I’ve noticed that a lot of people, including myself, that have tried breathing exercises or mindfulness practices come away from them feeling as though they don’t work. For a while it was a mystery to me why some yoga classes or meditations felt so much more healing than others. I realized that the practices that weren’t able to recenter me were more like going through the motions rather than truly being present. I may have been meditating but my mind was wandering and/or my breath was short and shallow the entire time. Sometimes the internal experience does not mirror the outward manifestation of mindfulness practices.
Some days you’ll find you are just not able to focus as easily as other days. However, this does not mean that you shouldn’t try breath work or yoga or that these practices don’t provide any benefit. One thing I’ve found that helps me stay in the moment if I find myself struggling is imagining I’m writing a story. When the mind is very busy, stopping all together can feel impossible. Instead, try to describe the tiny sensations, sights, sounds, feelings that are happening around you that you normally wouldn’t pay attention to.
For example, say you are taking a quiet moment to connect with the earth. Rather than merely trying to force your mind into focusing on the breath, start writing a mental story as if you are trying to explain everything you are experiencing in that moment to someone else. Are your feet in the grass? What does that feel like? Where is the sun in the sky? Is there a breeze blowing? What sounds are there around you? Be as descriptive as possible. If you find it hard to keep your mind on this task as well, you can even bring a notebook and physically write it out on a sheet of paper.
When you start to put seemingly bland or uneventful moments into words, you realize just how much is actually going on even in stillness that you might not have noticed before. I always find this practice very soothing and pleasurable. Even if it feels like you have no time or your mind couldn’t possibly stop racing, set a timer for just 1-5 minutes. It doesn’t take long for your to settle the mind and body. You may even find you enjoy it so much that you make a little more time than you thought you’d be able to devote to this little mental, emotional, spiritual break. And if not, be grateful that you at least gave yourself one minute to rest. You deserve it.
Thank you for a childhood
free from seductive screens
for long summer days
lying on the floor without AC
Thank you for the silence
of a world before wires
that let my mind buzz with
Thank you for the boredom
of being bottled up in my room
finding forms within the waves
of rough paint on my ceiling
Thank you for the woods
for butterflies and salamanders
and all the small creatures
I had space to be acquainted with
Thank you for blanket forts
crisp fall evenings buried under leaves
snow days with red cheeks from sled riding
hot chocolate and dehydrated marshmallows
Thank you for a childhood
full of flower fields and fresh air
the secret memory of that inner stillness
where I can return whenever I need it
Obligated to fight for change
I bared my bloodied heart
inside my clenched fist
I was always much better
at biting off heads than
biting my tongue
Staying silent feels like defeat
it feels like surrender is
the same as giving permission
having the privilege to turn my back
and shut my eyes to the horror
of a society sliding backwards
Abandoning my sisters
just because I am safe
but how can I kill myself
for a cause that can't be won
I'll only make things worse
Trying to make an impact
from a place of violence and hate
only serves to further salt the soil
beneath our bruised and tired feet
nothing good can be grown from
actions fueled by rage
It's best to hold back rather than
adding to the viscous chaos
my modest gift must be silence
sitting quietly to quell the storms
inside my own soul instead of
spewing more poison
Please forgive me
for long ago losing faith
in the human race
for not having the power
to protect anyone
There is a stillness in the morning
that emanates from within
yesterday's rustling of the mind
is silenced by the slow sunrise
These soft moments are like medicine
rising early to fill your empty cup
with cool air and fresh hope
absorbing the energy of a new day
Fertile soil invites the sowing
of tender gratitude seeds
enveloped in the crystal clear calls of victory
touted from the dew-damp treetops
The heaviest grief can be be held at bay
in those first fragile minutes of light
the surreal sensation of another chance
the involuntary innocence of waking up
I used to think the little things
were not enough to fill me up
fear seems so much larger and closer
than the morning sun
perched on treetops
but now I know how to see it
how to bundle up all those little moments
like so many love notes from the universe
and boil them down to make a balm
that heals and fortifies the restless soul
I know how to let the little moments in
I've seen them shrink those fears
lightening the load of a heavy, hurting heart
don't underestimate the power
of fresh cut grass and spring showers
the world offers refuge
for all those who seek it
transcribed into bird songs,
babbling brooks, and the rustling
of newly budded leaves
the irony of life
is overlooking what we need
straining our necks to see the big picture
without savoring the safety found
in stillness and simplicity
when the world gets too large
you can find me with the small things
wrapped in morning dewdrops
dissolving my self into intricate
mosaics of green
silencing the inner chatter
to hear the soft hum of celestial wisdom
lifting myself above the tumultuous tides
of my own mistaken mind
finding stillness in the radio static of consciousness
to tune in to the salient source of everything
surrendering the obsession for contemplating complex patterns
in favor of opening to the energy trying to be channeled in
life's challenge is a sweet irony
a call to remember what we are
amidst the chaos of time and space
to pause long enough to transcend them
humbling ourselves to the unknowable truth
to trust in forces we cannot control
to be guided by an unseen hand
down a foggy, confused path
learning to mirror the beauty of faith
reflected back in the eyes of the innocent
by the joyous confidence of children and small beings
with blindly open hearts
our trust will not be betrayed
only the temptation to doubt will mislead us
even so we are never lost
only learning new lessons
Nothing is ever as pressing as the one who’s pressing would like you to believe. And I am content to walk a little slower, because there’s nowhere that I really need to be.
