The last option is mindfulness

I’m sitting on the beach with the sun on my face and the salty breeze flowing through my hair.  It’s such a blessing that I get to live here, where in October I can enjoy this warm, temperate weather.  I remember last winter considering whether I would have been able to tolerate this part of my life in a colder climate.  I’m not sure…glad I didn’t have to find out! 

I remember going into my first winter in Omaha, I became aware of how the shortening days and cooler temperatures affected me.  I remember describing it this way:  It’s like all summer I’ve been running along at a good pace, feeling happy and confident, feeling in the flow.  And then all of a sudden, somewhere between November and January I hit the deep sand.  At first I attempt to keep up the pace but gradually it grinds to a slog, where each step is a labor.  Is this seasonal affective disorder or does everyone living with winter feel this way? I think I’ve felt this every year since high school.  I grew up in Wyoming, a home on the range where the skies are not cloudy all day.  It might be zero degrees but the sun is shining, so maybe that’s why I didn’t notice it in high school.   In San Diego the days are getting shorter and there is a chill in the evenings that wasn’t there a few weeks ago.  If I’m cold I just think about the snow they got this week in Jackson Hole and close a window (or open one depending on the time of day)! 

Mindfulness has been on my mind.  I remember going to therapy last summer and telling my Navy-appointed therapist that I wanted to work on mindfulness.  I don’t think I really even knew what I was asking for.  I don’t know if he did either.  This is one of the buzz words of our time.  I remember a psychiatrist I worked with in Omaha explaining it in a department education meeting.  He said, “When you’re washing the dishes, just wash the dish.”  I haven’t had a dishwasher since…ever—so this metaphor should work for me.  I have–and still–spend countless hours at the sink washing dishes—still haven’t mastered mindfulness.

But somehow I started to figure it out this last year, and it was because I was drowning.  I was drowning in thoughts.  I had thoughts about my life.  Thoughts about others.  Thoughts about things I should be doing.  Thoughts about things I shouldn’t be doing.  Thoughts about goals.  Thoughts about fears.  Thoughts.  Thoughts. Thoughts. Thoughts.  Too many thoughts. 

I have never been a drinker or pot smoker.  In fact my substance use history is really limited to Diet Coke and sugar or carbs.  (Incidentally none of these shut off the thoughts but actually add more and speed them up!) But in those months, I understood the appeal of escape.  I just wanted an off switch.  I wanted to escape from myself.  The voice in my head was talking way too much.   Because I have pretty much accepted that my path in life is to face cold, hard reality without the assistance of mind altering substances (chocolate excluded—that’s my drug of choice), I was forced to find another off switch.

That off switch, as it turns out, is mindfulness.  Rather than give you a step by step instruction manual for how to achieve a state of mindfulness—surely someone else has done this better than I could—let me share my insight on this topic.

I’m learning that happiness is in moments.  Feelings are meant to be impermanent.  So wanting a life of happiness is like hoping your ice cream cone won’t melt.  You better just eat it now and savor every lick.  The same is true for negative emotions.  They feel catastrophic but they also don’t last.  And the positive emotions like happiness, peace, contentment, love, confidence…we don’t get to live there all of the time.  I don’t think anyone does. And thankfully, we don’t have to live with negative emotions like fear, shame, or disappointment all the time either.  Emotions are just waypoints.  And at each waypoint you have choices. 

Thanks for humoring my backpacking analogy for a minute. Imagine you’ve been hiking with a heavy pack for a while and you reach a beautiful viewpoint on the trail where you stop to pause:

Option #1:  You set down your pack and immediately start shoving your face full of trail mix.  The trail mix tastes good but obliterates the sanctity of the moment.  It becomes about the trail mix, not about the emotion (or the view).  Food creates a buffer between me and the present moment, unless I’m REALLY savoring the trail mix.  Then it’s still about the trail mix, right?  Insert any number of buffers here: TV, drugs, alcohol, social media, etc. 

Option #2:  You think about the long climb that’s still ahead or the knee-shaking descent.  This is what Brené Brown calls foreboding joy.  It’s borrowing from the future, effectively saying, “Yes, this is nice, but it won’t last so don’t enjoy it too much.”  

Option #3:  You consider the pain, the stitch in your side from that last push up the trail.  Sometimes pain should not be ignored, but there is so much time on the trail to think about that. So many moments bereft of happiness where the pain is forced into consciousness because there is nothing there to diminish it.  So letting it overshadow the moment where I’m standing on a waypoint of positive emotion is a small tragedy. 

Option #4:  You put your pack down for a minute, pause, look out into the big world around you and consider this tiny waypoint in life where you have the opportunity to understand what happiness or peace or love feels like. To feel the magnitude of the mountain you’ve climbed so far.  To acknowledge the pain that arrests your legs and hips and shoulders from hauling the pack that you must carry.  To see that food and water, while necessary, are not the reward—they are the fuel.  The climb is the reward.  That’s ultimately what God gave each of us, the opportunity and the ability to climb.

The last option is mindfulness.  It’s taking in the present moment with all of the wonder or agony it holds.  In the difficult moments, it’s understanding that if I’m breathing, then I am mostly okay.  In the lovely moments it’s allowing the immensity of happiness to sink deep within me.  And maybe the best definition for mindfulness is this one:

“Ultimately, I see mindfulness as a love affair—with life, with reality and imagination, with the beauty of your own being, with your heart and body and mind, and with the world.”  John Kubat-Zinn, Mindfulness for Beginners

Be still.  Be free.  Be alive.  Namaste.