Real Good, Real Life, Real Results with Wellness Coach: Koren Barwis

The Art of Noticing

In my early twenties, I moved from Michigan to Southern California. Initially, I marveled at the stunning surroundings and perfect weather. Every day was sunny and 75 degrees (Steve Martin’s depiction of SoCal weather in the movie L.A. Story was spot on). Every day, I’d put on short-sleeved tees, no jacket. Every day, I’d drive home from school via Route 55, cresting a hill with a surreal view of the ocean. Yet in time, it all stopped being so impressive.

Scientists call this phenomenon habituation — a reduced response by the brain to repeated stimulus. As survival goes, this is a critical skill, allowing us to ignore things we’re used to seeing a lot (trees for example) and focus on things that are new (bears for example).

It isn’t just our surroundings that we grow accustomed to. People become repeat stimuli too. Husbands get ignored. Annoying habits are accepted.

I noticed some of my own habituation in Africa of all places. The first night at Ruckomechi, our group set out on a sunset cruise on the Zambezi and experienced one of the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. The river reflected the cotton candy sky, enveloping us in deep pinks and peaches. I was awestruck. The group took countless photos and couldn’t stop commenting on how beautiful it all was.

Sunset Ruckomechi

The next night, we headed out to the river again, this time in canoes. After 90 minutes on the water, one almost-hippo-tipped canoe, and more crocodiles than I ever needed to see, we docked on shore to have much-needed sundowners (aka cocktails). Again, the sunset looked like a rich watercolor painting, just as exquisite as the first night’s. But the reaction by our group was much more subdued – fewer comments and fewer pictures. This could have been in part because we were so relieved to be out of the canoes and were very eager to drink our alcoholic beverages. But it was evident that we were now somewhat jaded.

Even some of the animals became run-of-the-mill. Impala went quickly from the prestigious title of first animal I saw in Africa to so common that at one point later in the trip we used the hashtag #wedontstopforimpala.

When we drove through towns on our way to camps, we’d see baboons and warthogs just roaming the streets. I wondered if the locals thought twice about them. In Kasane, a lilac breasted roller, an incredibly colorful bird, was perched high on a telephone wire like a sparrow might be here in Virginia. If I lived here, would they become like pigeons in my mind?

As I pulled together this post, I thought, what is my point? Was it just that if I lived in Africa I wouldn’t be dazzled by everything all the time? Well, that didn’t seem like such a great tidbit to share.

It wasn’t until I returned home that the nugget of wisdom came to me. I was walking my dogs my first morning back and the sunrise over our local pond was magnificent. I paused and took it in, just like I did the first Zambezi sunset. It was new again!

My husband even seemed different; in my eyes, he had a refreshed glow. Maybe it was seeing lots of couples on travel that didn’t treat each other very well that made me appreciate him more.

Ultimately, I realized that while I become accustomed to almost everything, even amazing things, by seeing new things, I renew the old. This is why I love living in Virginia – the change of seasons brings renewal four times per year — different temperatures, foliage, foods, and activities. If I had cinnamon rolls and Yorkshire pudding all year round, they wouldn’t be as special at Christmas. So maybe it isn’t about fighting habituation, since it is inevitable. Maybe the lesson is to go to new places, try new things, and meet new people so that when you return to familiar surroundings and loved ones, you notice them.

Taking a Mental Vacation

SundownerIn my family, I’m the planner, handling the weekly schedule of drop offs and pickups, doctors appointments, and home maintenance. Vacations fall in my camp too. When we all head to the beach each summer, I’ve already spent months booking the house, renting the bikes, checking out restaurants, researching mini golf locations, drafting a rough schedule, and ensuring there are linens and towels provided. Once there, I oversee meal planning, game night, sunscreen (in itself is a full-time gig at the beach), and more. Not that my husband isn’t a great help; he is, doing laundry, dishes, etc., but the bulk of the decision making falls on me…and that is how I like it.

So when I decided on a whim to go to Africa with my friend Beth and her Yoga Safari 2015 group, I had no idea what to expect. Having never gone abroad alone, I didn’t realize that one of the biggest treats would be not having to plan or make decisions for two whole weeks.

