All you need is already within you, only you must approach yourself with reverence and love. Self-condemnation and self-distrust are grievous errors… all I plead with you is this: make love of your self perfect.
I am reading a wonderful book by Tara Brach, called “Radical Acceptance. Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha.” Tara, one of my new favorite people, psychologists and mindfulness teachers, talks about the importance of “making love of yourself perfect” or becoming your own best friend. One of the chapters really spoke to me, and it was about the need of a pause. A small pause, a suspension of activity, and time of brief disengagement, of letting go. A pause to appreciate the present moment. The reason this book is so important to me now is because I feel like I have been running. I have been running “as fast as I can, just to stay in one place.” I rarely stop to “smell the roses,” or notice the sunrise. I used to be able to sit and enjoy the beauty of a flower, or the intricacy of a spider web construction, really indulge in that first bite of ice cream, or freshly-picked raspberry. And somehow, over time, I lost that ability. The ability to appreciate the simplicity and beauty of life. In other words, I lost my capacity to just be comprehensively aware of the present moment. Somewhere, in between college, graduate school, postdoctoral training, getting married, having children and losing dear family members, I became unable to really value the now.
Towards the end of my postdoc, I constantly sensed raw vulnerability, I was free-floating in a state of perpetual anxiety. Looking back at what was happening three to six months ago, it doesn’t feel as dramatic as it did at the moment. I just needed sleep. But back then, trying to keep up with my daily lab and parenting responsibilities, and looking for that next step in adulthood we call a job, felt incredibly intense. So I made the decision of taking time off before starting in a new position, once my postdoc ended. Not too long, a month and a half to be exact. And it was the best decision I’ve made in a long time. Even before I picked up the above-mentioned book, I knew I needed a pause. A time to devote to getting back to myself. A time of warmth and clarity, a time to learn to regard myself with kindness and empathy, time to let go of my perfectionistic tendencies, and a time to work on being my own best friend.
The first week of my pause was still pretty intense. I had thoughts racing through my mind about this and that. I so desperately tried to keep my fingers on the controls and kept dwelling in the past or leaning into the future. I was sprinting towards the next moment. I felt speedy, impatient, self-centered, and because I was feeling all those things, I also felt insecure. I kept checking my e-mail accounts and Faceboook, for the fear of missing out on something. Over time, I realized, I was missing out. Not on any information I was allegedly going to receive over my e-mail, but over missing out on my time off. I had physically allowed myself to have the freedom to spend with my family, but I was distancing my mind from the present moment by being “plugged in” at all times. At that point in time, I became aware that I had given myself a choice. I fundamental choice about how I responded to the present. The past did not matter any more. It was simply gone. The future was six weeks away. So I decided that in my physical time off, I needed a mental pause as well, a time to focus on being present. What I call a “pause within a pause.”
I am not one of those people who can meditate for hours (or even minutes), I am restless, and I judge myself easily if I can’t “meditate well.” However, I found a compromise, and that compromise was gratitude. During my six weeks off, I thought a lot about how grateful I am. Grateful for the opportunities that I had received in my training, for amazing people with whom I formed professional and personal relationships, and for being able to parent my children while working on my career. I would think, sense, be there in the moment, feeling tender and grateful. I tried not to think about the future, or at least not in any inflammatory, anxiety-ridden, judging ways. Instead I focused on breathing, pausing, and worked to redirect any anxiety I felt over the new position, to a more productive activity, like building sand castles and moats on the beach.
My other reason to be grateful was actually this very pause, a time to take off from being a part of a high-functioning, high-achieving society. When you are a professional, you rarely get a pause. Especially in science. Surely you may take a minute here and there to close your eyes, but rarely does one get a real pause that lasts a few weeks, whether it is because of financial considerations or lack of flexibility. I know I got lucky to have mine. I haven’t had real time off since high school, and that was sixteen years ago.
The pause allowed me to heal my immediate wounds of the past, and permitted me to accept the imminent future freely. It allowed me to entirely experience, with full awareness, with appreciation and patience, that bittersweet snapshot in time where the young, green, perpetually-a-student scientist within me ceased to exist and a grown up professional was about to emerge. I hope I can carry this sense of peace with me as I move forward.