The barrier.....

It was an ordinary evening, we had enjoyed a lovely supper, and were engaged in the after-dinner discussion of the day.  There was nothing to foreshadow the bomb that was coming my way… ‘you know’ said Nancy, ‘you left Texas to come someplace new…. And to do something different than you were doing in Texas… but it looks to me like you have recreated that life on PEI….’ She was right, and it had not even taken two years.  I had come with the dream of finally setting boundaries between my work and the rest of my life, and finding balance between the two.  I had walked away from the busy academic career to restart my medical practice and ‘get it right’ this time.  But here I was, once again doing what I had always done…. Filling my life so completely that there was no room for all of it and certainly no room for anything else, medicine had once again taken over.

How had this happened?  It seemed to happen right under my nose, while I was watching, and I was oblivious to the process.  I just went about my day, and slowly said yes to more and more until I was full to the brim again.  I had become the medical director, had become the house doctor, and was once again teaching students.  I was involved with several committees and had more knocking at the door.  I was actively contributing to the medical machine, but at what cost.  Nancy was right, I had recreated the life that was full to the brim with all things medicine.  To make the matter worse, I felt like what I was doing was really contributing, it made me feel good, made me feel important, needed, helpful, all of which served to make it very difficult to say no when I was asked to give just a little bit more.  

It is a common trait in North American culture, and one that is particularly valued.  This is the hard worker who ‘makes this country great’ and it has been the pride of the Protestants since their arrival on this continent.  We glorify work and productivity, it makes us feel good, and it likely has a biological component to it as well.  After all, working hard and being recognized give us that burst of dopamine and serotonin that keep us focused and productive.  However, it can wear you out, and I had already had a couple of events in my life that had indicated to me that my work life balance was not optimal.

The first event occurred in 2001 when I had the opportunity to experience a bleeding ulcer.  I experienced it for a fair bit of time before it made itself so well known to me that I could not easily ignore it any longer, but I tried.  At the time, I was easily working 100 or more hours a week.  I was making up for lost income and it felt like I had to do this to be a good husband, to be a good provider.  I was a resident in Family Medicine and had transitioned out of the military back into civilian life.  That transition came with a pay cut that I was working to cover.  The thought of not doing all of this, of sitting down and talking with Nancy about adjusting our life to match the income I could make in a healthy manner never crossed my mind.  I saw the problem and simply worked to fix it.  That was the way of it.  I repeated this process several times going forward as I transitioned into teaching and research, then into administration and the bureaucracy.  In retrospect, it all makes so much sense. 

It is interesting, over time even the slowest of us eventually catches on.  I had moved to Canada and recreated the same overworked under rested lifestyle that I had created in Texas, and in Utah prior to that, and in Medical school, Graduate School, Undergrad, heck, I had been this was for as long as I could remember.  This was my way of being, it was the way I showed that I cared.  I worked hard.  However, I was beginning to feel that familiar burn, that feeling that despite all I was doing, that I was not really being appreciated for this work. I had certainly felt that way in the Army, but in the Army, everyone felt that way.  At Scott and White, I felt like there was always a push for just a little more, and then they would notice and say, ‘good job’.  And let’s be honest, they may have and I may not have had the ears to hear it (more on this in a moment).  Certainly, within the Health PEI Bureaucracy I never felt the appreciation, just the endless requests for more.  And it was here, in the quiet place, with so few distractions that I began to listen to what all of this was saying to me, about me.

In 2003 after my motorcycle accident I had begun to look toward meditation and mindfulness more and more.  I would meditate for a stretch and then stop for a stretch, but on the whole I was beginning to turn inward a bit more to try and understand who I was on the inside, trying to change the patterns of behavior that did not seem to suit me any longer. I was listening to Zen Podcasts from WZEN and from Living Zen and these teaching encouraged me to look inward and notice what was happening in this moment.  These discourses helped me to see the patterns in my life, and begin to get curious about them.  After we moved to PEI, and I recreated the wheel of my life once again, I began looking more closely at life.  I ended up heading to a retreat workshop that opened my life up, but did not change the relationship I had with my work life balance.  I had read ‘Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play when No One has the Time’ by Brigid Schulte, and it had helped me see time in a different light.  I understood the limited number of hours each week had to offer (168 hours) and I noticed how much of that time was occupied by medicine.  I shed committees and duties, then shed more jobs, began to reduce the hours in clinic.  It was exceedingly tough, and in the background, there was a little guilt that maybe I was not ‘doing my part’, that I was ‘disappointing’ people.  And it was a struggle to do this, it took everything I had to reduce my work load, and constant vigilance to prevent it from sneaking back in.  Why was this so hard?  I understood the value of what I was doing, and I understood that it was a behavior, and I wanted to change.  However, I was struggling to do just that, why?

In Hakomi Therapy there is a tool called the sensitivity cycle.  It helps identify the areas where people get stuck in their life.  It starts by describing what it takes to do something, even if it is only getting lunch.  It begins with clarity, then taking action, followed by satisfaction, then relaxation.

