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photo credit: Ales Krivec

A few years ago I felt like all I was thinking was; “Why am I so busy?”, “Why don’t I have time for the things I really want to do?”, or “The chi (energy) feels off in the house, where is our balance?” I was working hard I felt to make it work, delivering at my office and being present at home but I felt I spent most of my time rushing in between it all and no time enjoying any of it. Friday night would come and while I was grateful for the routine of ‘pizza/movie night’ I rarely (if ever) saw the end of the movie because once stopped the constant motion of the week and was parked on the couch my body took over and I crashed to sleep.

The Kripalu catalog comes a few times a year and offers wonderful retreats for body, mind and soul and each time I crack it open I can get lost imagining myself in that warm haven of the Berkshires. My Mom and I have gone together twice and for me it is very reminiscent of my childhood Unitarian church programs – lots of open minded, loving, non-judgmental people gathered around giving each other what they need most especially if what they need is a dose of clarity or a hug during morning coffee. The magazine would come and soon it would be the most worn magazine in the house, I would read and re-read the course descriptions and lament that I did not have enough time to spare or else I would certainly go…

I love what I do for work – I have always told my children how lucky I am to feel that way and that even though I sometimes struggle with balancing the demands of work and home i told them that it was fulfilling and it was providing for us. Things aren’t always perfect but on most days it works well. Then one day, the team I worked in was reorganized. A new leader was hired to come in and suddenly, I was told that I would now be working for him. I was “layered” which is corporate-speak for what some would see as a demotion and for what I felt was demoralizing. I tried to make the best of it. But I was very unhappy. I put on my game face and went to work. Suck it up buttercup became my mantra, a mantra I have come to despise.

About this time, I confided in a friend at work about my unhappiness with my new place in the organization. She was not surprised and she said “I WANT YOU TO GET YOUR SWAGGER BACK.” As it turns out, all this time I was still coming to work, getting it done and thinking I was hiding my dissatisfaction – I wasn’t hiding a thing. The Kripalu magazine showed up at some point during this phase and I half-heartedly threw it in my bag to read on the train to work. Flipping through on the train, a program called the Certificate in Positive Psychology popped off the page. It was the fourth year that Kripalu was going to offer it – I had looked at it before and always thought that a year-long commitment was too much. But now – lamenting how I never had time to do what I wanted to do and work not being all that I wanted it to be, I decided the time was now. I went in and talked to my new boss and my former boss and they were both very supportive – so I took the plunge and committed to a year of learning. What happened on that journey is what has led me to share My Year of Whittling. I break it down into what I have learned to be the four critical parts of the art of whittling: Preparing the Blank, Choosing the Right Knife, Centering the Blade and Working with the Grain.

Preparing the Blank: In whittling the blank is that beautiful piece of wood you’ve found and only you can see the vision in it. You rough it out, giving yourself an idea of what you want the blank to become. Staring at the blank you realize that your vision won’t emerge all at once, it’s a step by step thing, you break it down and just get started – you whittle in small strokes; but small repetitive actions can lead to big change and suddenly your blank is recognizable to all as something whole and beautiful. You are the blank, you have a goal for who you want and can be when you are at your best. You prepare the blank by setting the goal and then little by little you whittle away what doesn’t matter so you can focus on what does – so you can emerge.

Choose the Right Knife: Turns out that in whittling (and in life) you really don’t need a lot of fancy tools, you really just need one really good knife. But, you have to pick the right knife for you and then you need a ton of practice. You need to pick the knife that fits in your hand? What worked for someone else might not work for you. My goal was at first to be and feel less busy, I needed to find the right tool that would get me there. Meditation is the tool that a lot of people I know use to calm themselves down. I learned from reading John Kabat Zinn that mediation is paying attention to what you are doing, while you are doing it. I learned that my tool, the one that worked for me was taking 4 deep heart-mind coherence breaths before I got out of bed each morning, and before I went to bed each night. Connecting heart and mind helped me to stay present and the result was that with a lot of practice I started to feel less busy. I was learning how to pay attention to what I was doing while I was doing it.

Centering the Blade: If the blade in your knife isn’t centered you will lose your leverage and your power will be reduced. I committed to a series of 30-day challenges – with the others in my certificate program, we did 30 days of “what am I looking forward to’; 30 days of gratitude; 30 days of unexpected kindness and I started to notice some similarities in my days. Then I created my own 30-day challenges, I did 30-days of showing up for myself and then 30-days of saying NO. When I showed up for myself and when I found the courage to say NO, I was saying YES to the things that mattered to me. And, the result was that I wasn’t only feeling less busy, I truly was less busy. By paying attention to what gave me energy I was able to center my blade.

Working with the Grain: This one has two critical parts. It’s work to do this, it takes daily practice. Happiness is a one-day-at-a-time adventure. And of course there’s the grain. If you don’t work with the grain in whittling your knife can slip and you can hurt yourself. Similarly, in life, if you are not being your authentic self and working with you grain, you will end up hurting yourself.

In order to get my swagger back at work, and everywhere else, I had to go back to who I am at my core, to my blank. When I am centered and working with the grain, I am my best self. Little by little I emerged, stronger and clearer in my view of myself, more centered and present to my own needs and wants. I feel compelled to share my journey – but this is not a how-to; “how-to’s” don’t work – this is a scaffolding. With practice and reflection – and a lot of work – I believe we can be more centered and powerful and our best selves. And, as a result – happier. Not happy – happy feels like a destination still to be reached. I am happier. And at the risk of using an overused buzzword…more authentically me.

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