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The "New Normal" as an Old Practice

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Having traveled to 41 countries over a year (8 months before the COVID-19 outbreak) with our family of five (my husband, Kapil, eldest son, Zayan (age 13), daughter, Kenza (age 10), and youngest son, Kaysan (AKA Kaysee; age 8), and me), we now find ourselves in a context that is all at once, both familiar and strange. This reflection on our traveling experiences serves as a parallel to our current opportunity in creating yet another, “new normal.”

Cover Photo: Taken April 2020 (Week 3 of Shelter-In-Place for the COVID-19 global pandemic).

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I feel present to the “norming” (with the “storming” and “forming”) and “re-norming” cycles that we have participated in for the last three years. From the pre-trip “normal” of Bay Area hustle and bustle where there was a lot of self-imposed urgency to produce that looked like all of the following behaviors and actions (familiar to most of us “achiever” personality types):

  • cross off items on the ever-giving, never-ending “to do” list

  • quickly stock-up depleted items the very moment they were used (via Amazon mobile order)

  • juggle multiple demands of work by day (drive to various client sites and build a business)

  • manage numerous extracurricular activities for the kids

  • carve out time with friends and family

  • plan for our yearlong trip during the night and weekends

The “doing” was the marker of success and a lack of productivity was unacceptable, or rather literally a waste of time. Our lives were full and noisy!

From a “Doing” to “Being” Mindset

It took us a few months to arrive at our “trip normal” which really centered on just “being.” We had to learn what it really meant to be present with each other day-in and day-out. We had to confront what we liked and didn’t like about each other, which ultimately meant that each person had to reconcile our feelings about his/her own SELF. Our insecurities played out in strange ways with each other as we shifted our validation structures and worked on new challenges of personal discomfort. Sure, we had near daily distractions of being in new places and on new adventures, but each of us carried some personal expectation of “pleasure” to be sought. Quite simply, each of us wanted this to be a good experience, and though we had differing definitions of a “good time,” we all seemed to share a common understanding of a “bad time.”

In this new “normal” we soon learned that success was dependent on our ability to be “present” and introspective because it was a very closed condition. At any given time, one person’s antics, moods, or desires would detract from access to another’s sense of deserved pleasure. In other words, if we didn’t want a “bad time” we had to learn how to stay focused on our current enjoyment and co-create a pleasurable experience by keeping our own ego in check. At the end of the day, there was no “escaping” each other—no escaping the mirrors of ourselves held by the other family members.

As we got better at “being” present, the “doing” of homeschool and trip documentation was increasingly devalued. In fact, the doing part of our trip often caused friction and messed with the enjoyment of our collective being (i.e. the kids would complain about schoolwork, we would get frustrated, and then the kids would dislike it even more, and so on…). Over time, our definitions of a good time started to align to moments when we were all experiencing something together without a power structure. A shared experience of awe, horror, shock, learning, creating, etc., triangulated that experience outside of us as a unit, and brought us closer together.

The strategy in this “normal” was to value being together as a family, wherein we learned to hone our intuitive and empathetic lenses to anticipate each other’s reactions to new environments. Our diligent practice of interpersonal communication skills was our method for achieving the intended outcome: a pleasurable experience with each other.

Collective Flow in “Togetherness”

Though in reality, self-discovery is an unending process, one year of intensely working on it can yield a level of mastery that allows for a collective flow/vibe, or equilibrium. With the relentless pursuit of “being in the moment” the collective begins to solve for unmet needs at the individual level. Depending on the circumstances of our travel, Kapil got his alone time and exercise done in the early mornings, I got my writing time in night, and the kids got at least an hour on an electronic device.

This phase is like any other marriage or partnership, where after the honeymoon phase, two people learn the ins and outs of each other in a way where they can begin to align for a greater pleasurable goal. And to take that analogy further, many partnership problems surface when there is a lack of clarity in the goal or a lack of understanding or agreement on the definition of what is pleasurable for both parties. When the team is not aligned, overlooked and unmet needs at the individual level begin to meddle with the momentum towards the collective goal.

The point is that in our togetherness, our stress became about navigating our personal and collective flaws of the sake of safety, if nothing else. We were all we had in a new country and we were willing to make compromises and learn how to work on ourselves for the greater good of staying on the trip together…and protecting the togetherness, begot more of the togetherness worth protecting.

