When To Speak and When To Listen: What I Learned From Practicing Taekwondo Forms

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I can always count on taekwondo poomsae (forms) to have a calming, focusing effect on my mind and body. Forms were very much needed yesterday when I was feeling out of sorts.

Yesterday I learned the hard way that reintroducing black coffee back into my body after avoiding it for about a year thanks to a fun digestive illness needs to be done in relatively small doses. After a large cup of coffee, a cup of tea, a venti cappuccino from Starbucks, and another half cup of coffee later my body was shaking and my heart was fluttering. I swear for a moment I had double vision and nearly missed a step when I was walking to the front door of my taekwondo school.

On nights when I have class I usually arrive to the dojang about 40 minutes early to warm up and run through my forms. Since my brain and body were feeling scattered I decided to start with my familiar Palgwe color belt forms rather than the eight Taeguk forms I still hadn’t quite mastered. Okay, this will be easy. I can do this. I began with Palgwe Il Jang, the lowest ranking color belt form, turning to my left and executing a low block in a front stance.

Then I did an outside block with my back hand without stepping forward.

UGH.

I gave my reflection in the mirror I was facing an exasperated glare. I was caught red-handed.

Blocking with the back hand is a signature move in Taeguk forms, much to my dismay and that of my fellow Palgwe snobs. I thought about texting my former Master what I had just done because I thought it was funny. He would either laugh along with me or threaten to punch me. I decided to just get my head on straight and do Palgwe Il Jang the correct way, starting with a low block and then stepping FORWARD to do an outside-to-inside block with my leading hand just as God and logic intended.

As I flowed through my trusty Palgwe forms, the oddity “Koryo One,” and transitioned into Taeguk color belt forms I noticed shifts in my thought processes and little cues I gave myself. Once I got into the groove of the forms I’d been practicing and teaching for years it felt effortless. When I switched to Taeguk, however, my awareness and physical decisions slowed down and required more forethought. It was like I had shifted from speaking my native English to a different language.

I used to be fairly fluent in Spanish. I took four years of Spanish in college and attended a   language immersion institute for two weeks in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I loved the language: speaking it, writing it, reading it. I never quite got the hang of being able to think in Spanish, though. When I was having a conversation I was always rapidly translating back and forth in my head and had to rein in my individual linguistic peculiarities and idioms. I felt like a bit of my personality had been washed out in order for me to get my message across efficiently. Once in a while I would have a brain scramble and I’d mix the languages together as I did when I threw a Taeguk move into my first Palgwe form of the evening.

Trying to speak a second language might have limited my ability to fully express myself, but it did make me a better listener and forced me to be mindful about the words I chose to say.

I now know thirty forms, but I wouldn’t say I’m fully fluent in all of them yet.*

Practicing my Palgwe forms reminded me of when I was on a roll with a writing project at work or giving a presentation I’d given many times before. I felt intelligent and creative. As I practiced the black belt form Keumgang I caught myself giving myself not only corrections  and cues I’d picked up from instructors but was also using my “instructor voice” on myself. Once in a while I might have a brain freeze, but I was quickly able to clearly articulate with my body and mind the full expression of the forms. By the time I got to the beautiful and elusive Nopei I felt like I was performing Shakespeare.

During my Taeguk forms I was reminded of my internal English/Spanish translation experiences. I had to be much more thoughtful and careful. I knew I was still “speaking” Taeguk with my Palgwe “accent” and had to fight myself on those tricky back hand blocks and unfamiliar walking stances. I had to think much more simply in order to perform what I had not quite yet memorized and hadn’t begun to fully explore. My taekwondo mind shifted from experienced black belt instructor to concentrating and still learning student. I had to listen to my body and my memory much more acutely and in a more steamlined way than I did with the forms I know so well.

I am building my fluency and confidence in Taeguk. On the other side of the training room some kids were asking an instructor about a knifehand block/elbow strike combo.

“Is this in Taeguk 4 or 5?” one of the students asked.

“It’s in 5,” I muttered aloud to myself without skipping a beat. Maybe I’m learning this new language faster than I give myself credit for doing.

