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Headspace Q&A: Shannon Flynn

You woke up this morning and the first thing you thought was…

I just slept hard. And there is no way I’m going to the gym before I work at the hospital tonight. Do I have a clean uniform? I wish that coffee shop around the corner delivered. Or my building had a coffee shop.

What is your typical morning ritual?

I’m really into morning rituals, so this will be a long one! I always set my “real” alarm clock in the bathroom so I have to physically stand up in the morning to turn it off. I like to have at least 1.5-2 hours of time being awake before I leave for work, which might sound crazy when it means getting up at 4:15 a.m. some days, but I just do not function well otherwise. So setting the alarm clock in the bathroom helps me get up on my feet and on my way to the coffee pot, which I always program before bed. (Side note: if you want to see me sit down on the floor and cry like a toddler, hang out in my kitchen on a morning after the power went out or I forgot to set the delay and my coffee isn’t ready.) After my coffee is poured, I’ll usually make a protein shake and head over to my couch where I spend most of my time at home. I really enjoy lighting candles, getting rid of any noise or clutter, and really making it a nice little space to sit. I usually check some social media during this time while I’m waiting for the caffeine to kick in, and I usually set a timer for about 10 minutes so I don’t get too caught up online. Once I’m confident that I won’t fall asleep if I close my eyes to meditate, I get settled and pull up my Headspace app. As far as consistency and having (making!) time to sit in silence when there is so much going on that seems more important, I just kind of reframed how I look at meditation: I don’t think of it as a decision I have to make every morning. I know that I am going to sit for at least 10 minutes, preferably 15. It’s helpful for me not to have to make a decision on whether or not I’m going to meditate—when is the best time, should I do the dishes instead, I’d like to be at work earlier today so maybe I’ll do it when I get home, I’ll fall asleep if I close my eyes—none of this matters, I just do it. I embrace the word “practice” and do my best not to judge whether a session was good or bad. The habit I am trying to be more consistent with after my meditation is journaling. I really like the Bullet Journal method, and I always try to list a few things I’m thankful for during this time. This comes up in the Appreciation pack, and is something I have done on and off for a while. After I’m done with my meditation, my mornings are usually pretty busy. I like to flip on a podcast or audiobook and do my household chores like laundry, dishes, paying bills, etc. With my jobs as a firefighter and ICU nurse, I am usually very physically and mentally drained when I get home from work, so I do most of my chores when I have (relatively) more energy in the morning. If I am working night shift at the hospital, I will usually go to the gym at 4:30 p.m. after waking up around 3, so I’ll set out my uniform, pack my meals, etc., so I can jump in the shower, change, eat, and head to the hospital for my 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift after I work out.

What keeps you up at night?

Usually stuff that I “take home” from work—did I miss some red flag, did I ignore my gut, was I too lazy to do something the right way, was I short with a patient or coworker, will Bed 17 make it, what will their family do, why did it take me so long to start the (expletive) chainsaw? In both firefighting and nursing, there is a lot of looking back at what you did and deciding how it could have been better. The fire service does an excellent job of taking a more formal approach to this: we’ll have a “bumper talk” after most major incidents where we look back at what we could have done better before we do anything else, while it is still fresh in our minds. I love this. I see a lot of people in both of my jobs (but definitely more so as a nurse) who really struggle with accepting that something could have been done better. They feel that criticism is personal and they can’t talk about what could have been better without getting defensive and shutting down. I always ask my more experienced coworkers what I could have done better in any given situation, and I repeatedly tell them that I actually want to know, and they won’t hurt my feelings. I have only been a nurse for less than a year, and a firefighter for two, so there is always something that someone who has been in either of these jobs for 20+ years can teach me. Not dwelling on these things and learning how to let go of the really sad and terrible moments is incredibly important. In my professions, we see people in the worst moments of their lives, and we have to remember that we can’t save everyone and everything—we’re human and that means we experience some horrible and difficult things in balance with the good stuff.

What advice would you give someone sitting down to meditate for the first time?

I love telling people to just commit to the first ten sessions. Listen to the prompts, don’t try to change things (e.g., I’m going to lay down instead of sitting, etc.), and just be open to what it might do for you. Don’t try to quantify a list of ways that it will or will not make your life better—trust that this ancient tradition practiced by so many people, and so many extremely successful people at that, will also benefit you.

When and where do you like to meditate?

I kind of covered this in my morning ritual, but it’s one of the first things I do in the morning, after some coffee. I sit on my couch with a pillow behind my back. At first, I tried to resist the setup, but I found that it is really important for me to set up in the way Andy suggests!

How does your mind feel before you meditate?

This varies so much every day, it’s hard to say! Sometimes my mind is busy and overwhelmed, thinking about things I need to catch up on, things that happened at work, things that might happen next shift … definitely either in the past or the future, not the present moment. Other times I think I feel kind of numb, almost like I’m just trudging through the things I should be doing.

How does it feel after?