Fatigue = Unmet Need(s)

When your individual needs are not being met, it’s exhausting. The reverse is also true that when you are fatigued (maybe even from a great/fun reason), your desire to address your individual need(s) heightens. Well, after 12 months on the road, fatigue and the anticipation of a big change, caused a shift of our own needs, thus causing the equilibrium to falter. The impending change (in our case, coming home) threatened the understanding of our collective goal (what was success going to mean for us when we got home) and left little room for “being present” to the little joys of the moment. The fatigue from traveling meant that we were more present to our individual needs than that of the larger goal and we were less motivated to use our intuition, empathy, and communication skills.

While in our 40th country, Cambodia, as the kids began romanticizing about all they would indulge in when they got home, their focus on the collective goal changed. We all seemed to pretty much be over the “being in togetherness” stuff.. On top of that, we were all fatigued and our usual tendencies for self-preservation and survival started to kick-in. I started focusing on the “doing” which has always been a strong suit for me which took the form of “let’s visit every temple we can,” regardless of the heat; the kids went to their strategies of success—being obstinate—which looked like complaints and disagreements about anything they could come up with; and Kapil responded with one of his go-to strategies of distancing himself from the conflict, which meant that he would largely stay quiet and leave each person to interpret his silence for themselves (i.e. bad mood, tacit agreement with a particular side, and/or lack of partnership). This shifted temporarily when we traveled to a “vacation spot” on Song Saa Island, where there was absolutely no demand on anyone, and thus no conflict. Still, the overall team goal of togetherness felt like it was starting to fade fast. It was almost as if a new cycle of emotional distance was starting to form.

Magical (or Positively Disruptive) Moment

What I now know is that to disrupt the momentum of the downward spiral of fatigue, it takes real leadership, to muster the energy and authenticity required, to “see” each individual and remind him/her of the power of the collective goal.

In our case, that magical moment was 100% catalyzed by Kapil’s leadership. It was not until our last day in Hong Kong (which was transitory 41st country for us), where Kapil broke the cycle of distance and read aloud letters he had written to each of us. We were seated on a the terrace of a large hotel lobby and a brass band was playing in the foyer. As a professional facilitator who thinks about creating “safe spaces” for vulnerability, I can tell you that the conditions were terrible for this conversation! Yet, when Kapil started reading each letter, wherein he really “saw” us for our gifts and who we had become to him and to each other, we all broke down in tears. ALL of us sobbed…not just a tear here or there, or a dabbing of the nose, but irregular breathing, snotty, tear-dripping-chin kind of crying. Kapil’s leadership reoriented us back to the collective whole because through his witnessing and his own expression of emotion, he met our unmet need to be seen. That day, Kapil declared our yearlong goal of travel and togetherness a victory for our team.

New Normal = Reframe of Expectations

It took us six months or so to reintegrate back home, or really to define a “new normal” for our family. In this reframe, we aligned on creating a definition of “pleasure” that merged the ideas of what success looked like before the trip (i.e. connection with family and friends, and success in school and work), along with the “family togetherness” concept we lived while on our trip. To do this meant that we had to create some boundaries of time and energy to protect space for us to just “be” together, free from distractions that may be pleasing to aspects of our individual selves but do not serve the collective team. Those boundaries ranged from conversations with grandparents and friends on the expectations of time together, to remaining present with each other by limiting (or in some cases eliminating) work, extra community commitments, alcohol, and electronics. We carved out time and space for rituals around being together (e.g. nightly weekday reading time, family shows, family hiking/outings, rock-climbing, boxing, etc.) and prioritized our further skill-development (i.e. therapy, prayerful practices, and life-coaching). Success in this “norm” was about finding adventure and magic as a family, in the day-to-day of life at home.

Personally, I was afraid of slipping back into old habits of “doing” and getting back to the “noisy" and crazed energy that surrounded our lives. I very intentionally worked on “holding things lightly” wherein I didn’t place "efficiency and perfection” in front of being present. I realized that by keeping the “doing” at bay, I invited more connection and surprise into my life that served me. The mantra became, “I am choosing CONNECTION over PERFECTION” and “prefer what is occurring—surrender to surprise” and they worked to open up a new energy in our house.

The new way of “being” in our house meant that the formal dining table became a rock painting art station or a puzzle workspace and a laundry basket sat by the TV to be folded. Things didn’t get put away so quickly and I didn’t race to restock and fix everything that got used up. One example that solidifies this principle is story of the “Zen Bathroom.”

