Beyond Boredom-the lost art of doing nothing

Want your kids to stop whining? Wish they had the imagination and creativity to come up with something to do on their own? It’s easier than you think. So easy in fact, you might second guess yourself.  Here goes….YOU DO NOTHING.  Nothing at all.  Don’t give ideas or suggestions. No facilitating, no projects, no “why don’t you play on the swingset or build a fort or take these toilet paper tubes and make a sculpture.”  Don’t force imagination or facilitate creativity. At first you’ll want to kill me because the whining will reach record levels and you’ll wonder why you even tried in the first place.  And honestly, don’t try if you’re not willing to tolerate the complaining and utterly pathetic helplessness that precedes children’s imagination formation.  You have to be willing to “push past bored” as a parenting mentor of mine used to say.

To have patience for them and compassion on them, it might help you to understand what is happening for your children.  You know how when you try to vacation, it takes you a full day to unwind?  To shut off your brain and to let the noise spill out.  Even if there isn’t noise present, it’s all still whirring around in your brain.  The people and tasks and just NOISE.  Or even when you take a mini vacation-for those of you who meditate, practice grounding or just take small moments for re-centering or relaxation.  It takes a minute (at least) to re-orient.  Much longer if you don’t vacation much or meditate often. This is what your kids are experiencing, that overstimulation and general restlessness that comes of not having your internal experience match your external environment.  Except, unlike you, they are external processors and they are going to tell you ALL ABOUT IT.  Because, if you think about it, a child’s life is often very overstimulating.  Maybe it’s screens, noise, crafts, boards games or spelling worksheets.  Maybe it’s crowds of noisy children if they’re in school or daycare or sports.  They are in high gear and probably have been for a while, and are desensitized to slow thoughts and subtle noise. For those of you who don’t even know what doing nothing would look like, here are a few suggestions for minimizing distractions so they can reorient.

 

-Minimize their physical boundaries.  Allow them outdoors, especially if you have a park or preserve nearby that allows them to wander a ways without hitting fences.  Don’t tell them what to do or where to go, let them push their own internal boundaries of exploration.  If they stay indoors, don’t send them to the basement or their bedroom or the playroom, let them decide.  If they want to make a fort in the bathtub, or bring a flashlight under the covers of your bed to read, let them redefine new spaces.

 

-Minimize time restraints.  If they have soccer practice in 30 minutes, or dinner at your mom’s house this is not the time to try this.  Can you imagine if you were finishing up a company report, had painted half of your bedroom wall, or were mid session with a client and someone yanked you out and told you that you had to go to spin class?  You may like spin class, but nobody likes to be disrupted when they’re in their work groove.  Exploratory play is the work of children.  I try to remember that disrupting them before they feel a sense of completion in their task or process is like someone barging into one of my therapy sessions. 

 

-Minimize toys and tools.  The question I ask when deciding whether or not to keep a toy is “does it have infinite uses?”  I looked up, as an example, the hottest toys of 2019 and two top ones were “Baby Alive Potty Dance Baby Doll” which, I assume, pees and dances, and “Jurassic World Jurassic Rex” which is a dinosaur that eats racecars.  Besides the fact that whatever noises those toys will make while my kids ARE enjoying them will be enough for me to wish I had more eyeballs to stick forks in, my kids will not enjoy them for long because they ONLY SERVE ONE PURPOSE (ok, in the case of babyalivepottydancebabydoll, two).  A set of blocks, on the other hand, has infinite configurations and can be repurposed for any range of imaginary worlds.  Want that block to be part of a fortress?  The wall of a bakery? Do you want it to be a telephone?  Or a juicebox?  So rather than the paint by numbers sun-catcher, just have watercolors, lots of blank paper, and plenty of space (remember the minimizing boundaries here.  Watercolors and finger paints are only fun if you aren’t hovering).   My kids have a big box of loose legos, wooden blocks and magnetiles.  We also have imaginary-imitative stuff like play food, toy animals and baby dolls.  I suppose it could be argued that there are not infinite uses for these, but there are a whole lot of variations that kids will come up with themselves, when the object does not have limited designated purposes (i.e. dancing and peeing). Since you are DOING NOTHING only they can decide when to use them and how.

Last but not least, pay attention to yourself in this process. Why in the world is it so difficult to sit by and do nothing? Do we trust them so little to cope with challenging feelings that we can’t tolerate them experiencing boredom? Do we feel guilty or responsible for them having any challenging feelings at all? Are we too exhausted as a parent to have patience with their complaints? Do we feel guilty for not being an active/engaged/fill in the blank parent? Are we resorting to the path of least resistance that’s so common for many parents… “oh I’ll just fix it for you. It’s easier for me to handle it than to trust you to figure it out”.