The Difference in the Shades – Bright Eyes
The sensation of being rushed or in a hurry has been chasing me around for years now. I don’t remember how or when it began, but that fluttering, panicked sensation in my chest seems to always be with me. I start jerking myself violent forward through my day from the moment I wake up. The last few days I’ve been lingering for just a few minutes in bed after my alarm sounds to caress and snuggle my sweet animal children, and it’s been amazing to see just how much my mind tries to resist that and tell me I don’t have time for something so precious and worthwhile. My consciousness leaps straight from the peaceful oblivion of sleep to a three-alarm fire of strict routines and to-do lists in an instant.
While I particularly struggle with giving myself the time to just live and experience the life around me without frantically lining everything up for the next moment, I think a lot of other people have this same problem. Sometimes waiting feels as frightening as death itself. If someone makes a comment, if I get an email, if I’m invited to do something, or even have an idea I feel compelled to focus my entire attention toward responding or taking immediate action. It feels strange just to remind myself that I don’t have to react. Certainly not immediately, but often times, not at all.
It’s easier to see the error in this way of living when I watch those closest to me. It’s painful to watch someone continue to leap into awful decisions just because they feel they have to pick from the ones in front of them in each moment, that waiting is not an option. When you find yourself in a situation where both paths laid out before you are unappealing, it’s okay to decide not to choose either one and wait for other opportunities to present themselves. There is so much value in waiting, in stillness, in just observing, in watching patiently, mindfully. In a world where only bold, immediate action is given any acknowledgment, we are quickly losing sight of the quiet talent of simply being.
Even when the external world isn’t keeping us busy with stimuli to force a fast response, our inner world is. I make my emotional experiences so much more painful by feeling the need to do something about them. When I’m sad, I intensify that despair by trying to claw my way out of that feeling in any way that I can. When I’m anxious, I compound that frenzied energy by running from it, wondering about it, and trying to “fix” it. Even happiness sets me off on a quest to somehow bottle it and ensure that it stays with me, rather than just giving myself permission to enjoy it while it lasts.
Our emotions are often helpful, valuable cues. Even so that doesn’t mean they always require intervention or conscious direction. Emotions and internal experiences or mental states are there to be noticed and observed. Sometimes it helps me to pretend I am just a passive observer watching the external and internal events in this life. Then I don’t feel so much pressure to get involved with every little thing. I become aware of the benefit of simply watching everything unfold with openness and curiosity.
There is nothing wrong with slowing down and giving yourself space to experience whatever comes in the moment. This moment, no matter what it holds, is the only place we’re meant to be. Don’t miss the beauty of it, the uniqueness of it, by trying to get to the next moment faster. This moment is where your whole life is happening, take the time to notice it, savor it, enjoy it with playfulness and curiosity. There is nowhere else that you need to be.
“Oh, the river!…I know it’s like me…I know that I belong to it. I know that it’s the natural company of such as I am! It comes from country places, where there once was no harm in it—and it creeps through the dismal streets, defiled and miserable—and it goes away, like my life, to a great sea, that is always troubled—and I feel that I must go with it!”
