what they do to the trout but it’s guaranteed!!) and we enjoyed super fresh baked trout for lunch.

Smoked trout pate. Yum.
Smoked trout pate. Yum.
It was the kind of holiday where having a glass of wine every lunch time seemed the right thing to do. Certainly not something I will keep doing all year, but it was definitely pleasant :)
It was the kind of holiday where having a glass of wine every lunch time seemed the right thing to do. Certainly not something I will keep doing all year, but it was definitely pleasant :)

We had a great time. The kids got to see lots of farm animals and even went for a mini-hike. And while I didn’t get to finish the book that I ambitiously brought along to read, I managed to relax despite spending all day with the kids. I was surprised at how much I loved not having access to the internet. I felt uncluttered, more centred, calmer. It was quite enlightening.

After three days, I decided that what I want for 2015 is to learn how to slow down. The pace of 2015 might be lightning fast, but I need to feel as though I am coasting, or sailing, rather than paddling furiously. I am not quite sure how to do this yet, but this will be my mission for 2015. Slow. Down. (or learn how to). I have a feeling this will involve more meditation and less Facebook and compulsive email checking. I just don’t want to spend the rest of my life desperately trying to keep up. I am not even sure what I am trying to keep up with. Some call it life, but it feels like anti-life to me.

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I’m hoping you’ll all come with me again on this journey. This year I wanted to combine full-time work/study and being mummy to my gorgeous kids (and wife to my dear husband) as happily as I could. I feel like I have made a great start, but my mind needs to stop frantically scurrying about from one tiny detail of our life to another. It exhausts me and energy is what I need more of, not time. So thank you for being there this year, and here’s to another adventure in 2015. x

What do you want to work on in 2015? What’s your mission for the New Year? What do you really want? 

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By Joy Coffman from San Diego, CA, US (Happiness...) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Joy Coffman from San Diego, CA, US (Happiness...) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Joy Coffman from San Diego, CA, US (Happiness…) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Of late, I have been wondering if anxiety is part of our makeup. In evolutionary terms, it would have been far more advantageous to be anxious about an approaching tiger, rather than laid-back and easy-going. Maybe we’re all just wired to be anxious, anticipating an approaching threat. I know we can relieve this with vigorous exercise, and that for many people this background level of anxiety can spiral out of control and begin to impact on everyday function. I guess it wouldn’t have been an advantage to be so fearful to the extent that one’s reflexes were frozen, and couldn’t escape from that tiger.

This evolutionary approach to psychology has been fascinating me, and then I listened to Rick Hanson speak about something he calls the negativity bias. We’re wired to remember negative experiences very differently to positive, he says. Positive experiences float past very quickly and we may not even notice them, nor store them in our memory. However, negative experiences seem very intense at the time and become stored in our implicit memory. This is clearly an advantage, because enjoying blueberries is not as life-preserving as fleeing from a tiger. Fear is a better survival instinct than joy or pleasure. However, we also rely on things like pleasure and a feeling of social connectedness, or connection, because this helps us build relationships within a community and allows us to pool our resources to band together against the threats from outside. (And also creates a village to help us raise our incredibly dependent offspring).

When I heard this, I had an A-ha! moment. This is why I find moments of joy in parenting so fleeting and often difficult to remember in the midst of whining, dirty dishes, snotty noses, attitude and backchat (yes it’s started), and bone-crushing fatigue. Those negative moments are experienced far more intensely than the positive ones. The negative ones can colour a whole day, turning it from a pleasant experience to a crabby, grumpy one, while the positive moments seem so fragile, so tenuous, like bubbles that will pop when I reach out to touch them. This is why. I thought it was just me. I thought I was wired all wrong, that I wasn’t cut out to be a parent.

Rick encourages the savouring of each positive moment, to make it last in our memories and to allow positivity to dominate in our psyche. A dozen seconds, he says, is what it takes for that memory to set in like the negative ones do. Relish the moment, he says, let it seep into you. And I am so enjoying doing this with my children! When I make my son laugh at bedtime with my silly kisses, I do this repeatedly, and drink in the way he looks, laughs, giggles, smells, and kisses me back. I drink it all in, I take my time, I stop. I touch little chubby cheeks, I run my hands through their hair, I look at them for a long long time, I take slow deep breaths and try to remember this very moment, or this very series of moments. At the very least it makes me pause in the middle of my busy day. At best, it will mean that I’ll remember so much more of the good than the bad, and my daily experience will change as a result.

