Prayers from the Nonreligious

Life is full of tragedy. It’s also full of happiness and light, and for that we can take comfort, but there’s simply no denying or escaping life’s sorrow.

In fact, I believe that to endure it is part of what makes us human. Our tragedies, both individual and shared, lead to periods of reflection and evaluation. They are the impetus for change and growth, adding a new layer to our unique stories and redirecting the trajectories of our lives. No matter the degree, grief and anguish do not leave us unscathed. Though the wounds may heal, tragedy cuts deep. It transforms us and often rightfully compels us to redefine ourselves.

It’s easy, of course, to so blithely describe tragedy given the benefit of time and distance. In the moment, tragedy leaves us raw and aching. It’s awful and, in many cases, unavoidable. Melancholy, restlessness, misery, depression, illness, separation, violence, loss; tragedy presents itself in various ways. It is simultaneously relatable and singular. It is abundant.

Perhaps I feel this way because I’ve matured into a more cognizant member of society. Perhaps it’s because I’m of a certain age and my peers and I now have real adult responsibilities and problems, like divorce or aging parents. Perhaps it’s simply more prevalent now than ever before, though I sincerely doubt that. It’s clear to me, regardless of why, that tragedy is everywhere and affects everyone to some extent at some point.

As a decent human being with self-diagnosed heightened levels of empathy–it should come as no surprise to hear that I’m a deeply emotional being–my chest hurts when someone I care about is suffering. I am keenly aware of how it feels to have a heavy heart and am grateful to whomever first coined the term as it is incredibly apt in many circumstances. I try my best to listen and help, or, at the very least, let that person know I’m there for support. But depending on the situation, saying “I’m here for you” just doesn’t seem like enough. Finding the proper words, however, is tough.

Beyond offering to “be there” for someone, my first instinct is usually to say that I’m “thinking and praying” for them as well. They’re words I grew up saying and somehow continue to feel right because they suggest that I’m spending a good deal of mental and emotional energy trying to conjure positive and supportive vibes. The problem, though, is that I’m no longer religious and don’t technically “pray” either.

While many of the people to whom I say this may not know this fact about me, those who do may wonder about my choice of words. Over time, I’ve become hesitant to use them, often leaving out “prayer” altogether at the risk of sounding irreverent or disingenuous, especially to those who are also nonreligious. Neither is the case; I am very sincerely issuing some sort of prayer to the universe about that person and his or her situation. It’s just that my version of a prayer is not directed to any single god or any god at all, necessarily.

My history with religion is not all that unique or interesting. Like many of my contemporaries, I grew up Catholic but lost my connection to it for a variety of reasons. I’ve dabbled with other forms of Christianity, mostly to be supportive of family members who are religious, and have tremendously enjoyed the sense of community I feel in each church I’ve attended. I don’t have anything against organized religion (unless it’s a church that spreads harmful rhetoric, in which case I’m very much against it) or people who take part in one; I respect the people for whom it works.

I understand that there are many reasons one might be drawn to a particular religion. I also appreciate that, for many, religion provides a great moral guidepost. It’s possible my own morality was partially derived from the religion in my upbringing (though I attribute it to my parents, family, and community). I even admit that the current pope seems like a pretty relaxed and open-minded guy (finally!). I’m thrilled that many religious sects are becoming more accepting of all walks of life, all religious affiliations, and all identities, sexual and otherwise. In my opinion, the ones that don’t are doing a disservice to religion in general. But that’s neither here nor there. I don’t want to delve any more into religion as a concept. I’m not here to talk about its presence, or the lack thereof, in my life.

I’m simply here to convey that I’m not being disrespectful or facetious when I tell someone who is going through a hard time that they’re “in my prayers.” I don’t think my non-believing (or not-sure-about-believing) should affect the weight of my words; to me, religious is not synonymous with goodness. A good person is a good person and their good intentions should be taken at face value. This is why I take no offense to someone who relays these words to me, either.

So please, if I tell you that I’m thinking of and praying for you, know that I am neither pushing religion down your throat nor belittling your belief system; I’m just thinking of you deeply.

I may not be sending my prayers to any specific or commonly accepted deity, but I do believe in the gods of healing, kindness, grace, and mercy. It is to those whom I am sending my thoughts. To you, I send compassion. I hope you are able to find solace in my words and in knowing that you are not alone in your despair.

