“Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
For some reason, the transition from Winter to Spring is always a difficult one for me. Like many, the Winter finds me going through down periods of moroseness and despondency. On the outside, I might look like a modern lady going about her day to day. But on the inside, I feel like a Bronte character wandering the moors in search of meaning for it all. Yes, I have even had times of visualizing myself like this, complete with Victorian dress. These periods have been particularly acute since moving to Europe. This is due, in part, to different nature of my work here. I spent my professional days in Washington, DC surrounded by people – business partners, clients, meeting appointments, friends. I spend my the majority of my professional days in Paris predominantly alone with human interaction mainly limited to strategic conference calls and morning runs. The winters in Europe can also be hard because, well, they are just….so….dang…dark. Short days mean limited exposure to natural sunlight. And particularly windy and, more than occasionally, very raining days make any time outside particularly uncomfortable. Having learned how hard the winters were here last year, I did everything I could to steel myself for these emotional travails. I planned trips here in Europe and in the US for much of the winter season to keep everything going forward. I set meetings in Brussels, Belgium to understand the changing political dynamics here in Europe. I went to the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos, Switzerland for the first time to discuss some of my theories on the future of the technology industry’s engagement with governments. I spent time in Northern California both reconnecting with old friends and clients as well as starting training in coaching peak flow performance. I devoted time on the East Coast of the US, focusing on managing my ongoing life there.
Despite my best planning, though, the end of March hit me hard. Just when I should have been most excited about the Spring to come, I woke up one day and didn’t want to get out of bed. And I barely did get out of bed. I barely got out of bed for the next five days. People were worried about me. My mother talked to me in hushed tones. Friends from Washington DC texted or called everyday to check in. Even the lovely ladies of the American Women’s Group in Paris wanted to send me flowers when I told a couple that I was going through a hard time. On the fifth day, though, something broke through. I was sitting on my balcony taking in a particularly beautiful morning – a morning where the sun was so strong that I could literally feel it filling up my energy reserves – when I noticed a feather floating in the distance. I watched it dance on the wind from what looked to be about the twenty feet off the ground – to the right, to the left, away from me, towards me, always floating up – until it literally floated up over my railing and into my lap. Mind you, I life on the 6eme etage (7th American floor), meaning I had watched the feather travel at least fifty feet further up in the air until it came to rest with me.
As I sat looking at this feather, I wash of emotions and thoughts came over me.
First, it was a true moment of joy – of appreciating the beauty in the smallest of things. I also couldn’t help but laugh at the moment. It felt like something out of a movie – both seemingly surreal in nature while also being cliche. I even looked around me to see if anyone else had seen what had just happened. Then laughed again at my own ridiculousness of doing so.
Second, it was a moment a great hope – of knowing that all things pass. No matter how great the despair, the happiness, the fatigue, the energetic surge – they all pass and not to read too much into each one.
Third, and most importantly for me the past few weeks, it was a moment of great insight – of realizing a pattern in my own life. That despite the beauty that each Spring promises, I had always struggled with the transition. The question that I then turned to was, why? As I sat there thinking through all the Springs that had passed previously and the times of struggle that I went through during them, I began to see my own life pattern – a pattern of taking on too much in the late Winter months, all with an eye to making the coming Spring “the best one yet” and then hitting a wall when I had taken on too much. I would take on self improvement projects – setting about to lose a certain amount of weight by a certain time, of having a certain style, of learning a new skill. I would take on home improvement projects – tearing apart parts of my home, reorganizing them, creating a list of all the things that needed to be done in order to perfect the space around me. I would take on professional improvement projects – strategically mapping out people I needed to meet with, get to know, developing policy issues that I needed to master. The problem was, I wouldn’t just take on one area of improvement. I would take them ALL on, seeking to conduct a wholesale revamp in the hopes of entering the Spring a new and improved version of myself in all areas of my life. The problem is when you take everything on, very rarely are you able to do any of it. Or, at least, very rarely are you able to do any of it well. Everything is sacrificed in the name of moving on to the next thing.
It was at that moment of clarity as I looked at my own seasonal rhythm that I realized I had been taking on too much. I had been trying to boil the ocean of my life and it had sent me spinning into a spiral of “to do” lists and sleepless nights. I had been trying to do everything at once – and frustrated in every manner at the seeming impossibility of it all – rather than focusing on the immediately accomplishable. I was compounding stress rather than reducing it. I was thinking too much about how to live my best life rather than actually living it. How’s that for a big ol’ smack in the face?
So, I then set about the task of doing something about it. Don’t get me wrong, I still had my lofty goals, but I set them on a quarterly schedule rather than on a weekly one. I had read about the importance of setting quarterly goals – or resolutions if you will – rather than annual ones in a Forbes article late last year. This sent me down a rabbit hole of understanding the psychology of how we approach self improvement and how others sought to make improvements through quarterly goal setting. I loved the idea and sought to set it in place in my life. And, I did. The only problem is I had taken on too much and I needed to trim a lot of things back. And, I did.
I took an honest look at everything I was working on in my life. I wrote down the things that I needed to take care of immediately to reduce the stress in my life – most immediately, putting my house in Washington, DC in order to turn over to a property management company to handle rentals. I wrote down the things that were taking too much of my time without a corresponding reward – namely, volunteering and professional commitments with scopes of work that had far exceeded what was originally agreed. I wrote down the things that I allowed to take up mental and physical energy but I could do nothing about – almost exclusively, everything happening in my fiance’s life. I then set about taking care of these things, one by one and with an exclusive focus on that immediate item. I won’t lie. This process wasn’t easy. And it required a lot of difficult conversations. Conversations that I was, frankly, really scared to have. But I had them and you know what? They weren’t AS difficult as I had thought they would be. While that is in part due to the fact I always think through the worst case scenario of how things will progress, it is also in part due to the fact I had really clear lines, for once, of what I could and was willing to do.
As I have slowly reduced my stress triggers over the past several weeks, I have also outlined what I need to do in order to keep the stress at a manageable level, to ensure that I do not set expectations too high for myself (or others), to enjoy the beauty of the world in which I live.
This has come down to five simple words: Breathe, Sleep, Be Fucking Amazing.
While the words are simple, the realization is more difficult than we all initially think they will be. If they were simple, then there wouldn’t be literally libraries of scientific and spiritual theory devoted to them. But, they are simple truths and necessities for sanity. Simple truths that I was reminded of by a simple feather floating in the air.