Learnings and Lessons (2021)

December 26, 2021

A Night in a World by Heather McHugh

Another lap around the sun. This year has been one of growth, catalyzed by finishing university and moving to a new city without knowing anybody. After skimming my private writings from the last year, I have identified a few recurring themes that have defined my 2021.

season of intention

For the last few years, I’ve been aiming to be more mindful, to live more in the “eternal present” if you will. Much of my life has been spent gazing intently towards the future, often at the detriment of enjoying the moments occurring around me. The next internship. The next city. The next break. The following excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, illustrates this well:

In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone else. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way—to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week. If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

It’s a strange thing going from living somewhere surrounded by an abundance of friends, to a place where not one soul is aware of your existence. I remember feeling like a fly on the wall during my first couple of weeks in Seattle, simply observing people go about their life from the perimeter. Faced with the challenge of rebuilding my life from scratch, one word has guided me throughout the process: intention. Intentionality and mindfulness go hand in hand, working together to create a positive feedback loop, yielding an even greater sense of each of these feelings. These ideas are rather abstract, so I’ll present some more concrete examples to add some colour to all of this.

One of the biggest differences between being a student versus working has been having an abundance of time to spend on the things that I care about. Idle moments were few and far between during my school terms, and now I have my weekday evenings and weekends to use as I see fit. I feel even more acutely aware of how I’m spending my time as a result of this. I’ve been able to construct a balanced routine, allocating time between work, music, wellness, socialization, errands, and various hobbies. While the weight that I give to these areas is quite dynamic depending on the week, it has been gratifying to know that I’m in the driver’s seat, at the helm of these decisions. Put simply, I invest my time into the things that bring me joy and I don’t invest my time into the things that don’t. I think we all strive for this, but developing a greater awareness as far as where my time is being spent has helped me to prioritize things and avoid being swept away by the current of distractions that each day brings. This mentality has seeped into the way that I approach relationships as well.

Even before moving, I knew that I didn’t want to spend my time hanging out with people just for the sake of it. As a seasoned introvert™, I’d much rather sit at home left to my own devices than waste my energy trying to maintain meaningless connections. However, without the shared experience of school or work (I’ve been working from home thus far) to aid in meeting new people, I was also painfully aware that I would have to make a conscious effort to go out and try to make friends if I wanted any. To this end, I made it a point to try and set up plans with just about everyone that I would run into, especially in the earlier months. What has ensued has been a series of beautifully spontaneous meetings and chance hangouts. Not all of these experiences have been strictly positive, however, being intentional about the company that I keep means that if I don’t feel the desire to see someone again, I don’t. While my social life in Seattle is still very much so a work-in-progress, I’ve gained a lot of confidence knowing that I could restart in another city if I needed to.

As a final example, the relationship that I have with my possessions has changed markedly this year. Moving every four months during university meant that it never really made sense for me to invest in decorating my living space, owning my own instruments, or a number of other things that denote a more permanent living situation. With those days behind me, I’ve been able to take my time deciding on the things that I want, where I want them to be placed, and how I want to weave them into my life. Every detail of my apartment has been meticulously agonized over and it’s for this reason that it feels like home. I have lost the desire for any extraneous belongings or additional clutter; everything has a use. This is truly the only place one can make sound decisions from because without a deep understanding of why you like or don’t like something, it becomes impossible to make improvements.

Humans are creatures of habit, and too often, we can find ourselves trapped by our attachment to the familiar. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard friends rant about unhealthy relationships, poor living situations, or bad work environments. Being intentional about the way we live our lives is of the utmost importance. It’s important to keep in mind that life is full of choices and we all have the power to shape our reality to a large degree; it could all be so different if you want it to be.

playing to win

One evening during the summer, I was talking to Loïc and he was recounting an intense game of cornhole that he played with some of his coworkers. To those unfamiliar, cornhole is a game where opponents take turns throwing small bags onto a board, competing until one player/team reaches 21 points. A bag that lands on the board is worth one point whereas a bag that goes through the hole is worth three points. House rules differ as far as what happens if a player/team exceeds 21 points, but I’ll spare these details. Faced with a tied match, Loïc had to decide between taking a risky shot and winning the game, versus taking a safer shot and prolonging it. With this dilemma at hand, he asked his partner for strategic advice, to which he replied with just: “play to win”. Loïc took the riskier shot and his duo ended up winning, but the lesson here would have been just as potent even if they lost as a result of his shot.