So thank you Rick for explaining my cavewoman mind to me. There are few tigers out there for me, though I scan the horizon all the time. Inside my cave there are two very adorable children and a spunky caveman husband. I feel like a very very lucky cavewoman indeed. :)

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Is the glass half full or half empty?  By Derek Jensen (Tysto) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Is the glass half full or half empty?
By Derek Jensen (Tysto) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I have always been a pessimist. I was optimistic in hoping that this wasn’t true, but completing the Optimism Test by Martin Seligman, the “father of Positive Psychology” has confirmed it. According to my results, I have a pattern of believing that bad events are pervasive and universal, and good events are due to specific reasons. Basically, if something bad happens, it’s all my fault and I feel terrible about it (I’m a stupid person/forgetful/uncaring etc). If something good happens, it was a fluke, I was very lucky, someone was willing to give me a chance. Apparently I also score fairly low on “hope” which made me feel, well, hopeless for a while. But now it’s out there I want to know what to do about it.

I didn’t know I had Impostor Syndrome until I realised I was catastrophising excessively (is there such a thing?) I realised this some years ago when I received a phone call from the College of GPs. Someone rang and left a message for me to call them back. Immediately I thought of all the things that might have gone wrong. I had forgotten something. Maybe I had forgotten to pay my annual subscription. Maybe I pissed someone off. Maybe someone made a complaint about me. Maybe they were going to take away my Fellowship! With a trembling hand, I dialled the number on the message and waited to hear my fate.

The lady who answered sounded chirpy. Would I be free on such and such a date? They were organising an awards ceremony. I had received a coveted research award, to the value of $20,000. I almost fell off my chair.

I can’t say that that realisation had changed my outlook much though. Over the years, I have continued to think the worst whenever faced with a similar situation. Letters in the mail are catastrophised to mean I had forgotten to pay a bill. Emails mean I have done something wrong. Messages from the clinic are about patient complaints (they rarely are, but I still I have the fear). This is despite muddling through a Masters degree, getting an enormous grant for my research, and a prestigious scholarship from the NHMRC. Despite all this, I can be reduced to feeling stupid, unprofessional, sloppy, lazy, hopeless and worthless if something goes wrong, or even if nothing goes wrong. Any little (or big) successes I’ve had can be wiped out in my mind by the smallest of errors. I rarely excuse myself to say I’m tired, haven’t had enough sleep, have too much on my plate, etc. It’s not part of my psyche to do this – I feel as though I am excusing my innate “badness”, as though I’m trying to talk my way out of it. It feels false and wrong. Even if someone praises me in public, I get embarrassed and talk down my achievements.

And of course, this becomes even more florid as a parent. Each little bump along the journey of raising children is interpreted as my fault. Kids sick again? It’s not daycare, or the normal winter bugs. It’s because there is something I’m doing wrong, obviously – I’m feeding them too much processed food, not exposing them to enough sunshine; in other words it’s because I’m a bad mother. A very pervasive, universal thought.

Being a pessimist has its advantages. It drives me to check everything, work extremely hard, never assume I’ve done a good enough job. But usually this is done with its fair share of nervousness. I’ve made a commitment to change though. Not so much for myself, as I’ve managed quite well for the past four decades despite my hopeless outlook. But I want my children to learn to be optimistic. I can’t bear the thought of them going through what I do. Not that I don’t want them to take responsibility for themselves, but I want them to believe strongly in their successes and move on from adversity and mistakes. I want my children to grow up believing that good things happen for pervasive and universal reasons, and bad things happen for specific and changeable reasons. If I can teach myself a little of this, I can then teach them. And that is my hope. :)

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Four months ago, I began a journey of discovering how to live my working mummy life with more joy and less guilt. I was embarking on a new phase, full-time work/study, and wanted to make it a success. I wrote about starting my journey, and invited others to come along. What a wonderful rabbit hole I descended into! Like Alice in Wonderland, I started discovering all kinds of amazing things on my journey, and am a changed woman (and continue to change). I stumbled across a truth – to change the world, you must first change yourself, or nothing will really change. I started examining external circumstances and how I could change them, and ended up in quite a different place. I’ve been reflecting on all of this and here is what I’ve found along the way.

First I explored the domestic division of labour. I discovered that a more equal division of labour did not automatically make working mothers happier. I thought about time, and how I should value its importance just as I valued nutrition (cutting out “junk” time). I started to think about two types of change: the practical things I could change about the working week, and the inner work so that my happiness or contentment was not dependent on external circumstances. Sort of change what you can change, including yourself, so that you don’t end up always back in the same place, complaining about new things. I started to explore new ways of thinking about myself and my world. Like seeing work and family as an integrated whole rather than competing interests. Connecting with the meaning of “work as love made visible” and the bigger picture. Those of you very dear to me, and you know who you are!, read my posts and commented and came along on my journey.

