Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 65

Mindful Bagful

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Hi, this is Reinhard from Everyday Systems.

If you’ve made it through the last three state of the systems podcasts, I’m impressed! They were long, they were many. Today, I’m going to give your ears a bit of a rest and talk for just a few minutes about a little baby system, a light-hearted sort of jedi mind trick for calming yourself down, at least in certain situations, from the background radiation stress that I think pervades a lot of our lives. I call it, “Mindful Bagful.”

A few of months ago, as I was frantically bagging my groceries at Trader Joes, trying as usual to keep pace with the cashier while dividing my groceries into fridge, pantry and freezer bags, and feeling pleased with myself that I was more or less pulling it off, the bearded hippy-looking cashier looked at me said something like, “hey man! It’s alright, no rush, take your time!”

They were kind words, uttered in a kind tone of voice, and I’m sure they were kindly meant: something to put me at ease, a reassurance that he wasn’t judging me on my bagging performance, that he appreciated me bagging at all. Maybe it was something he said to everyone who bagged, appreciative and encouraging.

But I immediately thought, “wow, do I seem that stressed? Am I excluding so much stress that this guy feels the need to have a bagging intervention with me?” I took it as a highly personal, crushing critique.

I knew, of course, even as I thought this, that he did not actually mean it this way. Or at least, not to that degree.

But I also knew that he would have been right to.

Because I was, internally if not externally, operating like a crazy person. I was frantically scrambling, rushing, racing, in terror of not doing this mundane task fast enough or well enough for no valid reason. My wife was not in labor. I did not have to bag my groceries in under two minutes to drive her to the hospital. I was not even running late to a meeting or to my kids soccer game. I did not have such a long drive home for my groceries to thaw that it mattered at all if I kept my colds and frozens together. I had never suffered some traumatic critique of my bagging skills that I was trying to compensate for. There wasn’t even any particular thing that I could think of that was stressing me out inordinately at that moment.

It was just habitual rush. The frenzy of my entire life rushing me along here as it does everywhere else. It was like there was a habit of stress, a disembodied stress detached from any real cause or trigger, a frantic rushing to get it all done, that was so ingrained in me now, so generalized, that I couldn’t do something as simple as bagging groceries without feeling it and exuding it.

But as I pushed my cart toward the car I had an epiphany: “Mindful Bagful.”

It was cute. It was silly. It was what I knew I had to do. Next time I went to Trader Joe’s I would remember that phrase, take a deep breath, and slow down.

And since then, whenever I’m bagging my groceries, I catch myself before I fall into the bagging frenzy. I remember the phrase “mindful bagful,” and slow down, really slow, like almost slow motion slow, ridiculously, performatively slow. Tai Chi slow. At least, in my mind. To the outside world I’m probably just moving like a regular human being instead of a a spastic maniac. The point is I calm down. I make pleasant chit-chat with the cashier. I do not get worked up if any colds went with pantry items, I do not rush, and I smile with amused acceptance at the type of person I used to be when I did all those things. I don’t focus my breath or anything, I just try to move as slowly and calmly and unhurriedly as possible, to mimic a calmness in my body which I don’t initially feel, but then, almost immediately, I start to. I savor the unimportance, or at least, the non-urgency of what I’m doing.

And miracle of miracles, I don’t even seem to bag any less efficiently than I used to. It’s like I got something for nothing. I don’t know if this is a true, accurate perception, or maybe it’s just because in my new Mindful Bagful state of mind, I see that it just really doesn’t matter.

“Mindful bagful” has applications beyond even shopping at Trader Joes, beyond even the supermarket!

Lo and behold, it works at Whole Foods, it works at Star Market, I haven’t tried it at Market Basket yet, that may be a challenge – but I’m hopeful.

I also have found myself calling it to mind during other mundane non-shopping activities when the auto-stress, auto-rush, background radiation anxiety kicks in.

People are always talking about being mindful and in a yoga studio or with incense burning or on a nature walk or silent meditation retreat and that’s great – but I am rarely if ever in such places. I am in Trader Joes. I am in the filthy kitchen chasing the kids out of the house to get to school on time. I am on Slack stressing out that my work banter isn’t as simultaneously funny and effective as I imagine it needs to be. These are the places I need to be mindful, where I am normally the opposite of mindful.

Mindful Bagful is a good humored reminder that it’s precisely in these mundane situations, in the frantic mess of our everyday lives, that we are in most need of mindfulness.

The phrase sounds sort of cute, so I don’t have that involuntary eye rolling reaction the word “mindfulness” typically provokes in me. It’s disarmingly non-serious.

And the word “bagful” makes me think of Bilbo Bagins and his healthy life attitude in his snug little hobbit hole on Bag End. No perpetual state of emergency for Bilbo Baggins, his one adventure was enough for a lifetime.

“Bagful” also suggests not just the physical shopping bags but the mental baggage I’m carrying around that is the real cause of my stress. And yet, also not an emergency. The phrase invites me to be calm about that too, to see in my calm physical bagging a model for a deeper calm about that heavier stuff heavier stuff I’m constantly bagging in the back of my mind too. Instead of acting out my anxiety using my groceries as a prop, and whipping it up into a renewed state of frenzy, I act out a healthier relationship to all that is troubling me, and maybe teach my psyche something.

Finally, I'm perpetually surprised that there is no double “ll” at the end of bagful. And this jolt helps too, silly as it may seem, by reminding me that I don’t know it all, certainly not about the quirks of English spelling, and that I should be humble and open to what reality will bring, vs. trying to anticipate and pre-empt it with my rushed, grasping, calculative, over-planning mind which turns out (thankfully!) to be almost always wrong. And that it’s a lot less stressful to let these misguided attempts to anticipate the future go and just accept and be open to what happens – at the very least, in terms of how my checkout experience is going to go. And that’s a start.

Thank you for listening. And may your next shopping experience be relatively chill if not exactly spiritually exalted.

By Reinhard Engels

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