Charles Dickens – David Copperfield
There has always been something about large natural bodies of water that calm the restless turmoil within my soul. When I stare out at the gentle, undulating movement of the rivers and seas, a stillness settles over me. All of my life I have found refuge alongside the riverbank. The wretched, polluted waters have become a part of me over the years as I’ve poured endless tears out into them, and refilled my own cup with their timeless wisdom.
I too know that I belong to the river. It is like me. We are intertwined in a sacred, ancient union. I can feel it calling to me – and I too must go with it. I offer up to it all of my regrets, all of my fears, all of my sorrow. I let it carry them all away to become tiny specs in the vastness of the sea. I listen to it’s soft hiss, ever so slowly smoothing the rocks along the shore. I come to the banks to be smoothed just the same, to blunt my jagged edges and have my troubles tumbled into soft sand.
How many times have I found myself here, asking it’s sage advice? How many times have I been comforted by these dark, whispering waters? How many secrets have we shared in all these years together? When did it first begin to feel like coming home as I found my way into its profound presence? How could I possibly hope to explain this connection, this gratitude for the spirit of the earth and eternity lingering in these waters?
What a comfort and a joy it has been to have such a constant companion. This flowing life force has carried me through every stage of my life. I know that I can always rely on the river to bring me back to myself, to remind me that everything is okay. Not a single moment I’ve gazed at the river has it been the same water. Not a single moment have I been the same as the moment before. We are both eternally shifting and changing, flowing and forming into something new. Yet, somehow we are still each considered a consistent entity, something concrete and tangible. So different yet so similar.
The river is my reminder. It is an opportunity to stop and listen to the universe as it endlessly unfolds, a perpetual mystery, a beautiful, unknowable absurdity. A chance to surrender to the unstoppable flow of life and existence. A confirmation in my soul that we are all one, as I gaze at my distorted reflection bobbing happily in the rough waves, wondering where we began, and where, someday, we’ll end.
When was the last time I truly allowed myself to do nothing? Was there ever a moment that I’ve allowed myself that space, that freedom? No matter how busy I make myself day after day, year after year, I still go to sleep at night feeling like I’ve wasted so much time. I still wake up every morning with the pressure of thinking I’ve dwindled away all the days before. I keep myself in a flurry of frenzied thoughts and trailing to-do lists. I hold my breath as I rush around my home, my office, my head, trying frantically to get as much done as possible.
I tell myself that I’m trying to do extra work to create a bubble of free time for myself in the future, but that future moment never arrives. There is always something more that I could be doing. From time to time, I become so overwhelmed, so run down by my own errands that I have to stop and try to remember why I’m even doing any of this. I must have a good reason right? What was my ultimate goal again? What’s the point of all this work?
When I ask myself these questions, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the answer that always seems to come up. My only real goal, the thing that I’m struggling so desperately to achieve is just to be happy. I become so tangled in all the techniques I’ve piled on to my daily routine in order to facilitate a happy life, that I forget happiness is a choice. All I have to do is keep making that choice in every moment. These limits and restrictions and qualifications I put on my happiness are mine to hold on to or let go of as I wish. No amount of self-help or self-care rituals will generate happiness in my life. These things are just reminders, opportunities for me to give myself permission to experience the happiness that is already inside of me.
Despite all my years of yoga and meditation practice, I keep grasping and clawing at the world around me, at my external circumstances, trying to reach some perfect, organized, flawless outer condition in order to finally rest. I keep feeding myself a story that I know is a lie. I say, “In order to be happy, I must do this or achieve that or resolve all the problems in my life.” I place my happiness in some far off idealized future world that is intangible and unattainable. Then I beat myself up for not being able to reach it. “I’m a failure! I’m lazy! I’m not trying hard enough! I’m too easily overwhelmed! I’m too mentally ill to ever be happy!”
I allow my own inner voice to berate me and belittle me in ways that I would never allow anyone else to. I hardly even recognize the self-abuse I inflict every day. I place the aspirations of who I’d like to be off in the future and set up hurdles for myself to reach them. I make life more complicated, grave, and serious than it has to be. I tell myself to be calm and then pile on unrealistic tasks for myself to complete in order to permit a moment of relaxation. I tell myself to be happy while I rattle off endless criticisms of myself and everything in my life.
Life can be more simple and light-hearted if I only allow it to be. I don’t need to be or do anything in order to be happy or find peace. Those states are part of me. They are not dependent on anything outside of my head. I can go within and find peace, love, and happiness no matter where I am or what is going on in my life. They are not objects to be acquired out in the world. They are essential aspects of my nature. I generate them. I am them.