Noticing the shift in thinking during my different sets of forms made me appreciate the beauty and complexity of language and conversation. Sometimes it’s our moment to let our personalities and talents shine as we wax poetic about a topic we’re passionate about, and other times it’s more appropriate to listen and very carefully choose what we’re going to say next. A skilled conversationalist knows when to do both. I hope at some point I can be as expressive with my Taeguk forms as I am with my Palgwe color belt forms and black belt forms. I also think I have the opportunity to slow down and mindfully choose and refine my techniques in the forms I’m much more familiar with.

By the time I’d gone through my forms for the evening I was sweating and panting. Thankfully my body had shaken loose the coffee jitters and fragmented focus, and my heart was now just pounding healthily from an athletic workout.

Now I was comfortable. I was speaking (and listening to) a language I love.

 

 

*If your’e keeping count: eight Palgwe, eight Taeguk, Koryo One, universal Koryo, Keumgang, TaebaekPyongwon, Nopei, universal Kibon One plus seven Kibons my former Grandmaster created

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Don’t Let Your Future Get In the Way of Your Present

here and now

“Third Dan…”

The thought drifted through my mind as I was burning out my legs in ballet barre class at the gym last weekend. And then I caught myself and re-worded my thought:
“Nope. I’m doing this for Second Dan. I’m going to be the best damn Second Dan I can be.” Either a smile or a grimace crossed my face. I don’t remember which; barre can be a pretty grueling workout.

Our culture pressures us to constantly chase after what’s next or what’s better. While I think having ambition and setting goals is important, taken to an extreme we can lose focus on what we are doing in the present. We tout climbing the leadership ladder as the only admirable career path. We expect seventeen and eighteen year olds to choose educational tracks that will shape their adult lives and get it right on the first try. I always internally gagged at the “see yourself in 5 years” exercise I had to present in a professional development course I used to teach (and obviously did not write). We never stop and examine what we’re doing RIGHT NOW.

Can we be satisfied with and put our best efforts towards where we are right now?

Ever since I watched a black belt test at my new dojang in December I have had my own third degree test (date/year to be determined) lurking in the back of my mind. I knew I needed to improve my overall conditioning, my sparring skills, and hone my technique. I hadn’t practiced defense against weapons in a year and hapkido/self-defense in almost as many months. I knew I needed to not just step up my game, but JUMP up my game.

Third Dan is my long-term goal, and it helps sometimes to corral my wandering mind during taekwondo classes or my non-taekwondo workouts into the idea that everything I do is building a better black belt. Every ballet plie strengthens my legs. Every freestyle swimming stroke powers my lung capacity for fighting endurance. Yoga keeps me mentally balanced and undoes the damage I do to my hips, back, and hamstrings all week.

[Disclaimer for the yogaphiles reading this: I don’t consider yoga a “workout.” I’ve been practicing yoga for 22 years and am fully aware of the mental, physical, and emotional complexities of it. Let me reword it: the asanas of yoga, which are only one aspect, keep my body toned and stretched…and ready for meditation. Happy now?]

I’m pretty satisfied with my current job. I could do that for a long time (with merit raises and bonuses, of course.) I love the city I’ve lived in for the past 14 years; I could spend the rest of my days here. I can certainly apply my physical and mental fitness to the taekwondo rank I am right now, can’t I? If I stayed a second Dan forever could I be satisfied with being the best damn second Dan I can be?

I can’t lose sight of my current rank and its responsibilities and possibilities. I got plenty of teaching experience last year that I hope helps me live up to the Korean translation of my title “Kyo-sa-neem” (instructor). Now that I’m no longer teaching I have the ability to focus on physical training and really understand and demonstrate what a proficient Yi Dan looks like. To be honest, I’m not sure if I can articulate that right now. That tells me I need to back off from looking forward to (and dreading) my future third Dan test. There’s plenty of time to prepare for that. I think I need to do some reflection on what my current rank means.

Every color belt rank was a different learning and growth experience with different expectations. It seems like that is also true for black belt ranks. That makes me happy. It gives me something to explore and build on right now, in this moment.

Whatever journey you’re on, pause and take a look around. Where are you developmentally RIGHT NOW and what can you do to make your NOW better and more meaningful?

 

Why? How Understanding Leads to Inspired Action

Question Everything Clean_0

“Why do we do this?”

