Creating a Life Free From Chaos

3 Practices to Discover What You Truly Want

3 Practices to Discover What You Truly WantThis is a guest post by Melissa Joan Walker.

I know that I feel better when I live a life in keeping with my deepest values, yet I get derailed sometimes. We all do. I say yes when I mean no, I overcommit and overschedule. I keep my commitments outside the house, and then I’m too tired to connect with my family. I say, “I’m great!” when I mean, “Well, tired and burnt out, really, but…” When these times hit, there are three spiritual practices that bring me back to what I truly want.

Prayer, journaling, and gratitude — these are tools we can use.

It’s easy to find myself with a million important tasks staring me in the face (volunteering at my son’s school library, the PTA position they asked me to help out with, finding a financial advisor to help our family plan, matching all the Tupperware to their lids so I don’t want to kill myself when I’m trying to put the dinner leftovers in the fridge, schedule a dentist appointment for my son, and for myself, and for my husband…)

No wonder I feel like I’m drowning.

Nowhere on that list, you notice, is a date night with my husband, or a trip to the beach with my son, or my own goals — writing a book, or finding a new gym that I actually like, or lying on my bed reading the amazing novel I recently bought.

But every time I turn around I’m being reminded, Your son will be in college before you know it! And (as our marriage counselor grimly, but effectively, put it years ago), “Date nights are cheaper than divorce.” Geez. No pressure.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed, there are so many things to do that I have no idea what to do.

But luckily there’s a solution to this overwhelm. Here are three spiritual practices can cut through this confusion and overwhelm: prayer, journaling, and gratitude.

1. Prayer

First things first. I pray. If you don’t believe in any specific God, or if you’re not sure, that’s ok. You can pray to the Universe. Just call out, “Help!” My experience is, it will come.

For me, I focus by getting down on my knees, right in my living room at my orange corduroy sofa, or on my knees in the kitchen when I’m faced with a crazy day and my son is playing in the living room, or even in the bathroom. (For many parents, that’s the only privacy we have. Depending on your kid’s age, you may not even have that!)

I pray: God, help me. I’m so overwhelmed. Please let me know what you want me to do today and then help me do it because I am overwhelmed. (I really want God to get that point about the overwhelm.)

Prayer helps me to remember that there is something that can help me. I’m not in this alone. That the whole world’s healing is not up to me, that the work of the world, of my son’s school, or even of our family, that all this work is not on my shoulders alone. This is a shared job and I have a lot of help available to me.

2. Journaling

Journaling is all about awareness and discovery.

I have two journals — a fancy one that’s for “feelings” and then a regular, one-subject notebook. This is the one I dig out when I’m not even sure WHAT I think (often we don’t want to “waste” the good journal, so these cheap notebooks are super helpful) and I just start writing.

Julia Cameron proposes “morning pages” in her book The Artist’s Way — three pages of freehand writing about whatever comes to your mind to say. And when I do this, even if I’m not sure what I think — I find it comes to the surface and I discover what’s bothering me.

Morning pages are a map that appears before me as I write. They may not tell me where I’m going, but they tell me where I am, which is often all the information I need in order to figure out my next right step.

So, journaling. Three pages. See what comes out.

Often what I discover in my journaling is that I’m doing a lot to just please other people. I’m on the school committee not because it’s the best use of my talents and skills, but so parents I don’t really know won’t think I’m lazy.

Resentments and overwhelm creep up on us and we often don’t know what’s going on, why we feel so spent and irritable. Journaling helps us get to what’s really bothering us so we can start to look for solutions.

3. Gratitude

I have two methods for gratitude and I like to do them together. The first is an exercise from Melody Beattie’s book Make Miracles in 40 Days: Turning What You Have into What You Want. I call it the anti-gratitude list.

Here, you start with the phrase: “Today, I am grateful that:”

And then you list 5-10 things that are bothering you.

So, I’ll start.

Today, I am grateful that:

  1. My husband’s car was rear-ended.

  2. I feel tired and dirty today. I need a shower.

  3. I weigh 15 pounds more than I’d like.

  4. We live in a tiny apartment.

  5. My husband works so much.

(I sound gross, I know, but it’s not that bad. Keep reading.)

How does this work, you ask? Who wants to focus on all these things we don’t like in our lives? What about the Law of Attraction and all that?

That’s where the miracle comes in. As we write these things down, our minds say, “What? Why? Why am I happy about the dented car?”

And then the miracle occurs: Our minds start to answer.

So, my list becomes

Today, I am grateful that:

  1. My husband’s car was rear-ended. (At least we have two cars!)

  2. I feel tired and dirty today. (Yes, from climbing a literal MOUNTAIN with my husband when he had an unexpected day off today and our son was in school. Pretty sweet deal.)

  3. I weigh 15 pounds more than I’d like. (Ok. 15 pounds, yes. But I’m still in the “normal range” and this is without trying. Basically eating whatever I want and hardly ever working out. Pretty lucky, really!)

  4. We live in a tiny apartment. (In an amazing city, in a walkable neighborhood, right between the arts district and our son’s school, and a couple blocks from the Whole Foods, the library, and the best french fries I’ve ever eaten in my whole entire life. Pretty sweet.)

  5. My husband works so much. (Yes, and he earns a decent salary for it. He supports our whole family. I can take our son to school and pick him up each day. We go on vacations and have two cars. We live the life of our choosing. Yes, my husband works a lot, but we have a decent life because of it. I’m grateful for it.)

See what happened there: I went from unhappy about these things to being lucky in the midst of these five things. Those five problems became five blessings right before my eyes.

And then I follow this up with gratitude. Regular old gratitude. Because it feels good.

  1. I can plug my phone into my car and listen to whatever music I want, all the time.

  2. School started and I have my days back to myself. I can do my own projects, and I’ll get to see my friends on the playground while my son plays after school.

  3. My son learned to ride a bike a couple weeks ago.

  4. It’s so sunny today.

We have a lot of training to forget our values. The world loves it when we do this because we are easily manipulated than to fulfill the needs of whoever is pressing us. But when we remember the values and commitments that are most important to us, we can live a life that’s truly precious to us, rather than one that’s just draining and overwhelming.

And these practices — prayer, journaling, and gratitude — can be done again and again. We can do them daily or we can pick them up once in awhile when we feel like we’re off the beam. We don’t have to let these practices become another item on our to-do lists or a way to try to impress ourselves. We can reconnect with ourselves when we feel off track or feel drained.

So let’s try this now.

Just gratitude. Easy! What’s one thing you’re grateful for?

Melissa Joan Walker’s writing has appeared in several outlets, including the Denver Quarterly; Sentence; Banshee; theNewerYork; After Hours; Orion Headless; Parable Press; Ignavia; Wunderkammer Poetry; Disembodied Text; Yes, Poetry; Split Rock Review; Tablet and on the Manifest-Station. She holds an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and lives in Portland, OR, with her family. Find Melissa on Twitter.