Then I wrote a simple post on working mothers and stay-at-home mothers and it absolutely exploded all over the world. There was a collective weeping across the globe as mothers finally felt understood, on a very deep level. This episode will go down in my memory as one of the most amazing and significant events of my life. Hundreds of thousands of mothers wrote to me to say thank you. There were, of course, a small handful of very unhappy people, but I learned to accept the negative with the positive and move on. Many of you continue to discover my blog via the “letters” – welcome, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the journey with me! And of course, my very dear family and friends continued to read and connect with me, and I love you all so very much from the bottom of my heart :)

I’ve continued to discover some very profound, startlingly simple truths, the kind of ageless, timeless principles of wisdom that have always been around but which I, for some reason, am only beginning to tap into. I discovered how vital it is to be grateful for every single day and this is something I feel is one of the absolute crucial parts of being a successful, happy and engaged parent. I put gratitude into practice during the difficult weeks of early wakings, sicknesses, and general exhaustion. I practised an abundant mindset to free myself of feelings of inadequacy (this is something I still have to work at every single day). I learned that loving and forgiving myself was another key to being a happy working parent, as was creating a mindset of receiving as well as giving. What is amazing to me is that I stumbled across these by reflection, and later would hear prominent speakers – psychologists, scientists, Buddhist meditation teachers etc – talk about these exact same things as though they were my very own words. I knew then that these are enduring principles, not pop psychology trends – and they will stick with me as long as I keep practising them.

Lately I have been practising mindfulness. I consider mindfulness and gratefulness to be two of the most important keys to being a happy and peaceful parent. So many of us feel the passage of time with such sadness – imagine if we could just enjoy today instead of worrying, fretting and feeling grumpy! But I feel it is more than this as well – I write often about mummy guilt, and as part of this I have unsubscribed to some parenting newsletters that were just making me feel like an awful mummy for not constantly creating beautiful art projects with my children while baking them slices and biscuits and taking them to ballet and music classes. Mummy guilt is something I will continue to explore, as I know it is rife, and interferes with otherwise happy parent-child relationships.

I am continuing to look for ways to improve my experience of being a working mother, or even a mother, or just a better person. There are so many more truths out there that I am eager to discover. I hope this will create a mindful life, and one with indeed more joy and less guilt. I know that I am already so much happier (though sometimes I forget this). I no longer dread the “rush hour” and instead have embraced its madness. Mornings are boisterous and happy rather than tense. But there is so much farther to go. I hope you’ll stay with me – I have enjoyed having so many more companions on my journey. Thanks for reading :)

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laptop and stethoscope
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laptop and stethoscopeThirteen years ago I had a panic attack after finishing my last shift as a hospital doctor. I was hyperventilating and shaking. For a few minutes I wondered how I was going to survive without that familiar yet suffocating yoke around my neck that I had been carrying – no, not my stethoscope, but my career as a medical doctor. Then I pulled myself together – and I have never looked back since.

I had spent six years in medical school and three years as a junior doctor. I had witnessed dreadful things, distressing things, without any support from senior doctors. I felt like I was on a conveyor belt to Hell. Something seemed to be missing but I didn’t know what it was. So I enrolled in a Chinese Medicine Bachelor Degree and did not apply for a new job the following year. I sat in lectures about Yin and Yang and learned about the different types of Qi. I spent one year just learning about the hundreds of acupuncture points on the body. I learned about herbs that warmed, herbs that dispelled damp, herbs that invigorated Qi. I had become a Sinophile during medical school, in an attempt to discover my cultural “roots”. Studying Chinese Medicine seemed to be an obvious extension of my journey.

At first it was exotic, but then I began to see the parallels between Chinese and Western medicine. I learned about the influences of the five emotions on the body – especially anger and “over-thinking”. Chinese Medicine taught me to appreciate the impact of lifestyle on health. I also had an introduction to nutrition – a naturopath gave us lectures on vitamins, minerals and wholefoods. I was amazed. Nutrition in hospitals boiled down to serving bacon and eggs for oncology patients, and Sustagen to thin patients.

Gratuitous bacon meme... I couldn't resist ;)
Gratuitous bacon meme… I couldn’t resist ;)

I realised how unwell I was. I was plagued with hay fever symptoms, constant sinusitis, back pain, insomnia, constipation. My diet was terrible and I did no exercise. But gradually, with the dawning of a realisation that I should be taking better care of my health, and the blessing of free time – not needing to work 15 hour shifts several times a week – I started doing more exercise and improving what I ate. I started running. I slowly gave up junk food. My hay fever improved.