I was in taekwondo class and had corralled a small group of students to the back of the room to teach Palgwe Pal-Jang, one of the most complex forms of the color belt repertoire. It was the most difficult form for me to learn (Even Keumgang didn’t make me weep with frustration the way this one did), although since then it’s become one of my favorite forms for the very same intricacy and complexity that frustrated me in the beginning.

The student asking me the question did a backfist with her right hand, a movement that immediately follows the low block that opens the form. She wanted to know why she was supposed to do that. I could have just told her, “Because that’s part of the form,” or “Because I said so,” but I thought it would be a fun opportunity to help her and the other students develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of something they would be doing over and over again.

“Ah!” I said, “Because of this. Do a low block in front stance.” I kicked at her so she would block my foot.

“See?” I continued. “I just kicked you, and you blocked, but I’m still not out of the way. I might attack you again. You have to strike back, and that’s when you do the back fist.” She swung her fist through the air, and I nodded approvingly.

As the lightbulb went off over her head I remembered when Pal-Jang finally clicked for me. One night Grandmaster had corralled the red and black belts to the back of the room much in the same way I was working with the young students, and explained the purpose of the form piece by piece. Someone grabs your arm. Someone tries to choke you. Look out, your attacker is still behind you. Click!

“Forms help us practice self-defense. That’s why you have to be strong in your blocks and strikes in a form. They’re not just pretty movements.” I demonstrated a few of the particular forceful motions of the form to emphasize my point.

Over the rest of the hour the students asked more questions about why we did certain movements in the form. Every time I acted out the reason behind a block, strike, or escape move I had some lightbulb moments of my own. It helped me fill in an outline with energy and intention. I know my understanding of all those “Whys” will influence the way I do the form in the future.

The next morning at work I was sitting in a planning meeting for one the most complex projects I’ve ever worked on in my career. My team and I were making decisions about an extensive program that would impact the future of many people in the company. It’s been in development for nearly two years and is ready for launch, but as we dove deeper into the finer details we found ourselves asking the same questions the young taekwondo students had asked the night before:

“Why do we do this?”

The danger my colleagues and I could have fallen into was just accepting things “as is” because a decision had been made six months ago or twelve months ago. We could have just gone through the motions the way a taekwondo student might half-heartedly breeze through a form, both of which would result in inefficiency and lack of understanding. Instead we chose to be intentional about our decisions and actions.

With a deeper understanding of our program we realized we had the power to shape it into something that was effective and meaningful. We had a thoughtful discussion that did exactly what my “Pal-Jang Theory Workshop” had done for me and my students the night before: it filled in the outline. We made solid decisions and figured out what exactly needed to be done to make our program successful. It wasn’t quite as much fun as elbowing someone in the stomach, but I had the same sense of satisfaction after that meeting as I did after my Pal-Jang lesson with the kids.

The takeaway? Ask why. Seek clarification and understanding. Question the status quo. Use your newfound information to set your intentions. Don’t just react blindly. A deeper awareness of the “why” behind our actions will help us be more mindful and tactical about the decisions we make.

And if you ever get a chance to elbow someone in the stomach, it’s awesome.

The Poomsae Series Part 10: Keumgang, or Why Do We Make the Simplicity of “Being Present” So Damned Difficult?

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The Poomsae Series is BACK! This series of blog posts discusses the life lessons I’ve learned from taekwondo forms, or “poomsae” in Korean. Forms put the “art” in martial arts, and are one of the best ways to practice discipline of the body and mind. I’ve begun learning the two forms required for first dan black belt, and am just now starting to uncover what these forms are challenging me to do beyond stances and strikes.

Today’s post is about Keumgang, a form named for a beautiful mountain (“Diamond Mountain”) in the eastern portion of North Korea. Since there are many resources on the web about the history of this form and the region from where it derives its name and influence–plus this lovely song–I’m simply presenting insight gained from practicing the form.

This form is RAW. There is nothing pretty or lyrical or intellectually complex about it (one could argue against that, but we’ll save that for a different post). The movements are thick, heavy, and forceful. Other than a few palm-heel strikes and knife-hand blocks at the beginning, it’s all popping fists and stomping feet. To the untrained eye it might even appear boring and crude. If Koryo, the other first dan black belt form, were a conversation, it would be a razor-sharp battle of wits (and knee breaks), whereas this form simply says, “Shut up and get the hell out of my way.”