To anyone experiencing some kind of tragedy as you are reading this, know that I see you, I feel you, and I recognize your pain. My sincerest thoughts and prayers are with you.

A Reminder That Some Tragedies Are Avoidable

Though not my original intent, I feel it would be irresponsible of me to end today’s post without acknowledging the fact that many of the tragedies we see today are within our means to avoid. For instance–a big instance–the implementation of simple, common-sense laws may actually help decrease the frequency of gun violence. It’s after such violence that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is truly insufficient, so much so that the words themselves have become trite when spoken by a politician who has the real power to effect change and instead offers insincere regards.

Americans are 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries. Twenty. five. Our gun-obsessed culture combined with the oversize presence of gun lobby money flooding our political system has created a real problem with real consequences. We, as Americans, laud our country as the land of greatness and opportunity, a real powerhouse on the global stage. Yet we do not even come close to comparing to the rest of the world in terms of gun safety. Instead, we rank among the top in terms of gun violence. With such a strong-arm reliance on guns in our twisted-priority culture, are we really the land of the free? I’d argue that until we can send our kids to school without the fear that they won’t return, the answer is no.

While many of you, my dear readers, are of like mind and have no need for the reminder, I do think it prudent to add that this is not about taking away guns. Instead, it’s about making it really hard to acquire them and about keeping them out of the hands of people with a history of violence or who are unfit to handle them safely or responsibly. At the end of the day, a gun is a weapon designed to kill. We mustn’t forget that.

Readers, it’s already way past “too late.” As a result, people are dying–our kids are dying–because of our inability to do our jobs, as adults, to protect them. Don’t let those people die for nothing, readers. Take action now. You better believe that when it’s in my power to offer more than “thoughts and prayers,” I do.

 

 

 

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Mindfulness & the Great No Phone Zone Experiment

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According to a 2010 Harvard study, we humans spend almost half our time letting our minds wander (46.9% to be exact). Whether we’re thinking about the past, the future, or an entirely fabricated alternate reality, we are not thinking about what we are currently doing. Researchers also found that “mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness” in that a “wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

I personally find this to be true. Hell, even in the ten minutes that I’ve had my computer open to write this post, I’ve felt distracted for at least eight of those and subsequently feel both anxious and frustrated.

Mindfulness has been a buzzword for the past few years, so it’s likely you’ve heard of it. Though I’m sure there are varying definitions of the term, to me, mindfulness means being present–in the now, not focused on past or future. Or basically the exact opposite of the mind-wandering described above.

In my extremely unqualified opinion, it makes sense that we’re hardwired to have wandering minds. In some ways, it’s likely helped us survive. We need to think about past mistakes so we don’t make them again just as much as we need to identify future potential pitfalls so we don’t fall into them. With so much to think about, it’s no wonder some of those anxieties and preoccupations seep into our present consciousness. And while mind-wandering occurs regardless of activity, it also seems like a great coping mechanism for life’s more difficult times; if you’re not focused on what you currently face, it probably seems less real, enabling you to endure more easily.

I also fully believe that today’s technology contributes to our mind-wandering. It certainly contributes to our shortening attention spans. Having the entire world at our fingertips at all times is simultaneously a wonder and a burden. It allows us to capture some of life’s most precious moments, call for help in an emergency, and connect with friends around the globe. At the same time, however, it can feel suffocating, like we must be available and responsive at all times of day and night.

I’m reluctant to admit that my phone spends more time with me than anything, including any person. It’s hard to argue against having it on hand entirely, but as time goes on and I find myself turning to check my phone in less than five-minute intervals, I’m forced to concede that my behavior has become obsessive and unhealthy. I never used to be quite so connected. At work, my phone would sit on my desk all day, but I’d only check it randomly (having the computer at my disposal instead, which is arguably not any better). However, once Baby Bear was born and I was breastfeeding an uncommunicative and sleeping infant for hours on end, my phone became my lifeline to the outside world. I turned to it to help me connect to other mothers, catch up with friends and family, browse social media, read, or choose my next Netflix binge (Jane the Virgin, for the win). Well, with enough time and practice, my brain rewired itself to form a new neural pathway and I was left with a bad habit.