Cornhole board

This cornhole game serves as a microcosm of decisions that we have to make on a regular basis. It’s a subtle difference, but I can think of many examples in my life where I was playing to not lose as opposed to playing to win. Playing to win means thinking “I hope that this shot goes in” instead of “I hope that I don’t miss this shot”. This shift in mindset is empowering because even if Loïc missed the shot and lost the game, he would have been able to sleep knowing that he tried his best. In a world where he took the safer route and still ended up losing, there would have been no refuge for him to take comfort in. This feeling is only amplified when playing from a large losing position.

This sentiment has been echoed for generations. Shakespeare wrote, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” over 400 years ago; Marcus Aurelius said, “the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts” close to 2000 years ago. While it’s a good thing to be cautious at times, and our bias towards negativity is likely an evolutionary trait that got humanity up to the point where you are able to be reading these words, a conservative strategy is far from a panacea. In situations where the absolute value of the cost of losing pales in comparison to the reward of winning, it is often best to simply… play to win.

consistency is king

Almost everyone has grandiose dreams and this has only been exacerbated by how accessible the status of “celebrity” has gotten year-over-year. The popularity of get-rich-quick schemes and internet “gurus” are a testament to this. Unfortunately, in our current climate, the art of consistency has become very undervalued. Many people tend to wait for motivation to strike before they embark on a given challenge. The fact of the matter is, anyone who is great at what they do is not great because they’re in a constant state of motivation. These people are great because despite their feelings, they put in the time to work on their craft.

One rarely does well what one rarely does. I’ve applied this principle to just about all of my endeavours to great effect. Being religious about my daily routine has made my musicianship better, my meditation sessions more fruitful, and my physique more developed among other things. This is where the practice of mindfulness plays a key role, through detaching from the final result and deriving enjoyment in the process of getting there. That’s not to say I don’t have regular moments of frustration, part of working to improve at anything means regularly coming head-on against your limitations. Despite this, the gift of consistency means that at the very least, I end each day being more skilled than I was when I woke up.

I’m being deliberately vague here as far as what exactly my routine entails because the specifics are not actually that important. I think too much attention is given to particular methodologies and productivity hacks even though the spirit of all of these can be condensed down to merely being consistent. Fixating on strategies has the sneaky side effect of making your brain feel as if work is being accomplished; we all know people who talk boldly about their plans and schemes, with nary a result to show for all of this. Start slow, pace yourself, and build brick by brick.

the truth is on your side

This year has made it very clear to me how easily some people will lie in order to avoid having to deal with potentially uncomfortable situations. These lies are not always malicious, yet I can’t help but feel that resolving 99% of conflicts would be made much easier if everyone was aligned with living by the truth. Things need not even go as far as lying; the truth neatly takes care of a lot of issues that can arise from favouring more indirect communication. I used to spend a lot of energy trying to figure out the best way to sugarcoat my honest thoughts to make them more palatable, especially when there lay potential for things to get awkward. I’m not advocating for being callous, but I now recognize that respectfully telling someone how you truly feel is almost always optimal. It’s a lot less mentally taxing too. I can’t promise that a resolution will always be reached, but similarly to playing to win, I find myself comforted knowing that the truth is on my side in my dealings with people. In the words of Mark Twain, “if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything”.

To finish, I’d like to take a moment to highlight one of my favourite discoveries of 2021: therapy. A lot of my friends had told me about the positive experiences they had talking to a therapist, and so naturally, I was curious to try it out for myself. Like many, I was initially unsure of what I would even talk to a therapist about. I falsely believed that because I already engage in a lot of self-care practices and have been blessed with such supportive friends, talking to a professional would not be of that much use. I finally got around to doing my first session a couple of weeks ago and wow, I’m a big fan. There’s something powerful that comes with talking to someone who has no idea who you are that just can’t be replicated in any other environment. We are always filtering and curating when we talk to the people in our lives, subconsciously or not. With a therapist, there are really no strings attached, and I found that I could reach a level of honesty rivalled only by the brain dumps that I write in my journal. Getting to speak my mind without regard for the way things came across and without having to worry if I’m burdening another person by talking too much was highly cathartic. If you have been looking for a sign to try therapy out, let this be it.

I’m walking away this year with such a deep sense of gratitude for the miracle that is life. With all of the revelations brought on by 2021, I feel like I’m ending the year off as a different person than I was going into it. Cheers to another 365.

Collage of highlights from 2021

Collage of highlights from 2021

Collage of highlights from 2021

Collage of highlights from 2021

Collage of highlights from 2021


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