It’s been surprisingly difficult to learn Keumgang compared to how I learned the color belt forms and Koryo. For whatever reason I have a mental block that sets my brain into panic mode rather than letting me muddle through the learning process with ease. I still have a long way to go before I feel comfortable flowing through this supposedly “easy” form on my own without the guidance of an instructor or the visual cues from more experienced black belts.

As with my other forms, I’ve opened my mind to what Keumgang can teach me aside from the physical movements. I think I’ve figured out the lesson from this form:

Be present. Stop avoiding it and making everything so difficult. Seriously.

I’ve mentioned before how taekwondo, whether I’m free sparring or doing forms, forces me to be more focused on the present moment than any other venture, including yoga and traditional meditation. There’s a sense of mindfulness and presence with all the forms, of course, but this form, this simple flow of anger and brute force, shoves the ugly truth in my face: I, like millions of other people, am still stuck in my head more than I thought I was.

Just as the busy, chattering mind can wander during meditation or a car ride or a conversation, it’s very easy to get lost in this form if you’re even stuck in your head for just a moment. Before you know it, the repetitive, simple movements can lock you into a continuous loop, a purgatory of horseback stances and side punches. Even my instructors have gotten caught up in the hypnotic nature of it, urging us to continue after the form has actually ended, and leaving my classmates and I to glance at each other helplessly while we do yet another mountain block.

How often does your mind wander when you’re trying to be present? Focusing on the present moment can be unappealing and difficult if we don’t practice. We love to make simple things needlessly complex. We’re in our heads all the time, telling ourselves stories and worrying, and meanwhile we’re just sloppily going through the motions with whatever we’re doing at the moment. Just as I go into mental overdrive as I continue to learn Keumgang in class, my mind, if unchecked, tries to unleash hell when I’m seeking peace and quiet. I make it too complicated. I’m sure I’m not alone in this: I avoid resting in the stillness of presence even though I know it’s the best thing I could do for myself.

I’m looking forward to the day when I truly experience the quiet depth and meditative power of this unusual form both in the dojang and in daily life.

Stop.
Breathe.
Be still, and you will be strong.

Minimalism, Nihilism, Whatever; I’m Just Gonna Hang Out for a While

still lake

Happy New Year! Now is the time to kick things into gear, to start new ventures, to try new things, to add things to your to-do list, right?

…or, maybe it’s not.

Maybe now is the time to do the opposite: slow down, simplify, prioritize. I was fortunate enough to get about a week and a half off to spend the Christmas holidays with family, close friends, and of course my brother’s sweet little dog, whom I mentioned in a post last year. That gave me a lot of time to think about how I was managing my life and where it was taking me. It reminded me of the people and things that are truly important to me.

More and more I felt the pull to disconnect—physically as well as emotionally from certain aspects of my life. A few weeks earlier I was thinking about starting two different new blogs and began an intense amount of effort to learn what I could about successful blogging and starting an online business. I quickly burned out and realized that it would be better to let things happen naturally and not approach it with any desperation (my law of attraction followers will understand that). I also started thinking about getting another degree and went on a frantic search for information, but I realized that was yet another ploy to escape my current situation, which in the grand scheme of things is very pleasant…I won’t say another degree will never happen in the future, but for now, the only school I feel like going to is the dojang.

All of these distractions, wishful thinkings, desperate searches we create are attempts to “save” ourselves from our current situation, whether it’s really bad or actually quite nice. It’s easy to get sucked into a cycle of perpetual dissatisfaction: if only we had the right job/relationship/body/amount of money…THEN we’d be happy. 

Happiness is right here in this moment, and I’m tired of running around like crazy searching for it. I’m staying right here for a while. 

After I had this realization over the holiday break I decided to just relax and enjoy the present moment as much as I could. My personal life is pretty sweet and low-stress, so instead of searching for something new to add to it, I’m just going to enjoy and focus on what I have. I’m not feeling very ambitious right now, and I’m not seeking new opportunities or new people to come into my life…which is right about the time when those things manifest, am I right?

So rather than set a bunch of new goals or start new ventures or new work explorations I’d rather just focus on what I have now: the few relationships that are truly important to me, the few things I really love to do (taekwondo, exercise, yoga and meditation, taking care of my house, walking through my pretty neighborhood, reading and writing), the things I like about my current job. If I do get involved or excited over something, I want it to be something I TRULY care about, not just all the extra stressy gunk in life.