We have a small closet-like guest bathroom without windows and with sensor-activated fluorescent lighting—and the bulb died. The “doing-first” Aila would have quickly added it to a “to do list,” gotten the replacement bulb from the garage (because it would have been pre-stocked for replacements), purchased a new bulb from my phone app for the replacement stash, replaced the bulb (either by nagging Kapil or doing it right away with a stool and tools), and nobody would’ve known it went out. The “being-first” Aila took a more relaxed approach with a mindset that sounded like this: “When it is so bothersome that it has to be replaced, it will get done.”

A day later, when we had a guest coming (pre-COVID), I placed a candle in the bathroom for light. OMG! It became a secret zen cave! I can’t tell you how amazing it was to go into that bathroom…and it wasn’t just me that felt that way…all of us did! I found myself trying to make myself have to pee so that I could have an excuse to use that bathroom! It brought so much delight that when one day Kapil replaced the bulb, I was sad. I purposely have not bought a replacement bulb and am excited for the day that the bulb gets fused and we have to wait at least a week until we have time to go to the hardware store and find its replacement.

Moral of the story: Being present and choosing to spend time on connection (with relationships that matter) over perfection (and efficiency on eliminating “to do” items) = unexpected surprises! This is exactly what happened when we traveled…and I now know that the magic was in the “discovery”—even if it was discovering something new or experiencing something different of an ordinary bathroom!

Sheltering-In-Place Code-Switching

Sheltering-in-place amplifies whatever is present in a given relationship or context….and while it may be a mixed bag of good feelings and frustrations…in all cases, it presents windows of opportunity on what might need some attention. For us, in this new context, we are learning how to blend two familiar contexts: the “post-trip normal” of different motivations and “doing” stuff (e.g., wanting space, investing in friendships, etc.) and the “during-trip normal” of physical togetherness and “being” present.

Living between these two familiar contexts does require code-switching in and out of our “doing” and “being.” Personally, this code-switching has caused me some internal confusion, as my uptick in “doing” detracts from my “being.” I find myself reverting back to the urgency and noise of a very full work “to do list” but without the validation that I used to give myself for “getting it all done,” especially because there is so much family togetherness to pay attention to! I’m getting physically tired from looking at Zoom screens all day long which means, I feel myself getting uncentered regularly—a space from which I make short-sided and reactionary decisions.

For the kids, the lack of physical interaction with their friends and family reminds them of our traveling year, except for ONE HUGE difference--video games and digital social interaction. The connection to their friends and an external world through the screen is important, yet addictive. In this world where they know the boundary between them and their screens is merely parental control, boredom doesn’t stand a chance as a motivator. For them, sheltering-in-place detracts from their need to connect with their peers, and “being” with our family feels less like a novelty.

At Week #9 of sheltering-in place, the fatigue and uncertainty of what lays ahead has meant that the “togetherness” flow remains steadily challenged. For now, we still have the overriding motivation to frame the collective team goal as one of staying safe, healthy, and helpful through this unprecedented time...and yet achievement of this goal does require effort from everyone.

Old Tricks in a New Normal: Practice Makes Perfect

Personally, I have some practice at re-orienting myself (sometimes multiple times per day) to stay centered on the exact “present moment”. It is really hard and I sometimes get frustrated with myself that I can’t seem to “figure it out” for long stints. Kapil, who is naturally better that the “being” than I am, has blended the “doing” of our family logistics (e.g. meals, bike rides, groceries, etc.) to provide me with less distraction from my work, which means that sometimes it is hard to stop working...and even harder to quiet my mind. And yet, my staying present is extremely catalytic in the family team goal space and has been my measure of self-validation for nearly two years.

I am learning that I rely on strategies that open-up space for me to be quiet in mind and body so that I can adventure and discover something unexpected, even if I am actually still physically in the same place! Below are some of my reflections (gained through intentional coaching) on what seem to work for me, and serve as a reminder on ways for me to access my deeper “knowing.” I am hoping that some of these might be helpful for others who are trying to iterate their own practices too.

  1. Keep Phone/Non-Essential Tech Away: About one day a week, I “unplug” from technology to let my mind wander without distractions of my own efficiency (Amazon shopping lists, quick Google searches, social media, calls, texts, emails). Nightly, my phone is away from me in the kitchen, and in the mornings, I try to wait 30-60 mins before I check my phone so that my mind has time to be unencumbered by my email inbox. Recently, as a family, we had to do a one-week tech cleanse to take non-essential technology out of the equation and re-center as a family (which totally worked by the way).

