If there’s a phrase I have heard most during these first few weeks of 2017, it’s probably not “Happy New Year,” but something more along the lines of “back to the grind.” After weeks of downtime (family, binge-watching, sleeeeeep), turned-up time (friends, parties, travel), and maybe even some alternative work on that second job you’ve had for the past year (applications submitted!!!), it’s time to head back to that increasingly-familiar planet known as regular, everyday adulting. Back to work, back to classes, back to the grind as you currently know it. No question, it’s harsh – or that’s how it feels, anyway. As you’ve already started to notice, it’s not so much what you’re looking at but how you’re looking at it that contributes to your inner angst.
So what is it about this “reality” you’re headed back to that makes it so painful? Probably, a few things.
It’s work. Let’s point out the obvious first: unless you’re one of the lucky few, your work is less fun than your play. Even if you like what you’re doing well enough, waking up with the day stretched out before you, waiting for you to decide what to do with it, is preferable to a schedule of obligations. But, as you’ll see in a minute, that’s a little bit about perspective, and fighting inertia, which is tough because…
It’s routine. Your everyday life is probably pretty ritualized. As I’ve written before around this time of year, that’s not always such a bad thing. Rituals can be grounding, reassuring, even soothing. They’re super helpful in times of high stress and uncertainty. Monotony, on the other hand, is not so loveable. When the flow of your days is so predictable that it becomes hard to tell them apart, or to tell one week from the next, time either starts to drag or fly by, yet you’re not sure if you’re going anywhere regardless of the speed. If nothing else, it starts to become difficult to find the meaning in the momentum. You’re doing, and doing, and doing…but why, and to what end? It’s easy to lose sight of these things because…
It’s habitual. This one derives straight from the ol’ routine, and it’s a big one. When things become predictable, you stop paying attention. You find your autopilot setting, and click into it. (Btw, this happens with thoughts, too, not just behaviors…). Why not, right? You already know what’s coming – or so you think. It makes you feel sleepy in your own life, because frankly, you’ve shut part of your brain off. You’re not looking around anymore because you don’t expect to be surprised, or delighted, or invigorated by anything you see. And so you won’t be. Unless, of course, you snap out of it, which thanks to mindfulness, is totally possible. But first, you have to get past the idea that…
It’s typical. See “habitual” above. When you stop paying attention to what’s happening around you (let alone within you), then there’s nothing new under the sun. You miss the momentary pleasure of that first sip of coffee, that cute baby on the subway, that funny thing your co-worker said while you were zoned out at the printer. You bypass the opportunity to notice the way the light filters through the trees on your street, the relief of a warm jacket in a blast of cold air, the inviting aromas that emerge throughout that day from that one particular block with more restaurants than you can count. You fly right through it, and lost in the escape of your mind, you miss the world’s efforts to remind you about this place where you actually are – which is actually pretty engaging, often beautiful, and always has the potential to be interesting, if you retain your capacity to be interested in it.
So now that we’ve diagnosed some of the issues, I’ll leave you to your own devices to deal with them…just kidding! Of course, I wouldn’t do that to you. I’m a coach by trade and by nature; I couldn’t do that if I tried.
I’m going to avoid any clichés about everyday beauty and miracles and such, but I can’t help it if a little slips through. The truth is that even the gift of mindfulness can’t necessarily make accounting (or marketing, or whatever you dislike) more fun than a beach vacation in winter. It can’t make the soup in the office cafeteria task like your mom’s. It can’t make the teammate you can’t stand disappear. It can’t make snow melt. It can’t make your life an exciting adventure every day. But by working with it on a regular basis, you can do those things. Well, maybe not in a completely literal sense, but you can change your experience with any experience you have using my three favorite ingredients: your attention, your intention, and your breath.
One of my favorite quotes is from the poet Rumi, when he says “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” If you don’t like your external circumstances, by all means, change them if you can. But if you find that you’re consistently “grinding” and seeking peace in little increments through external sources despite constantly changing them, then maybe it’s time to look inward. It’s not easy work, I will tell you that right now, but it could be the beginning of the end of “back to the grind” for you.
Breathe in, breathe out. Look around you and really notice, and then, observe the journey that begins within you.
Photo credit: Matt Hoffman