Maybe I’ll start a new blog, and maybe I won’t. Right now I have this blog, and that’s plenty. The mental, spiritual, and emotional journey that taekwondo has taken me on is far from over, so I’ll have plenty of material, plus something funny usually happens in class (like how a few days ago I got kicked so hard while holding a practice pad for someone else that I scooted back about ten feet and fell on the floor, my eyes wide open in surprise the whole time like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff.)

I’ve also wasted a lot of time on social media and the bottomless pit of web surfing, as I’m sure many other people have. I’m tired of it. I must be so introverted that even virtual interaction became overwhelming. I’ll still be connected and spend time online, but much less than I have been lately.

As for my professional life, I’ve always been much more detached than I have been with my personal life. I don’t always have a choice in what projects I’m involved in at work, but I always have control over how emotionally attached I am to them. I put in effort and do my part and sometimes do get excited or annoyed about things going on at work, but I never lose sleep over it. If I could adopt that emotionally detached mindset in other aspects of my life…well…I’d be pretty damn blissed out.

Even in taekwondo we’re slowing down and narrowing our scope. The first week or so back is always focused on basics, and it’s a good reminder for the advanced students (especially the black belts) to work on the fundamental skills and techniques that ground us in our practice. I’m learning new things, but more importantly, I’m improving what I’ve already been taught. The advanced stuff will come. It can’t be forced. Last year I set a bunch of goals that I kind of sort of met. This year I’m just setting one taekwondo goal: to perfect my spin kick. I want to make it beautiful, efficient, and powerful. (And I’m thinking about all the picky technical details, but I won’t get into that here).
That’s it.

I do want to improve in certain areas, but more importantly, I just want to BE. If I’ve wasted hours on the internet, then I’ve wasted nearly a lifetime ruminating over the past or fretting about the future. I’ve wasted years letting my mind run around like a headless chicken instead of just being present and taking life moment by moment. It’s time to just be quiet for a while.

Sometimes in moments of silence and stillness, the most progress can be made. Stillness can be fullness if you let it.

As we were driving around the Texas hill country during the last week of December, my mom pulled a folded and faded piece of paper out of her purse. Unbeknownst to me she’d been carrying it around with her for months. On her folded paper was a quote from my November 2014 blog post about the sixth form Palgwe Yuk Jang, reminding us to be mindful and even take advantage of the quiet moments in our life. I was so touched that my words meant that much to her. (And she’s going to kill me when she reads that I’m sharing it here, so it’s been nice knowing all of you).
Here’s the quote:

“What adds complexity to this form are the pauses, the silence, the negative space that floats in the air after a staccato palm-heel strike or a dramatic leap into that rear cross-foot stance as your yell echoes into silence. My very quotable yoga teacher asked us during class one day to be mindful of the pauses in our practice and in our life. A pause can be a moment of decision and precursor to change. Those frozen moments in time, whether it’s a second or a year, allow us to examine the facts, listen to our deeper intuition, and choose the next step, whether it is continuing on the same path or foraging a new one entirely.”

That’s what I feel drawn to right now: silence and stillness. Not forcing anything, not pushing anything, not searching in vain for something to “save” me from the present moment.

I just want to hang out and be chill for a while.

Will you join me?

…And if you STILL need some motivation to throw everything to the wind, I invite you to listen to the “F*ck That” meditation. (Not while your children or boss are around of course.)
Yep, that’s how I’m feeling right now. F*ck it all….ahhhhhh…….

So Just Chill Till the Next Episode

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“To surrender,” my yoga teacher said as he looked around the dark room at our upturned faces, “you sometimes first have to build heat.”

It was my first yoga class in about a month. When asked about my long absence I gave the ubiquitous answer of “I had things going on” with a Robert De Niro-esque shrug. I did have things going on (laundry doesn’t fold itself), but that wasn’t the entire answer.

