What thoughts and experiences are you looping through your head everyday? A recent conversation illuminated that it is these pervasive thoughts – most away from our churches, temples and altars – that drive our life and create our experience of well-being (or not). This is our real practice. Where do you worship?
The soccer sideline experiment
I had a breakthrough conversation recently with someone trusted. It was spurred by a very unscientific experiment I conducted one weekend while at my daughter’s soccer game. I was wearing some new jeans – a pair I wasn’t in love with to begin with (bad omen #1) – and unsure of how I looked and felt in them. They were not my normal brand, size or style. But, they were designer and on sale, and I purchased them. The first day I wore them, I felt unsure the entire day of my new purchase.
Because of these stupid jeans, I spent the entire first half of my daughter’s game watching – but preoccupied. To others, it may have looked like I was following the group of lanky pre-teens sprinting across the turf. My eyes darting from left to right and back again at the appropriate time. In reality, I didn’t know the score of the game. My mind was fixated on my jeans: wondering how they looked on me, comparing them to the jeans worn by others women and, in reality, hating on my body. But, I cannot blame the jeans.
This type of body fixation has been a pattern since childhood. Also, being fit is part of the unspoken job requirement of my on-camera career, as well. But, it has amped up since turning 40 with a growing fear that maybe things were never going to go back to ”what they were.” Yet, I put relentless pressure on myself to turn back time. That’s ultimately what was underneath my jean preoccupation on the sideline.
Back at the soccer game, I was fully aware of what was happening – yet, I couldn’t stop it. Instead of fighting my looping thoughts, I got curious about them. I decided to run an experiment. I pulled out my phone, which was snugly tucked in my jean’s back pocket, pressed the buttons to unlock it and started a timer for 20 minute. During it, I tracked how many times I hated on…errr noticed my body….errr, jeans…whether in the positive or negative. I wanted to know exactly how deeply I was obsessing.
My findings? In my 20 minutes of tracking: I thought about my body over 30 times. Whether it was my body, the jeans, my stomach, my arms, my hair, my wrinkles or even my toes – I fixated on my body, in a negative way, over 30 times before the timer buzzed. Extrapolating the data, I realized that over the course of the day, my negative body thoughts could add up to 100, 200 or even 500 times in a day? Yes, it was possible. The calculations astounded me. They also saddened me, realizing how much I was torturing myself.
Shocked by my discovery, I did some research that night after the kids went to bed. I wanted to know if my compulsion was ‘normal’ or not. Anecdotally, in my walks with friends, brunch talk with former classmates, I knew some level of this was ‘normal.’ Digging into the research confirmed a larger issue. A survey by Self Magazine shows how preoccupied women are with our bodies:
… a whopping 80 percent of us remain unsatisfied with the number on the scale—and 57 percent think about it “constantly.”Self Magazine Body Survey, 2015
I also discovered that body obsession and weight pressure is particularly an epidemic for working women. Though it may seem contradictory for working women to be consumed with our looks and weight, data shows that the pressure on women to be successful and thin is intense. A report in Psychology Today shows the pressure around our bodies amps up for women, the more successful we get because we are trying to downplay our success through our physicality:
…the slender standard gets more extreme as women make strides in careers and project an image of professional competence rather than stereotypical femininity.”
When I shared the details of my unscientific experiment with a trusted advisor recently, I didn’t get the sympathy I expected. Instead, I got chastised. And challenged.
”Shibani, our lives are a culmination of our prayers and the thoughts that fill our lives. One may pray, meditate, say affirmations, read or listen to spiritual knowledge – but at what temple do you worship when you step up from your altar – for the minutes and hours in between? What if you had given your focus to God or something positive 37 times instead of self criticism during that soccer game? Can’t you see that is a waste of not just time – but your life?“
My lungs heaved. Every ounce of air left them. My body hunched over into a ”C” in my chair. The aftermath from the truth bomb that fell heavily on me. He continued:
”Everyday, you’re dealing with never-ending exhaustion, difficult personalities, relentless body criticism and an endless pursuit of perfection. It is understandable given the circumstances of your life and your roles. But, these have become the mantras you choose to repeat silently in your mind. These are your prayers. This is your chase. These have become the temple of your worship. It is like you are telling the Universe it made a mistake with you. Until it changes, you will protest and hate. And my guess is, darling (he says in his charming southern drawl), even if you had a perfect body – you would still be unhappy. ”
I sat for a few more moments in silence as the gears of my mind clicked and churned – dissecting, reflecting and understanding.
Then, a short time later, a tiny little flicker of a spark within me. My lips pursed. I sat tall again in my chair, lifted by a powerful force of air re-inflating my lungs.
“It makes total sense, Gary. I may be ‘spiritual’ for some minutes of the day. Then, feel great at work and in being with my kids for some hours of the day. But there are many more that I have spent toiling over my to-do lists, noticing my flaws and feeling like I’m trying to make it to some finish line out there. These moments make up WAY more hours of life than anything I have done inside a temple. Those are my REAL affirmations.“
“Gary, how I begin to change the experience of 80% of my life?” I asked. The truth may have been illuminated, but I would not be held hostage by it.
“Not by changing it. By starving it,” he says. “The only way to change a habit it through repetition. You need to reprogram your mind with positive thoughts – about your body, your self and your life and create the firing of new neural pathways.”
I was reminded of past conversations with Antoinette Spurrier, a spiritual teacher and psychologist, on the importance of positive affirmations. “Our looping thoughts, our habits in consciousness and negative patterns in thinking are affirmations – just in the negative. “I AM” affirmations help begin to build new grooves in our brain and rewire our thinking to the positive. In doing them, we slowly start to change our patterns. Our emotions, vibration and sense of well-being follows.
“And with your body – it is finally time to love it. It is your vehicle. Your only vehicle,” says Gary. Practices like gratitude, self massage and the “om work” practices I wrote about are ways. The cancel, clear technique another. Even listening to subliminal messaging, such as those recommended by Dr. Bruce Lipton can help:
I recommend making, and listening to, audio recordings of your own voice that are positive and in the present tense, as if the belief or feeling you are wanting to reprogram has already happened. For example: “I am healthy” or “I am worthy and loved.” The function of the mind is to create coherence between your beliefs and your reality. Listening to positive and present tense affirmations helps to create this coherence.”– Dr. Bruce Lipton
I work on gratitude, self love, body positivity and presence in the same way I brush my teeth and check my email. I make it a daily, frequent habit. Whether it is taking time to notice something positive in the mirror instead of criticizing or taking a moment to express gratitude, I am finding a new temple to worship at in my life. One that accepts my imperfection.
Oh, and I ended up keeping the jeans. I took the tag off and then grabbed a pair of scissors and cut them up to my style-liking. They aren’t my go-to pair of jeans. I know in wearing them, I could spark a line of self questioning. So, I save them for garage clean-outs and roller coaster rides. When I wear them, I try to notice when I like about them – like getting a great deal on a designer label or noticing the nice fray at the ankles. Yet, even in that small decision, I create a victory for myself. For I have chosen to prioritize my well-being and myself in those moments. And I am learning, even in my 40s, to never let a pair of designer jeans – no matter how well discounted – get in my way again.