What’s the obstacle for you? Why is it so hard to do nothing at all?

Finding Yourself-Part 3

It might feel like a bait and switch to save this for last (haven’t seen the previous posts? Start here,) but the 3rd and final piece that I think is important in the process of finding yourself is….recognizing that you never will.

That’s right. When you truly know your full self, in an experiential and transformative way, it is dynamic. Ever changing.  When you’re living with your false self front and center, the perk is that everything is really simple and never changes.  It’s really clear that the kind of person you are expected to be is AB and C and you do that by doing X Y and Z and it’s not going to be any different tomorrow than it was today.  So if you really want to find your true self, I’m preparing you and giving you permission to walk into places that feel uncertain and unsure and where you don’t have all the answers.  Exploration and discovery are by nature inefficient. It’s ok if your process isn’t a straight line. Uncertainty is what HAS to precede every new thing we learn. 

Exploration and uncertainty allow for experience that goes beyond understanding. Parents and pastors can pass down cognitive understanding, but they can't pass down felt experience, and I have to believe that it's not all about cognitive understanding if "become as a little child" has any truth to it.

Exploration and uncertainty allow us to accommodate new information and perspectives. Most of the time the discomfort of doubt just means I saw something new, heard a new perspective, something that didn't line up with the worldview I've constructed. Of course it's going to feel uncomfortable until I reconstruct in such a way that there's a place for it. You can't "unsee" it, so just stuffing it down and keeping your old framework...it will keep resurfacing. On the other hand, if I take it and wrestle with it until I have built a new framework (even if that framework is less cut and dry and is one that allows for confusion and loss and mystery and paradox), I see it as a gift. And the process of using that gift of discomfort or doubt in that fashion is one I would hope never stops. 

So I want your process of knowing to be experiential, I want it to be integrated, but most of all I want it to be ongoing, to be dynamic.  Sometimes I have people come into counseling and say things like “well when I’ve processed this” or “when I’m in such and such a place”  Like there’s some sort of arrival point.  No honey, you don’t arrive.  And thank God, because the though that we reach a peak and then coast the rest of our lives is a really disheartening thought. So, here’s to never really finding ourselves, but welcoming the journey.  

 

Finding yourself-Part 2

 

We’re looking at another way we get in our own way when it comes to knowing ourselves.  If you missed the first part, you can read it here.

“The self we begin this journey of knowing with, is the self we believe our selves to be, and it’s usually the self that dies along the way”  David Benner, “The Gift of Being Yourself”

 

When people tell me they want to know or understand themselves, to get a handle on their emotions, their thoughts, their behavior…they are usually looking for understanding to make them feel more comfortable, to ease some kind of pain or disalignment.  So it stands to reason that they also only want to acknowledge things that don’t cause them discomfort to think about, rather than the experiences they’re uncomfortable even bringing to consciousness, let alone saying out loud.  Sometimes they will avoid them altogether, sometimes they will talk in circles around their experiences, but stay one or two steps removed-noticing their opinions or interpretations, or their thoughts on the theoretical aspects of it. And I don’t blame them, we’ve been taught to always put our “best selves” on display. 

I put “best selves” in quotes because I obviously think your best self is your whole self, but you also know what culture means by “best self”.  We look at the people around us, our family, our culture, take the feedback we get, and we think “who can I be to be seen as someone who is loved and provides value”.  Then, once we’ve crafted that, we hope if we work really hard on it, it will kind of, somehow, overshadow or overcome the parts we’re less willing to show.   

On one extreme, we see that in the collapse of famous pastors or spiritual leaders. I’m not referring to anyone in particular and I don’t really have to because these stories are becoming a broken record at this point.  Yet every time we hear “I can’t believe it, how did they let themselves get to that point.  How did they not see the first signs, get help at the first step down that slippery slope?”  Because they had a bright and shiny false self they had crafted, and they tried to repeatedly address their sin problem by working harder on polishing their shiny facade, rather than bringing their problems to light.

You may think those examples are extreme, but they happen enough that we have to start accepting they are not the exception in ministry and leadership, where there’s constant pressure to craft a perfect image and sweep everything else under the rug.  Those of us with less overt or obvious failures and weaknesses are just as susceptible to the same trap. 

