Mid-Year Review 2021

This is my first time writing such a review, and my first time sharing it publicly. Also, this is my first blog post in about 5 years. I’m excited to be rekindling this blog.

When I first started reflecting on 2021, I thought about how I’ve fallen way short of my wishes for the year. My conflicts did not magically dissolve. But as my friend John beautifully put it:  “Might it be that not being able to be true to our values all the time creates the necessary and healthy conflict we need to progress in deeper understanding of who we are?”

One of the lessons I learned in 2020 was that making meaning takes time and work, but is worth it. Writing a long review like this is a form of meaning-making, writing therapy, even. I feel better about the last six months after having written this.

My word for 2021 was nourishing. So, how’s it going?

Some things that have been nourishing to my soul so far this year: travels, reading, writing, getting into a “groove” in my job, slowing down, embodiment and starting a shabbat practice. 

One realization I’ve come to is that life is a lot more fun when I see it as an adventure rather than a checkbox. It’s easy to get into the checkbox mentality when living in an intellectual monoculture of people who think the same way as me, strive for the same things. My competitive / comparative / “I am deficient” neurons seem to light up quite easily in these circumstances.

Travelling gets me out of the checkbox mindset by illuminating alternative lives and the vastness of the world. Even meeting new people at a party can have a similar effect. This past 6 months I’ve met expats and natives in St. Thomas, board game enthusiasts in Philly, musicians living the van life in Acadia National Park, and a 14 year-old-anime enthusiast at a Christmas-in-July party.

On the work front, I have found a groove in the outpatient world. I love connecting with people and hearing their stories. I’m filled with wonder at the diversity of people I get to meet, the diversity of worlds I get to enter. I’m realizing that you really cannot judge a book by its cover. People are so unique: if you keep asking questions, they will tend to surprise you.

Outpatient work feels like travelling at times. I’m like a cab driver or barber in that I get to hear many different people’s stories. With less time-scarcity and interruptions than inpatient work, my compassion for people’s suffering can blossom. I’m somewhat of a neurologist, somewhat of a counsellor, and this mix changes depending on the patient’s needs. At times, I find myself daydreaming about pursuing therapy or environmental work or teaching, but for now I’m very grateful to find work that pays the bills, is energetically sustainable, gives me a sense of wonder, puts me in flow, and helps others.

I started reading physical books this year, a different experience than listening because multitasking is impossible when reading (though I do on occasion see read-walkers!). Some standout books so far: Existential Psychotherapy, The Choice, The Dispossessed, The Alchemist, On Friendship, Love and Will, Designing your Life. I also started watching more shows. I’ve enjoyed Crazy Ex Girlfriend, Tuca and Bertie, Shtisel, Soul, Shrill. It’s been great to co-watch and discuss.

It has been challenging but rewarding to practice slowing down this year. Some things that have helped me slow down: making my calendar more airy (leaving space between things, doing less), outsourcing laundry, cleaning, and taxes (I’m lucky and grateful to be able to do this). I spent quite a bit of time this past 6 months toying with “productivity systems” and they all seem to be glorified versions of the dictum: write it down. Over time — and it does seem to be taking a lot of time — I am developing a trust that the pieces of my life are accounted for in the system, and most notably, I will be OK.

I started writing with more regularity this year. In my blogging days I got sucked into the dark side of online writing: seeking likes. I realize now that what I enjoy most about writing is its ability to help me connect the dots of my life. I also enjoy interacting with people about my writing. Thank you to anyone who replied to my emails.

I want to let go of the idea of developing an online following/monetization. I have a main career that I’m reasonably happy with, so there’s no reason for me to stress out seeking a side hustle, as fashionable as that may be these days. Here’s to embracing my identity as an amateur writer who makes no money but enjoys writing.

Getting in touch with my body was a major theme of the first half of my year. I started many movement practices: running, free movement, HIT workouts and Yin Yoga.

Running is a liminal space where “the body moves and the mind grooves,” in the words of Henry. It is so easy to get caught up in the screen-world, the world of other people’s ideas. On a run, I love to experience my ideas and emotions bouncing up against each other freely. It’s a great space for daydreaming. It’s also nice to practice loving-kindness on runs, silently wishing strangers well as I encounter them, and sometimes cheering them on with a smile or word of encouragement.

I’ve also enjoyed alternating running with high intensity interval training workouts. Sweating is surprisingly fun and enlivening. Especially followed by a cold shower in the summertime. 

Cory Muscara terms the “pain box” the place where we stay because we are afraid of discomfort. By moving towards the experiences of discomfort, a greater array of life is possible to explore. Cold showers / running in the rain are simplistic ways to demonstrate this to myself. I skinny dipped in cold ocean water in Maine – initially uncomfortable both physically and socially. I “faced my fears” and felt great. I don’t think I would have done that without the prep with cold showers.