Clarity… What is that noise in my belly?  I am noticing that I am not paying as close attention to my work, and my irritation seems a little bit strong, hmmm maybe I am hungry?  Yes I am hungry (we are clear that hunger is what I am feeling).

Taking Action… Well I could go out to eat, I could order delivery, I could eat the sandwich I packed, or a protein bar, I could go alone or with friends, what would I like?  Making this decision and stepping into it, grabbing the sack lunch, or calling the delivery place, is the action phase.

Satisfaction… The feeling that arises when we have successfully completed the action we set out to do.  We got clear (I am hungry), we took action (grabbed the sack lunch and begin eating), and now we are enjoying the moment of feeling like the task is complete, that moment of satisfaction.

Relaxation… Once the task is done, we take a moment to notice what has happened, maybe take a moment to ourselves after eating to reflect before stepping back into the work of the day. 

This is the cycle for what we do throughout our day, in large and small ways, we take these steps on many things through a day, or through a life.  And it was understanding this principle that began to shed light on why I had such difficulty with rest and relaxation.  I had a barrier to resting, I had difficulty taking that moment at the end of the work, as the satisfaction lingered, to simply relax for a moment before beginning the next thing.  I moved from completing one task right into the next one without pause, without rest.  This was the cycle, and so I began to study it again and again as it showed itself to me.  I saw it in many little things as well as the big things.  It showed itself to me in the numerous books that I had started but had not finished.  I had read the meat of the book, but did not finish it and put it away, I simply moved on to the next thing.  I could see it in the projects around the house, I would complete one project and immediately start the next one, that same day often, even before putting all the tools away and cleaning up from the completed project, I was off and running to the next thing.  Dinner was finished, and we had talked for a bit, and I would move to washing the dishes and cleaning up, not just move, but almost spring into action, why? Because it was the next thing to do.  I had trouble simply being.

My training in Hakomi opened my eyes to noticing this process more deeply, and my work in the training with my fellow students, as well as my work with Renate Novak, my Hakomi Therapist, helped me to dive into the why behind this activity.  I came to see where this behavior arose, because like all behavior, it come up to help diminish suffering.  When I was young, my brother had come along, and he had significant medical needs for the first couple of years of his life.  My life went in a very short time, from being the only kid getting all the attention, to getting dramatically less attention as my brother required most of my parents’ time and energy.  Understand that they were not ‘bad parents’ they simply did not have enough time and energy in a day to see to my need for attention, and so I hurt, felt rejected, felt unworthy and unwanted.  These are intolerable feelings at any age, but as a very young child, they can be life threatening, so I changed, I became intensely self-sufficient and helpful.  I have very clear memories of being the helpful older brother, and of working to take care of myself so that my parents did not have to, and it worked.  As I helped, I got noticed, I got praised, and I got the nourishment that I needed emotionally.  It set in place a behavior that would begin to run my life.  I never had a chance to relax, I had to keep on working in order to avoid the potential pain of not being noticed, and so I learned to move from one thing to the next and to the next.  This was a brilliant move to solve my problem.  Academically, I shone, it made me a machine at work where I relentlessly ground out time in medicine, I had a 20-30 hour a week job that I held while I went through medical school, I was a working machine.  People may have said thank you, people may have said good job, but I had become impervious to hearing their commendations, I had excluded it from my world.  I was self-sufficient, and I did not need praise or thanks for the work I was doing, and when it was offered, I often demurred, ‘a broken clock is right twice a day’ was a common phrase people would hear me employ.  I took this early behavior and put it to good use, and it simply became one of the ways I organized my world.  This need to stay busy became my barrier to relaxation, and until I began to see the source of the pattern, the barrier seemed insurmountable. 

This is my barrier, and the one that I am still working with and working on.  I understand it better now, and that understanding has led to greater ease in my life.  It has given me the freedom to pause and experiment with relaxation without the trepidation and fear that used to be ever present, or that little voice that would say ‘you could be doing something useful’.  I have begun to recognize that relaxation is something useful, and so I engage with it more easily now.  But this is my barrier. There are others, some people have difficulty getting clear, they have trouble with insight into what need to be done, we might withdraw from making a choice or get anxious when we think about deciding.  The barrier might be difficulty responding once clarity has been achieved, taking the action that is needed.  Delays and changes of mind, impulsive decisions or none at all.  Still others are find difficulty in feeling satisfied with what has been done, it is never good enough, or it will not last.  The nourishment that is available cannot be received.  We each have one or more of these processes that are taking place in our lives, and if we look at how we go about our business, we will quickly see what it is that snags us and blocks our path. 

If any of this rings true for you, and you happen to be curious, and wish to study it more, do not hesitate to drop me a line. If you would like to know more about my work, or to work with me, feel free to contact me.  I post regularly to Instagram (@gilgrimes), Twitter (gilgrimes)  and Facebook (gilgrimes) about whatever arises from my meditation each day.  And if you would like to stay in touch sign up for my newsletter (probably once or twice a month at most).