Sometimes I avoid my practice on purpose when I am dealing with tricky issues or need some mental downtime. As I’ve said in previous posts, my mind does not shut off and focus in yoga the way it does in taekwondo. About halfway into the practice my mind quiets down, but for the first thirty minutes thoughts bounce around in my head like a racquetball. When a sticky issue is top of mind it likes to crab-walk down my spine as I dangle in forward fold, crawl into my ear and whisper, “Let’s think about THIS.” It’s even worse when I try to meditate on my own or using guided meditation. And you know what? I just don’t like meditation—there, I said it. Revoke my hippie card.

My reluctance to surrender to my practice reminds me of when I did some individual coaching sessions for a team about two years ago. One of my clients, a young woman I’d known for years, said she had put off meeting with me for quite some time because she knew a sticky issue would probably come up. We peeled back layers carefully, and by the end of our session she was relieved that she had finally talked about it and figured out how to address it.

It felt fantastic to be back to yoga. My body unfolded into the poses as if I were smoothing out a crumpled piece of paper on a cool kitchen counter. The old familiar pinching pain in my left shoulder was gone (perhaps since I hadn’t done yoga in four weeks) so the million chaturangas we always do didn’t have to be modified. About halfway into the practice my mind was finally quiet.

My teacher continued his original thought as he gently tugged my arms up and away into a fuller expression of locust pose.

“When you think you’ve reached your end,” he said, “Notice the tension in your body…and ease off.” He lowered my hands an inch. “It’s a life lesson. When you hit a plateau in your practice or your work or relationships…just ease off a bit…and then you can get back into it.” He released my hands, and my arms and legs felt twice as long as they floated to the ground. It was just what I needed to hear after mulling over the burnout I had been experiencing.

Plateaus and burnouts aren’t necessarily bad things if we don’t let them overrun us. They are cues, feedback to us to ease off for a bit in order to rest, recharge, and make any necessary changes. They are an opportunity for us to surrender and let go so the heat we’ve built doesn’t burn us to the ground. A healthy practitioner, no matter the trade, knows when to recognize these cues and surrender to the needs of the body, mind, and spirit.

In other words, it’s OK to chill! (After I get home from sparring and red and black belt class)

Quiet Storm – The Poomsae Series Part 7

peace-in-the-stormThe Poomsae Series is intended to glean lessons from the meaning of each form. My school studies the palgwe forms so that’s what I will use for each post. Descriptions are taken from the book “Complete Taekwondo Poomsae” by Dr. Kyu Hyung Lee and Dr. Sang H. Kim.

I am crushing on Palgwe Chil Jang. It’s as beautiful as it is forceful and brutal. The form begins with a defiant glare and a powerful double low block. We then weave through a series of meticulously placed blocks, kicks, strikes, and a crazy spinning low block until we gracefully slide back into the starting position with a vicious punch and the same steely glare.

As dynamic as this form is Palgwe Chil Jang more than any other brings a sense of quietness to my movement and my thought processes. I wondered if that state of mind is possible outside of choreographed and carefully performed movement. There is clutter in our work and home environments, in our actions, and in our minds. We let our focus be easily seduced by “multi-tasking” and end up getting so far off track we forgot what we originally set out to do.

Being mindful and present is easier said than done. I’ve been trying it for years, and the most I can get is a fuzzy sense of presence that wavers in and out of focus. The advice you typically find on mindfulness is savoring every bite of food, meditating, de-cluttering on a literal or metaphorical level, and noticing sensations in the body. They’re helpful actions and can temporarily snap you back into what Eckhart Tolle calls being “awake,” but if the underlying habit isn’t there the tiny efforts will be disconnected pieces of good intention rather than a connected thread of practice.

Being mindful and intentional in movement means I was finally patient enough to master caramelizing onions and took the time to let my home-done manicure set (not at the same time I was cooking onions). Not being mindful and intentional means I dropped a container of parmesan on the floor when I was rushing to make my salad for lunch and then had to sneak past the security guards in the office building because I forgot my work badge. Less is more.

Taekwondo has been a great vehicle for quieting the mind. The threats of falling over or being hit in the face are pretty good motivators to pay attention, but they don’t always apply outside the dojang. What’s worked best for me is just making a promise to myself to be mindful (or at least give it a shot) and to declare my brain, body, surroundings and actions a clutter-free zone. It requires constant reminders and refocusing, but it’s working. I don’t get all bent out of shape as much. I’m a lot more content AND I have a much more organized closet.