After I wrote the check, got packed, and got my butt on the plane, my planning was done. Had I booked the trip more than four weeks in advance, I probably would have researched all the details – the camps, the food, culture – ad nauseam. Instead, I just put my faith in my guides, Beth and Dianne, both of whom I trusted completely and committed myself to going with flow.

From the moment I landed in Johannesburg, I did just that. Aside from deciding whether I wanted red or white wine for sundowners, I did not have to decide anything. All the details – our schedule, coordinating travel, staff tips, food – were planned and taken care of. I went where I was told and just tried to show up on time. Quickly, I lost track of what day it was and what country I was in.

Being so clueless didn’t come easily at first. On the second day, I asked Beth what the plans were for the following day and she said “just enjoy today and don’t worry about tomorrow.” It was a great bit of advice for vacation, but also in my day-to-day life. I’m often so focused on planning the next thing that I don’t enjoy the current moment.

The daily rhythm in the camps was fairly consistent: wake-up call at 6am, tea, morning activity, brunch, siesta time, PM activity, dinner, bed. For the most part, everyone in the group did the same thing at the same time; no thought involved. During siesta time, the limited free time we had, I wrote, practiced yoga with the group, or showered. I wore minimal makeup and air-dried my hair. The days were simple and calm.

In our last camp in Victoria Falls, the schedule was less structured. We had more flexibility and the group started to go their separate ways, opting for excursions or massages. The familiar tug of decision-making started to pull at me. And once at home, I quickly fell back into family manager mode: walked the dogs, went for a run, took my girl to soccer.

When I returned to work and my co-workers asked my favorite part of my trip, it wasn’t the elephants (although they were absolutely amazing and I’ll write a lot more about them), it was the gift of mental freedom I experienced. And now, as decisions come my way and my natural urge to plan kicks in, I will try to keep Beth’s advice front of mind — just enjoy the day.

A New Continent

In January, I put together a vision board for 2015. I snipped out images and phrases that spoke to me from magazines and greeting cards, glued them down and topped them off with post-its with my goals written on them. Extend headstand (done), do a handstand (done), write daily (not quite), join a writing group (done), do 1 daring thing (done, more than once). Come August 12, I’ll be able to mark one more off as ‘done’ — travel to a new continent. I’m going to Africa.

In general, I would consider myself a planner, but not this time. This was a trust your gut, shoot from the hip, why the hell not, you only live once decision.

About three weeks ago, I ran into my old boss Beth, a regular Africa visitor. She has been 23 times and was getting ready to embark on her 2015 Yoga Safari trip that she organizes with her friend and yogi Dianne (the very same teacher who taught the handstand and headstand workshops allowing me to achieve those goals on my vision board!). Trouble was, the group had an odd number and needed another person or they’d have to pay the single supplement. She said she’d cut me a deal and even give me frequent flyer miles for the flight. The wheels started churning.

Beth and I met while we were both working in marketing at AOL a little over ten years ago. We stayed in touch and even ended up working at the same startup in Herndon a few years back. Sharing an office, we also shared lots of stories. Mine were mostly about my family as well as my mom’s recent cancer diagnosis. Beth’s focused around her African safari adventures. My mom ended up dying. Beth had planted a seed.

I floated the idea of my going away for 2 weeks in a far away land past my very protective husband and he didn’t balk. He might have thought I was kidding at first, but when I didn’t let up, he was fully supportive. Knowing I’d be going with Beth, an experienced African traveler helped assuage his fears.

Being a little weird about money and spending large sums of it on just me, I struggled a bit with the even discounted price tag. But as luck would have it, I had just worked out a settlement with my ex on the last chunk of our divorce debt that he owed me. It would more than cover the trip.

The final consideration was my daughter, Ruby. We had talked about going on safari together when she graduated high school, but she had recently decided that she would rather visit Australia. The thought of leaving her for two whole weeks made my chest ache. I had been away from her for a week before, but never two, and never this far away. Then I thought about one of my mom’s favorite sayings — “your children are only loaned to you.” I knew going would make me a better, happier person and I would bring that to my parenting. And while a mother, I still needed to be my own person first.  Some day Ruby would be off living her own life and I will be glad that I went.

So, I wrote the check, got some shots and I’m going to Africa.

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