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  • Andrew Casteel

Got Out of the Fog


Thanks to Covid, our new schedule has given me a lot more time to spend with my son outside. School was cancelled for this past school year and next year is up in the air so we've had more father and son time than we would usually get. At first it was hard, there was so much to do to pivot my business to survive the shelter in place. The old rhythm of our life was wiped away in an instant and it took us a while to find a new one. It's caused a lot of changes that have been good for us.


The biggest break through is that we've discovered spaciousness. It's a concept from meditation that I had never really understood. Thanks to an episode of @MidnightGospel by @duncantrussel where he interviews @davidnichtern I now have a name for what we've been slowly discovering over the course of this shelter in place. I had always approached meditation as disciplining the mind. I'd close my eyes and one by one tell my mind to put down each thought until it was empty, like I was disciplining a child that wouldn't clean their room, "Put that away. Now put that away." The problem with this approach is that all the thoughts that I'd put away as I meditated would come rushing back as soon as the meditation was over. The peace was always temporary. And so were my forays into meditation.


I no longer try to practice meditation in the way I used to: Sitting still, closing my eyes, paying attention to my breath. But I do practice spaciousness, giving my mind room by not filling it with unnecessary and often harmful things.

Think of that lesson that became popular a while back

A teacher fills a jar with golf balls. Asks if it's full. Students say yes.

The teacher fills the jar with pebbles. Asks if it's full. Students say yes.

The teacher fills the jar with sand. Asks if it's full. Students say yes.

The teacher fills the jar with beer. Asks if it's full. Students say yes.

The teacher asks, "If I had filled it with sand first, would there be room for any of the golf balls or pebbles?". Students say no.

The teacher says, "The golf balls are the important things: Family, Friends, Passions. The pebbles are the necessary things: Errands, Bills, Food. The sand is all the little unnecessary things: Tweets, Instagrams, Checking the news for the fifth time in an hour. Start with the important things or there won't be room for them."

Here's the video (link in bio)

I'd seen that lesson when it came out years ago and immediately forgot about it. Only lately have I been embracing it fully as I've discovered the space in my life to fit more of the golf balls.


The first step to spaciousness was getting our house organized. We went through and removed all the unnecessary things that were taking up both physical and mental space. Suddenly it was easier to keep our house in order as there was actually room for the things we use regularly. We've since been keeping things organized with regular checks to remove things that have fallen out of regular use. We have a big pile of things to donate once donations start happening again.


The next step to spaciousness was organizing my time. Just like putting in the golf balls first, specifically scheduling time for the truly important things first made sure I was actually doing them. I used to schedule all of my work time first and let the family time fill up the gaps. The problem is that empty space in the calendar is just asking to be filled up. And if important things like exercise weren't on the calendar, they wouldn't happen at all. I had to begin scheduling time for my family and my health in my calendar to break this habit.


Lexi had been lifting weights at the gym for quite a while before the shelter in place put an end to it. I helped her put together a home gym so she could keep it up while she couldn't work out at the gym. I decided to join her as my much more limited exercise habits had also been wrecked by Covid. Committing to waking up at 6am to work out six days a week has had more impact than I could have hoped. Like a lot of folks, I had been drinking more than usual at the start of shelter in place as I dealt with the stressful uncertainties around my work, my son's school and the health and safety of my family. Committing to get up at 6am each morning to work out is pretty incompatible with having a few too many beers the night before. Thanks to that, I'm drinking less than I was before shelter in place. Setting that one healthy expectation started shaping the rest of my habits around it. I've traded staying up late playing socially distanced poker til 2am for time together with my wife getting stronger and happier together.


Giving family time the same importance as the rest of the appointments that fill up my day helped me to make sure that the important things do get done first and that family was one of those things. This doesn't mean that our plans are all specified in advance, just that the time we have is set in stone. That way we can choose the adventure that is right for us each time and I can be completely present for that time rather than splitting myself between work on my phone and playing with my son.


The most recent step I took toward spaciousness was turning most of the notifications off on my phone. Like the sand in the lesson above, all those little intrusions filled up all my time. This @smbccomics piece captured how ridiculous my relationship with my phone was getting.

I'd been trying to break that cycle for years. I had a recent breakthrough when I was having a bit of insomnia a few weeks back and decided it was a good idea to look at the news for the first time in a week. It went about as well as you'd imagine. In the foggy haze of my exhaustion the next morning, I went through my phones alerts and turned off all but the essential ones it was made for: phone calls and texts. The pattern has been holding for about a month now. I hadn't realized how destructive all those little interruptions were. They'd slowly kill each day through a thousand cuts.


I don't recommend hiding from the news or social media, but do take a moment to contemplate your relationship with them. Do you find yourself skimming your feed while rarely reading an entire article like I used to do all the time? How much of your feed is actionable information and how much is just peoples' reactions to information? How much do you search your feed looking for something to stoke your sense of outrage like I used to? "The president said what!?!" How often did you turn that outrage into real action and how often did it just leave you feeling too tired and frustrated to do anything? How much did being constantly informed help you to accomplish? How much does your time on social media really bring you closer with another person and how often does it result in arguments that push people away?


I've found a more mindful and deliberate practice for staying informed and taking action for real change. I now read the news only on Sunday mornings, when I have the time and energy to dive deep into at least one topic. I have also dedicated myself to donating some of my time or money each Tuesday to stopping police violence and supporting the African American community. I choose an organization each week to donate to or answer a call to real action (calling a legislator, volunteering, protesting). This makes sure that my privilege doesn't lull me into a sense of complacency while reserving my energy so that I can do things that really matter.


Just like in today's poem, I feel I've walked out of the fog of harmful distractions that were taking up so much of my time and energy and into a bright sunny day. Find yourself some spaciousness. Like @davidnichtern says:


"Often in life when we have this sense of open space, its unsettling and we rush to fill it. You know, pour some personality into the gap – charm somebody, push them away, ignore them – anything but space. Sometimes we can just settle back a little bit and not try to fix things right away – while still paying attention."


You don't have to really meditate to get there. I don't. Unless you consider biking and listening to yacht rock as meditation. In fact, I think I'll do some of that right now.

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© 2019 Andrew Casteel