Free movement is something I’ve done in various forms before (AcroYoga, Contact Improv, Ecstatic dance) but I realized that the simple practice of listening to my body and moving where it wants to go is great for feeling embodied. It’s amazing how much joy I can feel in a few moments of this free movement. It’s a similar feeling to doing improv exercises. Both help dissolve rigidity and help me enter an open, curious, joyful head/heartspace.

Related to embodiment is not self-medicating. For instance, if I get bad sleep and avoid self-medicating with coffee, I might be more motivated to optimize my sleep. I started the year with a bit of exuberance toward drugs when I read Carl Hart’s Drug Use for Grown-Ups and gleefully watched Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. As the year progressed, I saw several young people hurt by opiate overdose, including one young man who died in a heartbreaking way. To be sure, drug testing, decriminalization and stigma reduction can save lives, as seen in Portugal. However, it seems to me that any mind-altering substance can become a distraction from the project of living a good life (as the Greeks knew). I’m grateful to have discovered Focusmate as a tool to help me focus on boring work, which helped me avoid using stimulants as a crutch. Wim Hof put it best: “Get high off your own supply.” 

I did a workshop called VIEW. The workshop was marketed as revolutionary, but really, it wasn’t. That said, I learned some useful things: don’t have emotions at people, ask how/what questions from a place of curiosity. Notably, at one point I rigidly applied this mindset in a context where it did not fit, which taught me that context really matters. It seems that I default to being a “diligent student” around personal development. But life is not AP biology class. Real personal development involves cherry picking what works for me, and judiciously applying the good stuff in the appropriate context. As my mom wrote to me in a poem when I graduated high school: spit out the junk and gulp down what’s right. 

I also got back into meditation, after several years away from it. I re-entered the practice more flexibly than before. I listen to a smattering of guided meditations, and occasionally do silent meditations. I dived into self-compassion meditation, and it has been a jarring experience to see that my self-talk is often quite cruel. 

I’ve tried many new things the last 6 months that I’ve let go of: expressive writing, Obsidian, yoga practice, “learning in public.” For a time I was filled with a verve and vigor about these things, but they have not stuck. Maybe I’ll return to some of these in the future, and maybe not.

The phrase for the next 6 months is active choosing

I realized this year that I have been outsourcing my decisions to an “expert” (e.g. coach or therapist). By and large, I have chosen the life that I have. It is ultimately me, not some credentialed consultant, that must actively choose what’s in my life. 

I want to be engaged with my life, not somewhere in my head thinking of some better fantasy reality. Another way to phrase engagement is going from between to in, from FOMO to JOMO, from decision paralysis to choosing and letting go. 

I painted the above watercolor of myself running to represent what engaged, active choosing feels like. When I start a run, I am excited. I choose to do the run. I commit and go for it. I want to bring this active choosing to more areas of my life.

One tool I think can help is a prototyping mindset, which means wholeheartedly trying something out (grokking a choice as the book Designing Your Life puts it) and seeing how the choice lands experientially.

Things I’m excited to explore / keep exploring in the second half of 2020:

  • Self-compassion meditation and a regular meditation practice
  • Embodiment (free movement, listening to my body)
  • Running, HIT and cold showers
  • Connecting with my patients (specifically in the outpatient setting)
  • Reading (fiction goals for 2021: The Dispossessed, Two Brothers)
  • Prototyping my decisions wholeheartedly
  • Moving towards discomfort (physical and emotional).
  • Slowing down
  • Creativity (poetry, art, writing)
  • Group therapy
  • Improv games
  • Time in nature (bird watching/mushroom hunting too)

Open Questions for the next 6 months, and beyond:

  1. What makes life worth living?
  2. How can I increase the love, joy, and gratitude in my life in a way that feels natural and true to myself?
  3. How can I improve the health of the planet? How can we raise children that do this too?
  4. How can I keep my strengths (e.g. curiosity, honesty, appreciation of beauty) top of mind, and use them on a daily basis?
  5. How can I weave my interest in therapy / authentic connection into my work as a neurologist?
  6. How can I get in closer touch with my feelings and act skillfully in alignment with them?
  7. From the vantage point of old age, what would a life that is “ripe” look like (aka a life with minimal regrets)? What would a life with maximum regret look like? 
  8. What do I want to feel in my life?
  9. What is enough (money, freedom, job satisfaction, friendship, love etc.)?
  10. What attributes of myself are core to my identity and things that I should not compromise on? Related: How do I want to be remembered? How can I live my life in a way that I know I’ll be proud of?
  11. How can I better align my chosen path with the things that truly matter to me?
  12. What are the birds saying to each other?

That’s a wrap for this review. Thanks for reading!

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