Divine Intervention: My story of Transformation
After many years spent trying to balance my own struggles with anxiety, work, life and the stress that comes from it all, I began to question if there was a better way.
Most days, I felt like I was drowning, struggling to keep up, trying so hard to be perfect while not forgetting the millions of thoughts and daily tasks I had to execute, maintain and juggle. On the good days, I felt like it was a success if I could keep my head up, plaster a smile on my face and keep moving forward when all I really wanted to do was take a nap.
Everything in my life felt like a chore.
I was exhausted and overwhelmed before I even got out of bed each day.
I was so busy managing the minutia of my life that I didn’t have time for one more thing: Meaning no time for fun, no time to relax and definitely no time for me, which meant I was unhappy, reactive, often sick and always tired.
And then the universe intervened. My dad was diagnosed with end stage liver cancer and given at best 6 months to live. This, for me, was the final straw that brought my world crashing down and made me realize my way of “being” was completely unsustainable. I felt like I had adult on-set ADD, unable to complete a thought, project or activity, and I felt sad all the time, unable to find joy in anything. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was the crisis I needed to reevaluate my life and take a hard look at what really mattered most to me. Surprisingly, or maybe not at all, my dad’s diagnosis was the gift that unlocked my definition of a meaningful existence and my purpose/intention in this crazy world. Ultimately it’s what “brought me to the cushion,” to practice meditation, and learn to be with my suffering so that I could experience joy.
After many hours spent researching, soul searching, practicing mindfulness and learning, I’ve come to discover some truths that have changed my existence and understanding in this world.
1- We can’t feel joy if we don’t allow ourselves to feel suffering.
When my dad was first diagnosed, I had this innate desire to make the most of our time together and make memories to last a life time in the process. The problem was, I couldn’t “just be” with him. Each time we spent together I wasted by busying myself and doing, questioning, helping, fixing. I was constantly distracting myself with tasks and projects to keep my mind/body busy, rather than allowing myself to be present and feel. I’ve come to learn now that this was my maladaptive response to uncomfortable emotions which I like to call “hyper-productivity.” Truth be told, this has always been my conditioned reaction to situations when I felt out of control. I had learned that it was easier to throw myself into something productive; something I could accomplish, something I could organize, rather than feel sad, hopeless or worried. The problem? I was inadvertently putting up walls to protect myself from despair and suffering and like any good wall, it keeps everything out, including feelings of happiness and joy. Fortunately for me, one of my meditation teachers blew my mind with this fact early into my days on the cushion. It was a magical realization for me and definitely a big reason I kept coming back to the cushion again and again. I remember wondering in that kismet moment how this stranger could be “in my head” so easily, knowing what it was that I was seeking: the ability to truly enjoy every moment spent with my dad.
2-It’s hard to be human.
The truth of the matter is, we’re all seeking joy and a happier existence. I don’t think anyone would say they love to suffer or prefer sadness/discomfort over more pleasant experiences. As humans, we naturally and constantly move toward comfort looking for ways to make things better, more enjoyable, more fun. It’s the reason we struggle to be still, why we distract ourselves from boredom and ultimately, why we turn down opportunities that raise fear in us. It’s easier to move away from or avoid discomfort and it’s a big reason why we often go around it rather than through our pain.
In Mindfulness we come to accept that suffering is on a continuum and part of the human experience or as I like to say, we come to accept that, “Life is inherently sucky!” Whether it’s sickness, heartache or a hangnail, we all suffer as humans whether we’re 5 or 105. But we also come to learn from practice, that everything, even suffering is impermanent as long as we allow it to be, without clinging, judging or following it down the rabbit hole of despair. It’s when we self-diagnosis our pains as life-threatening or convince ourselves that we’ll “never” or “always” feel a certain way, that we prolong and deepen our suffering.
3- There’s more things that make us alike than different.