A personality test called the Enneagram is having a huge resurgence in popularity. I have a love hate relationship with this test because it’s the personality test that shows you your weak tendencies or your fatal flaws.  It really exposes your whole self.  When I take the Meyers Briggs it’s I come away with “you’re so thoughtful and principled, and your deeper than everyone else and that’s why no one understands you, and you’re just thinking about big important stuff and most people won’t get it because they’re shallow.”  I read my enneagram type and come away with: “You live your whole life in your head and feel self-pityingly misunderstood and don’t live up to your potential because you spend your whole life thinking about what might happen and don’t take risks and actually do anything.”  And my “wing” type reads something like: “you’re just afraid of all the things always.”  Awesome.  Thanks.  And it’s not that I think we need to beat up and criticize ourselves.  I’m generally someone who counsels from a positive psychology framework, I love to cultivate strengths, I don’t ask people to come and sit on the couch and spend the whole time talking about what horrible thing their mother said to them when they were 4 and how they’ll never recover. But 1) if we don’t know where our fears and flaws lie, how the heck are we supposed to work on them and 2) most often the pieces of ourself that we are most scared of, or where wounds cut the deepest, are the areas we care the most about.  We’re most afraid of failing in the areas we feel we are the most called to and skilled in.    

And this is the irony of curating a false self. When we craft it, it’s doesn’t just hiding our sin problems and our wounds, it also hides our capacity for hope, for joy, our independence, our sensitivity, our personal power, our dreams for the future.  Because those things can get trampled easily.  Maybe we have experience in having those things trampled, either in big ways, or in a hundred small ways. So we hide those too  

Now different families, cultures, values systems...even your gender or your birth order can determine what you decide this carefully crafted and unoffensive self should be.  It may be creativity or compliance, independence or submission, intelligence and power, or loyalty, humility and hard work, fill in the blank. 

As a good little conservative midwestern, Christian, female middle child, when I used to take personality tests/spiritual gifts tests, I was always labeled as the peacemaker or the helper. My spiritual gifts were mercy, service, intercession, anything that allowed me to literally fade away, to take up as little space and offend as few people as possible.  Be in the background, clean up after people, do the dishes.  And there is nothing wrong with being a helper, a peacemaker, with serving.  But it was wrong for me, because I was doing it to protect myself.  I was doing it because I was safe.  Because ultimately I don’t care about dishes. I hate dishes.  My husband does all the dishes in our house.  I’m not saying I’m proud of that, but that’s how it is.  My real spiritual gifts? Discernment, knowledge, teaching.  Those are going to push more buttons.  Those are going to expose me to more hurt and more failure and to more meaningful failure.  I’ve probably said 12 stupid things in this post that I wouldn’t have said if I were downstairs doing the dishes, and that’s a risk.  I really actually care a lot about whoever is behind the screen reading this. I really care about this topic.  And you might not find it valuable.  That’s a risk.  I could fail at what I’m supposedly called to do.  That’s a risk.             

But, going back to the experiential knowing piece we talked about in the first post, I know that the peacekeeping, dish-doing self I created felt small and stifling.  Also that it was incredibly one dimensional.  If it’s something that we, as humans, create, it is going to be a crude one dimensional cartoon compared to our real whole living selves. David Benner describes this well: 

“But the self we create is a persona—a mixture of the truth of our being and the fictions we spin as we attempt to create a self in the image of an inner fantasy. The simple truth of our being gets lost in the metanarratives we spin. We become the fictions we live. Consequently, our way of being in the world is so false and unnatural that our presence is thoroughly ambiguous. It is no wonder that we find the presence of most people so clouded as to be not worth noticing, and it is no wonder that a truly unclouded presence is so luminous and so compellingly noteworthy!”  

Some of us have had the privilege of meeting those people who are fully themselves.  You probably know who they are if you’ve met them, and luminous is a good word.  It’s almost like they glow, like they’re more alive than your average person.  And we don’t get that if we don’t bring our whole selves to the table, the hopes and dreams and wounds and failures and everything in between that makes our hearts pound a little faster when we thing of sharing. But you’ll never find your whole self by just working harder at polishing the facade.   

Some concrete tips to help you move toward integrated knowing: 

-Bring up the thing you least want to talk about to safe close friends or an accountability group 

-Practice communicating a difficult story or a challenge or sin without it being 1) after it has been solved 2) after we have processed it and understand it and 3) without a solution or explanation at the ready 

-Notice the things you are OVERLY vulnerable about.  That you throw out into the ring so you can communicate the narrative you want before anyone else can make judgments.   