But I couldn’t leave Western Medicine behind. I felt there was something I hadn’t finished. I was accepted as a GP trainee after graduating from Chinese Medicine. Two years later, after obtaining my Fellowship, I joined an integrative GP clinic and I am still there, eight years on.

I’ve been on a journey to discover the answers to true wellbeing since I diverted from Western Medicine. Since then I’ve learned so much about nutrition, lifestyle, and the mind-body connection and how to use it. Taking a different tangent opened up my eyes to new paradigms. It was startling. I learned that there was more to medicine than prescriptions. I learned that every human being is a complex and unique creature, and that curing and preventing disease often required more than a drug order. I also learned that there were many situations where drugs saved lives and prevented complications. My job is to know what the situation calls for. I’ve returned to Western Medicine with a new set of eyes.

Now I find I’m moving away from acupuncture because it’s a passive treatment. I still use it in practice and am passionate about establishing rigorous evidence around its’ possible effectiveness. But I believe that active lifestyle changes will make the biggest impact on health in the “worried well” that consult me. Time and time again my advice is to eat less sugar, do more exercise, meditate, practise positive self-talk, go to bed at the same time every night. If patients did these religiously they would rarely need to see me. The other problems are easily fixed – the ones that require a prescription.

I consider myself very fortunate to have a career in Western Medicine. I took a roundabout way back to medicine, but I certainly haven’t ended up in the same place – or perhaps the same place, but with a new vision. If I hadn’t left for a little while, I may not have discovered my vocation – to teach and inspire others to find the answers to health and happiness. (One of the ancient definitions of “doctor” is “someone who teaches“). Inspiration implies I have to be a somewhat healthy role model myself. Now I spend my days and nights learning about health and wellbeing – about healing and nurturing the body, heart, mind and spirit. It’s an amazing and privileged journey and I intend to share it with everyone who wants to come along with me. :)

Photo credit: http://farm7.static.flickr.com/6079/6123892769_9fd6451484.jpg

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By Tegula www.pixabay.com
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By Tegula www.pixabay.com
By Tegula www.pixabay.com

My iPad broke a few weeks ago. I don’t know how, but it was on the same day my four-year-old was playing a new Duplo app on it. Strange coincidence. Anyway, I was without my ebooks for a week, and I felt lost, disoriented. I had gotten to such a comfortable and confident place with reading a few pages of personal development books every evening. Not having that threw me off more than I thought, as did going without a run for five days after my race ended. It got me to thinking about attachment. Was I too attached to all these things? I felt like I was holding on tightly, to so many things, so I could get through my week. As long as I had my exercise, my reading, my work, my kids, my husband, I was ok. But what if I lost some, or all of these things?

I started thinking about letting go, of finding the space between all the “things” and all the “doing” in my life. My week is a tightly scheduled routine of work, study, kids, exercise, blogging, reading, and some down-time. Everything is entered into multiple calendars and I have reminders going off every day. I felt like I was becoming very “mind” centred – always thinking, planning, organising, using my brain. It brought me great satisfaction but I also felt like something was getting out of balance, even with the regular exercise I was doing and the time I spend with my family.

I joined the Mindful in May campaign and started listening to interviews with scientists who research the effects of mindfulness meditation. I started practising mindfulness seriously. I listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn talk about “you’re only alive in this moment!” And I am finding it hard, really hard. But I’m becoming much more aware. I’m suddenly aware of all the fluctuations in my thoughts and emotions. Joy, anger, irritability, embarassment, shame, all within a few minutes. It’s exhausting! Have I really been going through this every moment of the almost 40 years of my life? Now I notice these and I let go, without judgement. “I’m feeling angry. That’s ok. Now I’m letting go”. And the anger goes. My mind drifts – what time was that doctor’s appointment again? I have to book for dinner for when my dad visits on Monday. Should I enrol Star in another kindy next year? and then I suddenly get back to my focus. I’m walking. I’m listening. I’m seeing a chubby little hand in mine, a sunset, a tram go past. I’m feeling tension in my neck, tiredness in my back. All of a sudden I’m feeling truly truly alive. All that exists is this moment. It may not be a good moment – it doesn’t have to be. I’ve learned I don’t need to experience joy in every single moment. It is what it is. But for the moment, I’m freed of worry and guilt. I don’t have to think about what just happened, or what happened yesterday, what I should have done differently. Then my mind wavers again and it’s off thinking, always thinking, the typical “mummy brain” filled with worries about whether I’m doing the right things for my kids, making the right decisions, and going over all the minutiae of our lives.

