Meditation Rehab for a Recovering Perfectionist

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Confession: I am an office supply junkie. The Container Store is the closest I’ve ever been to imagining what Heaven looks like. Back-to-School sales of sharpened #2 Ticonderoga pencils and never-opened glue bottles make me swoon. There’s a closet in my bathroom, presumably meant for neatly folded and organized sheets, linens, and towels. Within minutes of moving into my house, I had filled that closet with loose-leaf notebook paper (college ruled and wide-ruled), notebooks (spiral bound and composition), three-ring binders (1/2″ through 3″), construction paper, graph paper, folders (paper, plastic, pocket, pocket with prongs), protractors, rulers, glue sticks, and clipboards. Note that at the time, my child was only 4 months old and all of this was clearly a choking hazard. But it was so pretty and organized! Marie Kondo would be jealous of my office supply closet. I love color-coded calendars and the satisfaction of a fully checked-off to-do list is almost inappropriate to write about. Having a “system”, a flow chart, just makes life easier for me because I know what to expect.

I think I came out of the womb this way, which (happily) made the rigors and routines of school a safe place for me. I always turned my work in on time. My locker was a showcase home. My backpack was like a filing cabinet, everything in proper order by day and organized by colored folder. I never forgot a pencil, let alone an assignment. “Nerd” was a title I embraced (and still do).

And along came my son. I’ll call him B. He didn’t come out of the womb with a checklist and a pocket agenda. He showed up early and ready to be the Mayor through pure charm and charisma. Schedules meant nothing to Baby B – he wanted to eat at all hours of the day (and night). A napping routine? If babies could scoff, he would have. Those “What to Expect” books had met their match with B. He had his own timeline and his own way of doing things from the beginning. And that chaos seemed to make him happy.

His free-form ways have continued through the years. He’s now in high school. He’s happy, social, and kind. B is fair and honest and smart and hilarious. His teachers love him and his friends are fantastic people. But the kid is a mess when it comes to being organized. He forgets assignments because his planner is (gasp) blank! His backpack is more of a fire hazard and to find anything in his room, you better put on a helmet and safety goggles because it’ll be an excavation. It makes me twitch and hyperventilate a little to watch him route through loose and crumbled papers, leaving a trail of schoolwork detritus in his wake.

I’ve tried to help him get organized. I’ve created to-do lists, painstakingly set up in order of due dates. We’ve set up accounts with online flashcards so he can study on his phone. Don’t even get me started on the number of folders and notebooks I have set up with him to keep his subjects in order. And somehow, his room, desk, and backpack still end up looking like the aftermath of a ticker-tape parade – paper everywhere. And yet, if I ask him where a particular paper is, he can reach into the pile on his floor, fish around a bit, and blindly pull out the exact paper, a bit wrinkled and with some sort of food stain on it, but it is still amazing. But the clipboard-carrying nerdy voice in my head keeps rambling about, “if he’d just listen to ME and MY ways of doing things, he’d get his work turned in”. But guess what?

I’m the one that has to adjust, adapt, and accommodate (as Swami Sivananda said). Me. I’m like that scary movie – the stress is coming from inside the house. I’m the one that is bringing anxiety into the situation. ME. Why in the world do I expect my son to function in the same way as I do? Alphabetized bookshelves may make me calm, but not B. A checklist may help me feel in control, but B just feels stifled and pressured.

And maybe he’s onto something. I’m beginning to think that all of my organizing is just my way of feeling like I have control of my life, that if I just create the proper schedule and put it on the calendar, everything will fall magically into place and I’ll skip through life stress-free. Spoiler alert – it’s not working. It never has. I’m beginning to recognize this through my meditation practice. I started to explore meditation because I thought it was all about “mind-control” (Ooooh! More control!). But it turns out, for me, meditation has provided insight into how my mind actually works. When I sit still in meditation, there’s no way for me to filter my thoughts into neat categories. I just watch random bits and pieces float through – song lyrics, to-do lists (of course), physical sensations, worries, memories – every thought is welcomed in its own time. My personal meditation practice, the one that has brought me the most peace, is one where I appreciate the randomness of my thoughts. I used to scold myself for not staying “on topic” while meditating, but now I see that the practice is more about exploring what bubbles up and then bringing my mind back to the present moment. Over and over.

It’s not the organizing and the checklists that make me calmer after all. These physical practices have just been trying to cover up internal busy-ness that I used to find so unsettling. My new calm comes from knowing that even in the midst of chaos and unplanned situations, I have the power to shift my mind out of the turmoil and bring her back into the beauty of the moment.

So thanks, B, for showing me a different way to live.

Now, go clean your room!

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