-Tell someone safe about your hopes, dreams and visions, even if they feel silly or impossible 

Finding Yourself

“In all of creation, identity is a challenge only for humans.  A tulip knows exactly what it is.  It is never tempted by false ways of being.  nor does it face complicated decisions in the process of becoming.  So it is with dogs, rocks, trees, stars, amoebas, electrons and all other things.  All give glory to God by being exactly what they are.”  -David Benner “The GIft of Being Yourself”.   

 A lot of people think of therapy as a process of “finding themselves.” As if they were lost, like the loose change in the couch cushions or the missing puzzle pieces that your kid may or may not have dropped down the air vent.  

The process is actually far more simple (though it’s rarely easy). It’s more of an undoing or an unearthing, finding who you were made to be before the world got its hands on you and you started over complicating things.   

I do believe we’re complicated creatures.  But in western culture we tend to think that understanding those complications is all that’s needed. We start think that information can really bring us to a place where we “know” ourselves.  But having information about ourselves, about God, about how we relate to others, it doesn’t help us “know” about those things any more than information about love tells us what it’s like to be in love.  So if it’s so simple, how do we get in our own way? In this three part blog I want to address three common ways, with a few concrete ways to combat them. 

  1. We don’t accept experiential, physical or emotional knowing as real knowing.   

The reasons we don’t accept this as a culture would be a fun discussion I’d love to have another time.  But the result is I consistently hear beliefs like: 

-Emotions and gut feelings are a weakness to be eradicated, not a piece of our whole selves to be cultivated so we can make wholehearted, wise decisions. 


-Not naming or expressing emotions is the same as not having them. I can make them magically disappear.  I hear people say “I’m not a feelings person”.  I don’t even know what that means.  Like “I’m not a food person.”  Or “I just don’t do sleep, like that’s not my thing.”  So what I hear isn’t that you’re not a feelings person, it’s that you’re not a feelings aware person, which is kind of terrifying for you and certainly the people around you and a complete mine field for any people that you might be leading.  It’s like telling your loved ones and those you’re leading that you’re taking them to a gorgeous island…..with just a few random unmapped and unstudied volcanoes. And hoping it ends well. 

If you couldn’t tell I think that’s garbage.  Based on my theology, based on my research and based on my lived experience with clients, this doesn’t make sense.  If we affirm that our bodies are good, and we believe in the reality of the incarnation, we have to start being willing to encounter God through our physical senses, and allow for emotions and reactions of our body, our literal gut instincts, to be taken into account when we learn to know ourselves and what deeply connects us to God and others and ourselves.  

Obviously I would be a little bit hypocritical if I just sat here and gave you information about experiential knowing rather than trying to create and actual experience for you, so let’s do a quick guided visualization….

Sit or lay down. Close your eyes. Bring to mind one of your “peak” moments. For some people these are moments of conversion or conviction, epiphany, confirmation of identity, comfort in suffering. There are a lot of “peak” moments, but they are moments that we remember as distinct snapshots that defined or altered our future or the way we saw ourselves. Take this snapshot and start to dig into details. Where were you? Do you remember any smells or sounds? What clothes were you wearing and can you imagine how they felt on your body? How the ground felt under your feet or the seat underneath you? Physically put yourself back there. While you sit in that place, ask yourself “what is something I know to be true about myself in this moment? About God? About the world?” They are usually simple truths, and limited in number. Sometimes there is just one big truth that is the takeaway.

When people hit crisis, generally all of the “information” that they have feels useless, but these experiences stick.  So when people circle back to these experiences and visualize them, the miraculous moments in their lives, the peak moments, the moments of freedom or peace or alignment, and they remember what they knew to be true about themselves, about God, about the world, in those moments….That’s something they can believe and hold onto because they experienced it.  It was transformational knowing, not just knowledge.     

So here’s a few concrete tips to practice experiential knowing:

-Journal about peak moments, what do you know to be true about yourself, about others, about the world, about God 

-Notice emotional and physical responses in your day to day life.  When your stomach drops or your chest tightens.  When you cry or feel explosive anger for (seemingly) no reason or start to feel frantic in a conversation or a relationship. Don’t work too hard to interpret them (this is what therapy is for), but start taking inventory of them and noting them as valid information 

-Notice the moments you feel free, peaceful, aligned, expansive, joyful.  Take inventory of those too, and it can never hurt to structure your life to move towards the people, places and activities that make you feel that way