Try as I might, I have not been able to break it. After just mentioning the title of this post to my mom and husband, I received an incredulous stare and a snide “Wow, you’d fail that challenge.”

This is the opposite of the reputation I want! Please don’t let me be that person! We all know the one who checks her phone all the time, ignoring life going on right in front her. I resent that person for not wanting to engage and feel hurt that she values her phone more than she values my company. But, to my absolute horror, I have become this person too.

I cherish my friends and don’t want them to think I don’t care about what they have to say. I love my family and don’t want them to feel like they are unimportant to me. I cannot even describe the depth of my feelings for my baby and fear that he will grow up feeling that I don’t care. It wrings my heart to think that I’ve missed some of his cute and beseeching expressions as I’ve blankly stared at my little rectangular screen.

I justify it by saying that I’m reading (I’m often using my Kindle app), or that I want it nearby in case of an emergency or to take pictures, but in reality I think it just makes me feel anxious to be without it. I’ve grown addicted to my phone. I couldn’t care less about Facebook or Instagram, but I check them both probably 15 times a day. I swipe my phone to look at the time and couldn’t even tell you what it is just seconds later. I worry every day that this addiction makes Baby Bear feel that he is less valuable to me than some inconsequential device.

And all this time I’m spending on my phone? It means I’m not focused on the present. I’m not focused on the moment–what I’m doing, what Baby Bear is doing, or what’s happening around me. For example, I finished a book on my phone this weekend while on a walk through a beautiful park with the babe. It was a gorgeous, end-of-summer day; the birds were chirping, the sun felt warm against my skin, and I took it for granted by focusing on something as unimportant as a subpar romance novel.

I recognize that I won’t get that time back, but I have decided to be proactive about changing the behavior to come back to the present.

Mindfulness Exercises

When I find myself focused on my phone, or just generally overwhelmed with anxiety and thereby not focused on the present (since anxiety really lives in the future), here’s how I plan to reel it back in.

Step 1: Focus on my breathing

Simply put, I will stop what I am doing and take a few deep breaths, treating them like a simple reset button.

Step 2: Ground myself

I will put my feet on the floor and feel the ground beneath my heels and toes. Literally grounding myself will allow me to start focusing on my current surroundings.

Step 3: Take in all five senses

I will become consciously aware of what I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. If my anxiety is high enough, I will do the five-to-one countdown; that is, I will list five things I see, four things I hear, etc. Including detailed descriptions of the things around me will help me stay even more focused on the present.

Step 4: Repeat a simple mantra

If needed, I will slowly repeat a simple and relaxing phrase, like “I am calm and relaxed.” An abbreviated version of autogenic training, this technique has been proven to help practitioners start to feel what they repeat. If I’m still feeling anxious after steps one, two, and three, this will continue to help me relax and focus on the present.

No Phone Zone

The above exercises will help me feel re-centered and more in tune to what is going on around me, but I don’t want to stop there. Without beating myself up too much about it if I “fail,” I’d like to start enacting a no phone zone policy during certain times of the day when I am most ashamed of my phone addiction. My hope is that starting small will be the first step to a successful phone addiction recovery.

Meals

Embarrassingly, I have started to read on my phone during meals. I typically read the news over breakfast and a book at lunch. Luckily Papa Bear calls me out if I do this at dinner, but I hate feeling like I have to hide my phone from a child. No more!

Afternoons with Baby Bear

As referenced above, I’m not proud that I look at my phone as much as I do when I’m alone with the baby. It’s not like I’m not watching or interacting with him at all, but I still hate to look down and see him looking for my reaction. From now on, I will leave my phone in the other room when we’re playing at home.

Accountability

Like any journey, I’m sure there will be bumps along the way. Stepping back from my phone will not happen overnight, especially because it is an incredibly useful tool much of the time. However, my hope is that by sharing this here and being more mindful, I will eventually come to depend on it, and other anxiety coping mechanisms, less. In turn, I hope that my wandering mind will be more easily focused and I will feel more positive and engaged overall.

I ask that you help me on this path and (gently) remind me when I stray. Plus, who couldn’t benefit from being more aware of what is in front of us. Take the challenge with me!