My friend Ana is a mindfulness teacher. She’s one of those people who’s as likely to say “Be gentle with yourself” as “Have a nice day” and seem totally sincere about it.
I remember several years ago when she mentioned some changes she’d noticed in me.
“You’re softer now. Not so much go-go-go, not so much hustle.”
I was gratified to hear Ana say this, which was probably the residue of my people-pleasing. Ana thinks I’m doing a good job, so I must be doing a good job! But I think it’s valuable to seek the opinions of people you respect (who won’t bullshit you) when trying to make internal change. Moving yourself from any type of addiction—whether that’s to alcohol, drugs, or overachieving—is really an internal process, difficult to observe from the outside. And often, because the internal shifts are small—one degree here, a millimeter there—they are even difficult to observe in yourself. So Ana’s words reassured me that all the internal, intangible work I’d done the previous year had been worth it.
But then she said something that struck me even more…
“Perhaps there’s a different way. Maybe you can achieve things without so much struggle.”
Ana pointed out that the moment of “success” or achievement—whether that’s in a career or personal goal—is very small. It’s one tiny moment. Then it’s over and we quickly move onto “the next thing.” But we spent all that time and energy leading up to the thing! To the moment! And if we spent all that lead-up time striving and sweating and being somewhat miserable, what was the point? Why does the lead-up have to be hard and stressful? Is it really worth it just so we can experience some short-lived reward?
Perhaps, as Ana said, there could be a different way.
Perhaps the lead-up could be just as enjoyable, just as delicious, as the reward itself.
What an interesting thought. I was dumbfounded that I’d never really considered it.
We’re often so focused on achieving that our minds are all goals.
Get the laundry DONE.
Get the website revamp DONE.
Get the inbox to ZERO.
Get the children IN BED.
We rarely spend time thinking about what happens in-between all those big and little achievements in our lives.
But really, that is where we’re living the majority of our lives.
We live our lives in the in-between.
The spaces in-between the accomplishments, the moments in-between the goals, the time in-between the checked-off tasks. If I think of my life like a line graph, my achievements, both large (like earning a graduate degree) and small (like finishing a workout) are the dots on the graph. But on any line graph, most of the space is taken up by the lines in-between the dots.
This is where we spend 99% of our time. And if we spend it hustling, grinding, grinning and bearing it… we’re wasting our lives.
Think about it. You likely went to school for over 12 years to get that 30-second stroll across your high school graduation stage. You dated that person for years (or, if you’re a Hollywood up-and-comer, at least a few weeks) to enjoy that single day of your nuptials. And you gave that company thousands of hours of your time to experience that very short-lived moment when they announced your promotion at the annual meeting.
We’re living in the in-between.
This realization knocked me off my feet. It’s like when I learned that most of our bodies are made up of empty space. The space in-between the atoms and molecules is vastly larger than the atoms and molecules themselves. Truth. 99.9% of our bodies—in fact our entire universe—is nothing more than empty space.
We’re living in the in-between whether we acknowledge it or not.
So I decided to take Ana’s advice and try an experiment to try to enjoy my in-between moments. I chose a very small task with a clearly observable outcome: laundry.
Laundry fits neatly within the in-between model: you spend 99% of your laundry time prepping, washing, drying, folding, and putting away to experience that one sweet short moment when it’s DONE, the basket is empty, and you can check it off your list.
As I hauled the basket of clean laundry up from the basement, I took a moment and considered the in-between. I recognized that—while I’d put “laundry” on my list of things to-do today—the joy of laundry could perhaps not be limited to simply getting it DONE. Perhaps there could be joy in doing the laundry itself. A million arguments immediately erupted in my mind. (Most of them were some version of, “That’s BS! Doing laundry sucks!”) But for the sake of my experiment, I decided to ignore them and see what happened.
I set the basket of laundry on the table and commenced folding, trying to see if I could enjoy the laundry process without hustling to get to DONE. This was challenging and comical.
I felt a bit like Marie Kondo, lovingly folding my husband’s boxer shorts and matching socks with their precious mates.
I was reminded of the time I heard some radio deejays poke fun at an article about “Mindful Cleaning.” Apparently, somebody had the great idea to combine mindfulness with housecleaning. The deejays giggled as they read from the website: “Squeeze the sponge and feel it’s softness. Breathe…” I’d laughed along at the time, but now, here I was, folding laundry like Martha Stewart’s sensei.
Was my laundry experiment with the in-between a success? Sure. While I can’t say I enjoyed folding each T-shirt and sock, I paid attention. That’s much different than how I usually approach this task. I was present. Even laughing at myself was a form of presence. I was in the moment, with my socks and underwear.
Perhaps that’s the trick…
We don’t need to enjoy each moment, but we can be aware of each moment.
Our lives are spent brushing teeth and walking dogs and riding the commuter train. These are the spaces in-between, where we live and eventually die. And if we don’t open our eyes, take a breath, and become aware, we run the risk of missing the majority of our lives.
So my challenge to you is this… Don’t try to do amazing things. (You already are.) Don’t set big goals and strive for them. (You’ve got that down, my friend.) But simply start to notice those moments in-between your accomplishments, the lines in-between the dots. Notice yourself making the coffee and not just drinking it, pay attention to the commute and not just the arrival, acknowledge each bite and not just the empty plate.
And when you forget (which you will, over and over again), when you start to ignore the in-between and focus on checking off your achievements, smile. Laugh. Take a breath. Become Martha Stewart’s sensei. Squeeze the sponge, breathe.