http://www.enthusiasticbuddhist.com/mindful-eating-taste-mindfulness/
http://www.enthusiasticbuddhist.com/mindful-eating-taste-mindfulness/

But what I really want to discover is who I am without all this thinking and doing. Because somewhere in between this activity and mind-work, somewhere in the space, is a sense of myself that is infinite and eternal – that will prevail no matter how old I am or how many faculties I retain. It’s hard, but I’m grateful as I know I’m using a muscle I’ve never used before that will get stronger with practice. I’m feeling more anxious, but I know it’s because I’m moving beyond my comfort zone, challenging myself. And I’m gradually learning to let go. I hope that with living each moment and then letting go, I will be able to deal with the passage of time, the loss of people dear to me, my own mortality and aging. The sadness I feel as I see my children grow up, the little pang in my heart as I sort the clothes and donate the ones that are now too small – I want to make this easier, even make it disappear, like bursting a bubble – simply by living in the moment, without judgement, without guilt or living in the past, without worry or living in the future.

For those who are interested in learning about mindfulness, look up Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I’ll leave you with a beautiful quote from one of his books:

“Maybe the fear is that
we are less than
we think we are,
when the
actuality of it
is that we are much much more.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Recently I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who had an inner critic, a voice that told me things like you’re not good enough, you should have done it a different way, you’re hopeless. I always thought that I was the only one who suffered from this problem. Finding out otherwise has liberated me from some of the chains of this voice. I have learned to make this voice work for me, to be more encouraging, constructive and rational.

I’ve been thinking about all the shoulds we carry in our minds that burden us so heavily. And I realised today there are two kinds of shoulds. One exists only to please others or to keep up appearances. For example, “I should do that thing for my mother that I don’t really want to do and means very little to her but I’m afraid of making her angry with me” or “I should say yes to this extra job even though it won’t bring me any new experience or thanks – it’s a menial job that should really be delegated but I’m afraid of looking bad if I turn it down” or “I should bake all the cupcakes for my daughter’s party because that will make me look like a real supermum and I don’t want anyone to think that I’m not a great mum“.

IshouldbegoingtobedearlierThen there are the shoulds that we know we should do because they would truly improve our lives in some way, but we’ve neglected because they don’t seem urgent, we’re lazy, or we haven’t prioritised them. Like “I should do some exercise” or “I should see a financial advisor” or “I should enrol for that course because I would learn important new skills and further my career“.

Mums in particular seem to suffer from the shoulds a lot. I know I used to walk around with so many shoulds in my head I thought I would explode. I should be putting nappy cream on or my baby will get nappy rash. I should be putting my three-month-old’s name down at private schools. I should be using cloth nappies. I should be sticking to more of a routine. I should be taking my baby to Gymbaroo.

I learned very recently how to deal with these annoying and sometimes debilitating “shoulds”. Here’s the three-step process I propose. I’m not very good at this yet but with a framework I think I can start to tackle my shoulds in a constructive, non-judgemental way, and get rid of all the “mental clutter” that holds me back.

idontcareThe Healthy Doctor’s Three Step Process to Dealing With “Shoulds”

1. Write them down, or at least become aware and acknowledge the “should”. Don’t let it hang around like a bad guest. It needs to be dealt with.

2. Be critical of the “should”. Is it (a) something that will only appease someone else, or is coming from an impossible societal expectation – or is it (b) something I really should do? Will it improve my life measurably or am I just afraid of what someone else will think?

3. If it’s an “a” should, bin it. Let it go or, even better, mentally boot it out of your head. (I love visualising a great big boot kicking the “should” out of my mind! Be gone with you, horrid pestilence!)  If it’s a “b” should, turn it into a goal : Quantify it and set a deadline. For example, “By May the 21st I will have completed my tax return” (*groan*) or “By the end of this week I will have read to my children for five minutes every day”. Put it into your calendar.

I’m so sick and tired of all the shoulds crowding my brain space. It’s time to do some spring cleaning, but I know many of these shoulds are my own way of taking care of myself. So I’m listening to that caring, nurturing voice and rejecting the purely critical, negative voice that anxiously aims to please others. It’s not that I don’t want to be of value to others, but I’m learning to recognise those situations where it wouldn’t matter if I said No, it’s simply all in my head and I have some exaggerated sense of wanting to please. And I’m also taking control of the shoulds that I should be doing, by turning them into an active goal with an end-point. Ultimately I want to be as free of unnecessary guilt as I can be and live a more effective life. I hope this helps and I would love to hear about your shoulds :)

 

 

 

 

 

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