The truth is, it’s not usually the situation that causes our suffering, but our thoughts and judgements about the feeling(s) in that moment that causes great suffering. As humans, we experience between 50-70k thoughts a day. Whether we’re listing, planning, rehearsing, worrying, remembering, replaying, or perseverating, we are keeping ourselves in the past or future rather than the present. Often times, when we do practice present moment awareness, when we practice “being” rather than “doing,” it’s our thoughts and judgements of these thoughts that arise. “This is too hard, I can’t do this. I have so much to do, why am I just sitting here? This is not going to help me get the laundry done. This is stupid!” If this sounds familiar, congratulations, you’re just like me. In fact, you’re just like everyone else! Every human has thoughts, every human has feelings/judgements that are based on those thoughts and over time and without consideration or awareness, these thoughts are what derail our ability to be present.
These thoughts are what hold us captive in auto pilot mode where we act and react without attention, where we’re likely to make mistakes or worse, not hear or see a thing aside from our internal dialogue. Have you ever arrived at work or a store and wondered, “How did I get here? Did I even stop at the stop sign?” I know I have. How many times have I said, “Yes,” to my kids when in reality, I meant to say “no,” or “ugh huh,” to my husband when I really didn’t hear a word of what he just said? According to research, humans spend between 40-60% of our day in this autopilot state. When we’re entertaining thoughts/feelings of the past (where depression gets its roots) or the future (where anxiety grows), we are taking ourselves out of the present moment: the only place that joy, learning and connections can be experienced.
4- What we practice grows stronger.
This is so true, I can’t say it enough. It’s the reason I use it as my mantra, my tag line, my email signature quote and what my kids say they’ll put on my headstone one day. For my entire existence before finding Mindfulness, I practiced worry. My mom used to threaten that if I didn’t stop worrying, I’d get an ulcer...at the age of 5. I worried about school, about work I wouldn’t be able to do, about problems I might have. I worried so much that my constant internal dialogue became a series of “what if?” “What if my car veers into the middle median and I hit a car head on? What if my house catches fire and we lose everything? What if we can’t afford to live here anymore and we have to move?” These worries manifested themselves into fears which sadly became my normal. Remember before when I told you I had a need for control? I guess now we can easily see where that came from! I was so consumed with making plans for fear of things that might never happen (and haven’t happened to this day) that I fell into the mode of constantly doing, fixing, planning, controlling everything I could for the sake of safety and comfort. This is how my anxiety grew.
Now let’s jump forward to the present. A time when at the age of 40, with 2 kids, 2 dogs, a husband, a mortgage, 2 aging-unwell parents and I have left my first chosen career of teaching, the only profession I’ve ever known, to pursue my passion and bring Mindfulness to a greater audience. What? Why? You may ask. “You’re crazy to leave your pension and stability at this point in your life!” “How many years do you have left? Can’t you just wait until you retire?” The list goes on and sadly, this wasn’t just my internal dialogue, this was also how so many others responded when I shared my “redesigned mission/intention” with them. (To be fair, there were also those who congratulated and encouraged me) But my Mindfulness Practice afforded me so many gifts that I didn’t care what anyone said, including myself. I had something so powerful that I felt compelled to share it with everyone and who cared that I hated speaking in front of large crowds. Don’t get me wrong, it was equally as terrifying as it was exhilarating in the beginning. There were nights I woke in a cold sweat thinking, “What have I done?” Days that my anxiety raged inside me so strongly that I contemplated if this was really a good choice. I had come so far in managing my anxiety without medication, but now I was forced to start taking it occasionally again. Was I taking a step forward or backward?
But with time and with practice, I’ve ditched worry for hope and knowing the universe has our back. I’ve flipped the script on anxiety and see it as excitement instead. I’ve reminded myself time and time again, you don’t have to be perfect to be awesome. And I sit patiently knowing that I am strong enough to look fear in the eye and be a better person for it every time. Most importantly, I’ve learned that living more meaningfully really matters to me. I know I want to look back on my life and proudly say, “I enjoyed the journey and made a difference in the lives of others!”
Sure, there are still days when I feel defeated, or lonely. Days when I have so much to do, but want to do nothing. There are even some days that my head is spinning and my body feels a whirling cyclone inside so I take my medicine. But this is awareness folks! This is what allows me to make informed decisions. This is me listening to my body when it whispers so I don’t have to deal with it when it screams. I’m skillfully responding rather than automatically reacting and choosing happiness or rest rather than “white knuckling it” through my day. And each time I tune in, practice listening compassionately to myself in the moment, I hardwire my body and mind to redesign my new normal!