I am finally giving myself permission to stop regularly and ask, “what is it that I need right now?” and then simply allow myself to have it. Instead of withholding all of the compassion, understanding, and tenderness that I so desperately long for until I reach some distant abstract goal, I can give it to myself right now, this moment, every moment. I no longer require anything of myself in order to offer myself kindness. Real love is always unconditional. We merely clip it’s wings and distort it’s healing energy by placing qualifiers on it in any capacity.
I’ve wasted so much time and effort trying to earn love, trying to earn happiness, when in reality, all I have to do is stop choking off these energies that are always naturally flowing within me. No matter how many times I affirm it to myself, it’s so hard to remember that when I find myself in a state of distress or despair, I don’t need to do anything or obtain something to “fix” it. All I’ve got to do is be there. Just allow myself to be there, with whatever is happening internally and externally. Just allow myself to feel what it’s like to exist in that moment, to breathe, to experience life.
It sounds so simple, so easy that it just can’t be true. It’s very hard to combat so many years of telling myself the answers are outside of me somewhere, that reaching milestones and goals will bestow the inner experience I am seeking. It’s a daily effort in mindfulness to pull myself back down to earth, back into my own body, and redirect my soul’s awareness to that deep, dark, smooth, cooling stillness that soothes all of life’s struggles. It’s always right there inside of me. It is me. If I can only be silent enough to hear it’s soft, kind, loving voice. That’s the me that I want to be. That’s the me that I really am. She’s always there waiting patiently for me to come home. That path home might be perilous and overgrown at the moment, but I know with time it will be worn down until one day I’ll be able to make that journey back to myself with ease.
The older I get the more I find myself conceding to the inevitable fact that life is a balancing act. No matter how much I strive to categorize everything into neat, tidy, consistent boxes, I’m never able to find even a single concept or scenario that doesn’t fluctuate or look utterly different from every angle. Part of my personal practice is trying to make peace with this amorphous, ever shifting, middle ground I’m constantly finding myself in.
It’s especially frustrating trying to find a place to rest when there seems to be no truly solid ground to land on. There are no definitive truths or unshakable facts. Ultimately it is always a choice that I have to make in every moment how I want to view things or where I’d like to focus my attention or perception. We can drive ourselves crazy trying to find a perfect answer or a single solution. With time everything changes and in response we must embrace that fluid nature within ourselves and move with the ebb and flow of life and consciousness.
I have a natural tendency to gravitate towards extremes. I’d even say a defining characteristic of mine is black and white thinking or an all or nothing mentality. I think to a certain extent we all fall into this trap from time to time. It feels unsafe, unstable, and unsatisfying to acknowledge that there are no hard and fast rules or concrete perceptions. Part of the balancing act is sitting with the discomfort of that truth, understanding that most states in life are not mutually exclusive. We have the space inside us to hold it all simultaneously. We can be both happy and sad. We can believe we’re right and understand why others may view us as wrong.
Another difficult aspect of balance for me particularly is when it comes to knowledge. There are some questions that we must accept never finding the answers for. We must cope with the possibility that we are not even asking the right questions. Living side by side with the unknown, the unknowable, is uncomfortable, to be sure. Any missing pieces sow seeds of such doubt in me that I can at times lose faith in my ability to perceive or know anything at all. If I don’t know everything, I quite likely know nothing. This is a duality I battle with constantly.
Balance itself implies that it cannot be held permanently. The idea of balancing evokes a sense of movement. It may create an image of someone slightly wavering or suddenly jerking in an effort to reclaim equilibrium. The quest and the pursuit of balance is a life long battle. This too we must learn to accept. A day will never come when the fear of falling will be absent. The pendulum of life will continue to swing both ways indefinitely, perhaps growing smaller in its repetitive arc, but never finding perfect stillness. While the impermanent and shifting nature of reality and consciousness can be overwhelming, discouraging, and frustrating at times, it is also something to be grateful for. The give and take of the universe is what makes it so alive, so fascinating, so engaging, so worth being a part of. You’ll continue to wobble and fall, but you’ll also find moments of exquisite peace and clarity made all the more poignant by the contrast. Don’t lose heart. You’re doing just fine, even when you find yourself falling.