Again, this changes a lot. Sometimes it calms me down, other times it helps fire me up. Sometimes my mind is still busy and overwhelmed, but I’m just a little more aware of that feeling. Sometimes I fall asleep in the middle and don’t get much out of it at all. I definitely think the cumulative effect is really important, and hard to describe or quantify.

What’s your favorite Headspace pack?

I could never pick just one! I really loved Focus, and the first pack in the Pro series went a lot better than I expected—doing 15 minutes on any pack was so much easier after completing the first Pro at 15. And I still love going back to the first ten sessions. The Sleep meditations are amazing, too, and I have never even made it through the whole 10 minutes, which should be a great advertisement!

What has meditation helped you with most?

Dealing with overwhelm/overload. While I am far from perfect, I am so much better at tuning out the unnecessary noise and tuning in to what is important, and what I can actually influence. This could manifest on a fire scene where I am better able to step back and see what really needs to be done—not just follow whoever is yelling the loudest. It can also just be when I’m at the grocery store and overwhelmed by the crowds, rude customers, long lines, etc. In either situation, I can take a deep breath, evaluate what is actually important, and take action if necessary.

What’s the last thing that made you laugh out loud?

I got together with my family over the weekend and I made them play this charades game that I have on my phone. I really don’t generally like “games” because I get bored pretty easily and never want to finish them, but I love this little game. I was crying laughing when I was trying to act out “Stop, Drop, and Roll” so I pointed to the flame of a tiki torch, then started rolling around on the deck, and my mom shouted out “TORCH FALL!” Oh jeez, I’m laughing again thinking about it. Good ‘ole torch falls, classic mix-up.

What’s the kindest thing someone did for you this week?

A couple people I work with just gave me heartfelt pats on the back after I took care of some really difficult patients. It means so much to me to hear that the doctors, nurse practitioners, respiratory therapists, and other nurses I work with trust that I’m taking great care of our sickest patients and think I’m doing a good job. It definitely meant more than they know. Also, my mom bought me breakfast after work last night and it was the best. She’s great.

Who or what is the current love of your life?

Simple: cheese.

Have you ever experienced a life changing moment?

A lot of things come to mind, but one concept that I embraced at a young age and one story from about a year ago stick out. The concept is that small actions with good intentions made consistently over time have a huge impact. My dad was paralyzed in a car accident when I was in the 5th grade, and this was obviously a very difficult thing for my family to get through, and something that we still cope with every day. I remember really hating to watch how difficult life had become for my parents, and I found that praying the rosary like the good little Catholic child I was wasn’t having quite the impact that I hoped it would. At some point, I realized that just doing small, helpful things with a smile on my face made my parents so happy and grateful, and it wasn’t that hard. So I just refilled my dad’s water cup before he had to ask, went to the dreaded hardware store with my dad to buy supplies for some project he thought up, offered to take over grocery shopping once I got my driver’s license—you get the idea. So that’s something I try to bring to everything I do. The story is one of failing miserably, being humiliated, and learning get back up. Long story short (well, actually, I have never told a short story...but shorter than it could be) I was doing a fire training drill where we were practicing cutting ventilation holes on the roof of a house that was set for demolition. This skill requires several ladders, a chainsaw, a halligan tool, a long pole, and great teamwork. A lot of things went wrong that day, and it’s not really important to list them all, but suffice to say that I can’t think of a time I have cried in front of anyone other than my mom in the last 10 years, so I was telling myself (and others) that the tears streaming down my face were actually sweat. My biggest fear as a firefighter has always been failure and incompetence, not fear of the physical dangers of the job. I stood there in my gear, happy to have found a pair of sunglasses in my pocket to hide my red eyes, and very seriously contemplated quitting—if I had failed that miserably at a task my crew expects me to be able to do, I didn’t think I had any business being in the profession. Fortunately, an amazing coworker and teacher who was working at a different station that day stopped by to watch us complete the training drill and saw that I was having a hard time, to say the least. I avoided saying much to him for fear of crying more, but he knew I was upset with how things had gone, so he came up with a plan. Later that night, he called around to the three stations, moved personnel, so that myself and a few others could go back after dark and work on this skill in an environment a little more conducive to learning. A few little tweaks to my technique and some kind words of encouragement later, I was running through the drill without a hitch. I am so, so thankful that fellow firefighter took the time to get me through that experience—it has carried over to so much more than cutting holes in roofs with a chainsaw!

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

Appreciate what you have, look for the positive, embrace experiences. Sitting around and complaining about a bad situation only makes it worse. We all need to vent sometimes, but getting hung up on everything that is wrong with our bodies, homes, jobs, friends, etc., certainly doesn’t make anything better, and I would argue that we usually feel worse after listing it all out loud. Watching my dad get up every morning for the last 15 years and go about his life as a quadriplegic, and watching my mom get up and support him every step of the way, has absolutely given me some perspective on what is “hard” in life. Every day is a gift and an opportunity!

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