Alone time practices connect to joy

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Self-care is an evolving discipline for me. I was labeled selfish and moody as a child, often sent to my room for being too emotionally intense. It may have been a practical strategy for a mother coping with four young children, but I didn’t understand that at the time. To this day, my alone time feels subversive. The deep core of Puritan work ethic and dedication to service in our cultural story can be misappropriated to guilt people, especially women, into caring only for others.

And yet, most spiritual traditions teach the importance of attending to oneself as an essential part of a life well lived. Modern teachers sometimes invoke the airplane oxygen mask as metaphor: you must secure your own mask before helping another with theirs. There’s also the cup of tea metaphor. Only once you’ve filled your cup to overflowing will you be able to give someone the tea that has spilled into the saucer.

I’ve learned through experimentation over the last few years how much alone time I need each day. I know that the bare minimum is about 20 minutes, and that it could easily stretch to several hours. I rarely have the luxury of unlimited time, but sometimes I give myself that gift. After many decades of little or no self-care, I have some catching up to do. I have also discovered that my different alone time practices each have their own purposes and qualities.

Journaling always come first. It’s a necessary and efficient way for me to reconnect to my inner ground of being via mind, heart and imagination. I use it to get to know myself better and to remind myself who is in there. It’s also where I cultivate greater awareness of emotional states, responses to events, things I’ve read or seen, and what I think. Sometimes I need it for encouragement or as a reminder that I am never alone—even when, out in the world (including my intimate relationships sometimes), it may feel that way.

Exercise, especially yoga, has much the same effect, using the instrument of the body. My wonderful teachers remind me that yoga demands everything, and its reward is to return me to myself. Often, throughout a day, I find myself returning to the central channel of my body, a source of great reassurance and power. I feel connected to the physical world around me and also to all of Creation.

Besides these two, there are two other practices that I rarely give myself permission to do: play the pain and paint. Although playing the piano has many purposes and effects, the primary one for me is to practice letting go. I try to give myself over to the current of the music, the energy of spontaneity, the flow of life that is always all around, but inaccessible due to habitual striving. This one isn’t particularly efficient. It takes me at least 40 minutes to warm up and practice some pieces before I can tap into that letting go. And it doesn’t always happen. Just as with experienced meditators, I could probably get there more reliably if I practiced more regularly.

Playing the piano is also a practice of releasing any expectation of outcome. As a child, I was a perfectionist who rarely enjoyed playing. It’s virtually impossible not to make mistakes. Now, I work with releasing any disappointment if it’s not a transcendent experience. And I allow a moment to savor when it is, without becoming too attached. Yoga is where I really learned this play between trying and effort, giving over and enjoying. These are ways to surrender to grace.

The last practice is watercolor painting. For me, this cultivates an intense being in the moment. It helps me to drop down into the vocabulary of color, pattern and light. Into a conversation and communion with a place, a language beyond words. The writer and life coach, Martha Beck, calls this Wordlessness, the first of her “Four Technologies of Magic.” This state leads to her second technology, Oneness. I don’t usually feel the tingle of dissolved physical boundaries when painting, but I am fully engaged with most of my senses. (Not usually taste, unless you count strong smells, like the salt of the ocean.) Afterwards, I feel peaceful, whole, and connected.

All of these are practices of devotion. First, to the medium itself. Then, to its effectiveness as a pathway to my Self. Writing, yoga, playing music and painting are all forms of devotion to the heart of my heart, to my imagination, abilities, experiences, part and future. To my soul and my purpose. Ultimately, these devotions are a conversation between my individual, unique identity and the greater ground of Being that holds us all. What practices help you to access this love and joy?

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