  2. Breathe Deeply: Some may call this meditation though I don’t do it as formally anymore. I have been using a strategy called “Heartmath” with my coach where I breath four breaths in and out from my heart space to slow me down and get in-touch with my center and my needs.

  3. Walk Regularly: I used to walk every morning for 30-60 mins and listen to a book and/or let my mind wander. I have really slipped out of the regularity of this practice, as I have started using my morning time to get focused work done before everyone wakes up. As I write this, I am inspired to go back to this practice.

  4. Create: My new favorite pastime is to paint rocks with kind messages or a lot of color and leave them all over the community for others to find. It brings me real joy to create and hide these treasures! Other creative outlets for me have been gardening, baking, and writing.

  5. Celebrate the Little Things: This is about finding/making events to create rituals and activities even in small moments. When the kids were in school, I created a personal daily ritual of writing them each a note in their lunch. It was a small way to communicate my affection to them during the day. The lunch notes became so popular with their friends that on the occasional missed note, the kids said that their friends noticed and asked if I was ok! The themes were Motivational Monday (inspirational quote), Tender Tuesday (a love note that would usually come back crumbled because the kids would hide them out of embarrassment), Wacky Wednesday (a joke and the most popular among the kids’ friends), Thankful Thursday (expressing gratitude about each of them), and Fun Fact Friday (tailored to their favorite interests)! This ritual kept me grounded in what is important to me--my family.

  6. Journal and Get Curious: One of my near-daily activities over the last two years has been to intention a question for the day. As I came home and restarted life-coaching, my journal/jot-downs were sometimes about 3x per day (for 1-2 mins) for me to notice my habits/behaviors/distractions-- shifting from self-reflection (afterthoughts) to self-observation (more timely noticing). Some classic questions that keep me in the moment during different times of the day are the following:

    1. What emotions are being amplified in this moment? Why? What do I choose to do about the windows of opportunity I see?

    2. What I am holding tightly?

    3. What is my highest good at this moment? What project/task do I have energy for right now?

    4. What/who will surprise me today?

    5. What am I feeling in my body?

  7. Build Community: To find and create ways to recognize “common unity” with others is to enter an upward spiral of positive energy. While all of these strategies are relevant and grounding, community kindness has emerged as extra critical during this global pandemic. Over the “shelter-in-place” time, our family has worked on a new community kindness project each week and it has given us a way to stay connected/or build connections with people who might otherwise go unnoticed (i.e. postal delivery people, local grocer, healthcare workers, etc.)

  8. Keep the Faith: For me, staying connected spiritually to a greater force (God, the Universe, etc.), facilitates personal humility. I find the power of prayer (in whatever form is relevant to the seeker) as a useful tool of connection to a deeper knowing. It is a space for renewal and a re-commitment to try again to “be” my best-self and to allow the Universe to unfold exactly as it should, even if I can’t make sense of it in the moment.

  9. Express Gratitude: As I understand it, there is a very strong correlation between gratitude and well-being and I personally can attest to this connection. At various points in my life, it has been helpful to journal what I am grateful for to think of what could be worse, but expressing or acting upon that gratitude, takes it to another level of honesty. While trekking in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal, harder hikes forced me to create a rhythm of thanking each of my blessings from my body parts, traits, family, friends, etc. I chanted “I am grateful for my/the X” in my head for hours and never repeated a subject of gratitude. I am a firm believer that this practice yields perspective and that new vantage point can offer up some space for a different emotion/experience in a given moment.

  10. Redefine Balance: Balance has never been a static state for me, but more like a circular process for me of finding it, vibing with it, losing it, reevaluating, and trying again. Recently, this quote resonated with my understanding of it all:

"Balance is timing, not intensity.
It is not doing multiple tasks at 80%, but developing the skill of turning it on and turning it off.
Sleep fully, then work intensely. Focus deeply, then relax completely. Give each phase your full attention.
Balance is 'when to' not 'how to.'"
-James Clear

The clarity I have from our travels and all of this framing and reframing is that I want to leave this planet complete in my relationships with those closest to me…and that starts with bettering my own self so that I can be present and contribute my full expression to them. I am declaring myself and this moment as “a work in progress” and while these 9 weeks have not always been easy (and there will likely be many more weeks of uncertainty to follow), I remain grateful for the opportunity to refine old practices that will still be relevant in any “new normal.”

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