Here’s the lamest complaint you’ll ever hear from me: I live too close to my workplace.
My walk from office door to home door is but a few minutes. In the past I’ve had long commutes on public transit, on clogged expressways, biking on snow covered roads, and even for a time a daily slog across one of the world’s busiest international borders. So it feels like I’ve arrived at perhaps the greatest work arrangement pretty much anyone could ever have . But here’s the challenge that I’m finding and maybe you can identify with it: there isn’t much time to transition between work and home. What goes on in my office is still going on in my head by the time I’m greeted at the front door by my pipe and slippers. The brief promenade through the neighbourhood just isn’t enough to clear my mind. I’m sure this happens regardless of the commute to some degree.
Transitions can be difficult. Shifting gears, changing mindsets, moving our conscious awareness to where we are now instead of where we’ve just been is something I think a lot of us struggle with. So I suspect I’m not the only one who finds myself sitting at the dinner table only half listening to how my kids’ day went and not tasting whatever I’m putting in mouth because mentally I haven’t left work yet. Isn’t it amazing how your body and mind can be in two different places at the same time?
I let my work effect me at deep levels (I’m a therapist in case you’re just joining us) because that’s one of the things that makes me good at my job. But the transition to home is all the more difficult because like most humans, my feelings often hang around longer than the thing that got me there in the first place. I’ve listened to and empathized with a lot of pain and suffering over the years. It’s a privilege to do so. But it’s the mundane kinds of transitions that can really sneak up on you because you’re not so readily aware of how you’re being affected, or that you’re still somewhere else thinking about everything else except the place you’re in and people around you.
What have I been missing when I’m physically at home but still mentally back at work?
In my quest to rely a little less on autopilot in my everyday life, I’ve started to realize the importance of bring intentionality to the moments of transition. It’s not as simple as clicking your heals together and telling yourself to be here now is it? Mindfulness – being present in this moment – requires some practices; some tools that help you move in that direction through something other than just sheer force of will (or beating yourself about not being better at it already). So I’ve started experimenting with an exercise aimed at helping me make the mental jump from office to home.
Here’s what I’m trying. As I walk home I ask myself some questions like these:
1) Where have you just been and what kind of things happened?
2) How did you feel about the events that happened throughout the workday? (By “feel” I mean more about emotions, and less about judgements or evaluations about the success/failure of my day)
3) What am I leaving behind for now? Do I need to check in with myself later about this or will I be okay leaving it there at the office until I return tomorrow?
4) What is this in-between space like?
5) What am I going to? What do I anticipate about this next thing? Is there something I would like to be mindful of as I enter the upcoming situation?
Now as I’ve bragged about already, my walk isn’t very long so there’s not a lot of time to cover all this ground with myself. But coming up with A+ quality answers isn’t the point. Even if we forget to cover certain aspects of our experience, the aim is to bring greater awareness to our transitions and help our minds follow where our bodies are headed.
If you’re human and reading this, you’ll probably find that mindful transitioning isn’t foolproof. Your mind will still wander back to things that are upsetting, vexing, threatening, or sometimes things that are more attractive than whatever’s going on in your next space. Perhaps you’d rather think about reports than notice the brussels sprout you have to eat because everybody in your house has to have a “no-thank-you” helping even of things they find foul and disgusting. Being present is our eternal struggle, and I fear that technology continues to make this ever more difficult for us. This tendency to wander back shouldn’t make us give up our efforts to come back to the present moment as soon as we recognize our wandering from it. You don’t give up trying to get home after work just because there’s traffic, you find whatever route will get you there quickest in spite of the obstacles (ha ha, or at least I seem to remember this is true, I haven’t fought traffic in a few years so…) The attempt to be present is full of traffic lights, gridlock, construction, detours, and road closures – but we persevere nonetheless.
Mindful transitions are a way of trying to head off the problem of being stuck in our last activity before it gains a whole bunch of momentum. You don’t want to arrive at home 3 hours after your body got there and find out your kids are asleep and your wife went out with friends. And you really don’t want to mentally arrive at home and find out that your kids are grown up and life has passed you by because you never really left the office at all, even on weekends or vacation. (I’m aware that such tragedies occur much too often)
The truth is, none of us have a very long walk – not through life at least. The commute, the journey between birth and death is brief for all of us. Whatever your mode of transportation, take some time in your transitions and invite your mind to be in the same place as your body. See if you can leave some things behind so you don’t miss out on all the wonder that surrounds you in this moment.