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Crafting Mindfulness After Escaping the Corporate World Due to Illness

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I have long relied on my brain to earn a living. So when I met individuals that supported themselves through manual labor or crafting work, I felt cerebral snobbery. I thought I had the advantage over them because I was fortunate to get my fair share of grey matter when the Gods handed out genetic fairy dust. So I didn’t have to use my hands.

I would encounter craftspeople beading away at outdoor art shows and comment on their jewelry. “That’s an adorable piece,” I would remark. “It looks like you are having fun.” How artsy-craftsy of them.

Crafting was for women who wore sensible shoes, floral, loose-fitting tunics, discussed who said what on The View, talked about their “amazing” children, and pushed around red carts at Michael’s Arts and Crafts Supply store while their kids were at school and husbands at work. As a former swim-with-the-sharks businesswoman, I reasoned that crafting was OK for moms, but not for me. I had real work to do. Money to make.

But my work productivity came to a grinding halt when I got sick in 2016. Like connected-to-the EKG-saline-drip-and-blood-pressure-machine-for-weeks-on-end sick. Like so scary sick that I got religion (temporarily).

My decades-old lifestyle of working in the fast-paced corporate world partially caused my stress-related disease. As a former business executive, I did whatever it took to meet the CEO’s impossible demands. My comrades and I would frequently fuel up on Starbucks at 6 p.m. to power through our second work shift of crunching numbers and rewriting business proposals. The daily pressure was intense, so we often blew off steam after work by indulging in decadent meals and generous amounts of alcohol.

My work ethic, and associated unhealthy coping strategies, began to take a toll on me physically and mentally. So in midlife, I gave up a successful career in business to become a licensed psychotherapist. But like the adage says, “wherever you go, there you are,” so I found myself still working fast and furiously in the healing arts profession.

I became a social justice advocate, helping children of color who were harmed by the mental health system. And that’s what ultimately landed me in the hospital. The relentless pursuit of social justice and my pre-existing health condition contributed to a near-fatal illness.

As I recovered from the illness, I vowed to reduce my stress, eat better, exercise more, and be kinder towards family and friends. But, most importantly, I promised to slow down and abolish my workaholic ways. My life depended on it.

In my recovery, I learned that the art of slowing down was far more challenging to achieve than the race of keeping up.

Science explains why change can be so tricky. Neuroscience demonstrates that as we learn new behaviors, we form neural pathways in our brains — like tiny train tracks. These tracks are the conduits that connect thoughts and catalyze behavior. Every time we think or act, the neural pathways deepen within our brain, imprinting the learned behavior. With repetition and time, the neural pathways become like superhighways of learning. Thoughts become automatic. Behaviors turn rote. And, voila, a new habit is formed.

People who want to stop unhealthy habits are usually motivated by an emerging thought. They will attempt to use this cognition to eliminate unwanted behaviors or addictions. However, since it’s a novel thought, it may take time for the brain to build the necessary pathways to transform ideas into actions. Without a clear path, well-intentioned notions fizzle out, reducing the likelihood that our thoughts will manifest into actions.

It only takes a nanosecond for this switch to occur. If you ever had powerful motivations for eating healthy but then in a moment gave into a greasy and cheesy meal, chances are your thoughts took the road of least resistance, succumbing to the entrenched neural pathway of pleasure.

When I decided to slow down, I realized that I had to establish new neural pathways. That is why I considered beading. I reasoned that the moment-by-moment focus on stringing beads would teach me how to empty my brain and live in the now — the antidote to stress.

I tried beading after visiting a Native American store in my town. I walked into the store, and without exchanging pleasantries, I eagerly said, “I need to start beading. How do I get started?”

“Good afternoon,” the shop owner replied, sighing with a sense of annoyance, which was a red flag for me.

Ooops, my neural pathways discharged a nasty remnant of the past. Authoritarian commands anachronistically oozed from the recesses of my mind, echoing orders I once barked to employees when I was a boss lady.

My rehabilitation as a recovering corporate escapee has been a never-ending change process. To obliviate undesirable personality traits, I have had to rewire my neural pathways through intentional acts, focusing on people, not task completion. However, like the change I see my patients go through, it’s three steps forward, two steps back.

Fortunately, I recovered from the blunder. I walked a few steps closer to the shop owner and introduced myself as her neighbor. I chit-chatted with her, and she showed me around the store. She told me the best way to begin beading was to “just jump in.”

“But how?” I questioned, hoping I could quickly bypass the learning curve.

She answered with the wisdom of a sage, saying, “It’s a process. You will figure it out. It will come if you stick with it.”

I purchased about $20.00 of gemstones/beading supplies and went home to make my first bracelet. It was wonky and rough, with big ugly plastic knots on the bracelet and twisted wires poking out from the gemstone caps. My first batch of earrings was pathetic, lopsided with moving parts that often detached. A few times during my therapy sessions, I had to apologize to the clients because I noticed my deconstructed necklace on the floor, with hundreds of colorful beads rolling around and in between the legs of my clients.

Now, I have learned to wire wrap beads, hide knots, and crimp ends. It was a process to learn the basics of beading, but the most important skill I learned was the art of slowing down.

I created hundreds of original pieces, so I decided to sell them at boutiques. Recently, I visited one of these stores to pick up my winnings. I consider profit from my crafts winnings because I get paid to play. The shop owner greeted me and said my jewelry inventory was low, and I had almost sold out. She asked if I could make a duplicate bracelet for a client who requested it.

I had monetized my artsy-craftsy hobby. I was ecstatic but realized that making a reproduction was a technical endeavor. It would be like painting by numbers, methodically assembling beads based on what someone else wanted. A job devoid of artistic creativity. In a word, work. Where’s the bliss in that?

“No,” I told the shop owner. “Please tell her I won’t make the bracelet. I’m on the upslope of learning the downslope of slowing down.” And then I left for Michael’s.

Originally published: August 23, 2022
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