“The mountains are calling and I must go.” ~John Muir
Escapism, by definition, is the act of running to a comfortable fantasy world to escape the complex real world. It's a distraction. Some might say it's unmindful. But maybe that's not always the case. Maybe sometimes it's the exact opposite.
Can we escape to reality instead of from reality?
People get into an escapist mindset all the time: when you go on vacation you escape from your everyday responsibilities. At 5pm on Friday you get to escape your job for a fun weekend. Movies, TV, and video games are common escape routes. Some of these escapes are more mindful than others, of course. Your vacation or your weekend could easily be filled with mindful activities--nature, friendship, family, connection--an escape to reality. Your video game most likely isn't very mindful--an escape to fantasy--but it's also perfectly fair to take a break from thee stress of real life now and then.
We all need an escape sometimes, be it the mindful kind or not.
I'm about to go on an escape of my own, a pretty big one, leaving the comfortable confines of my home in Los Angeles to spend a month living in Yosemite National Park. Through one prism this looks like classic escapism, but I can present a series of defenses for this action:
I propose that escapism has more than one meaning: it always involves leaving one’s home for a change of scenery, but sometimes it’s not about bolting from the real world to fantasy, it’s about making a difficult decision to leave the real world in order to experience a different kind of real world... and then reaping the benefits.
A change of scenery is so important for our psyche, or at least it is for mine. I can’t imagine standing still. I want to see new views, experience new ideas, meet new people, get out of my comfort zone, because all of that makes me a better person. We can all benefit from some level of diversity in our lives.
Yosemite National Park, and spending time in nature in general, gifts us with a whole new spectacular level of diversity. In this modern age, we live in cies with paved streets and grocery stories and digital connectivity at every step. In Yosemite, in the woods, we live simply as men have lived for centuries, with trees, trails, fires, maybe a bear box for good measure, and most likely no phone service. The two worlds could not be more polar opposites, yet both are real.
Spending some time living like our ancestors enables us to understand life outside of the digital distractions, teaches us to appreciate our modern conveniences, and reminds us how to just be present with one another. When you spend some time switching between these two worlds, you get more mindful.
A challenge is also important for the soul--it definitely is for mine. A little over a year ago I challenged myself by quitting my job and going off on a three week solo camping trip around the west. Leaving that morning was one of the most heart wrenching moments of my life. I was anxious and emotional, and I got very lonely once I was out on my own for a few days. Some people are used to going off alone on trips for work, but I think for a lot of us this "being alone" thing isn't always the easiest pill to swallow. I got that change of scenery I wanted though, and I eventually got comfortable and confident with myself. I got more mindful, it just took some time.
So I might be engaging in some escapism by going on this trip, but I’m not escaping some terrible real life situation for a happier pretend one. I’m very purposefully making a burdensome, anxiety-ridden decision to switch between two versions of the real world, all so that I can collect the bounty that doing so brings.
It’s escapism to feel more real, not to dive into a happy fantasy zone. Escapism to improve my life, not to distance myself from it. Escapism to strengthen my resolve, not to lighten my load.
It's an escape to reality---the reality of the earth as it is, unobstructed, natural, and free.
So here's goes, escapism be damned. I'm ready to have a work schedule for the first time in a year, I think. I'm ready to camp for a month straight for the first time ever, mostly. I'm ready to hike and take way too many pictures, for sure. I'm ready to physically explore my favorite national park and spiritually explore life through my writing, definitely.
I’ll write about nature and mindfulness (obviously), the history and meaning of the national parks (it’s the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service afterall), the environmental movement and it’s importance in an election year (#dumptrump), and the intersection of the LGBT community and nature, which I believe can be a key element in creating confidence in our identities and ourselves. The topics of exploration are as endless as the miles of Sierran hiking trails.
In short, I’m going to be quite busy. It’ll take some hard work, but no one ever said life would be easy, thank god.
I hope you'll follow me on this new journey.
"Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. Even the sick should try these so-called dangerous passes, because for every unfortunate they kill, they cure a thousand." ~John Muir
Regret is a no-no in the language of mindfulness. So is worrying about the future. But I actually found a constructive use for both of them, turning a negative into a positive, fear into courage.
Hear me out, guys. It’s a quick story.
I was recently on a Journeyman trip to Kings Canyon National Park. It was sweltering, in the upper-90's, but I knew that after all the day's activities I had an exceptional place to cool down: Muir Rock.
Muir Rock is an big boulder jutting out over the Kings River deep into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For John Muir, it was what you might call his “thinking chair,” or at least one of his numerous mountain thinking chairs. For kids now-a-days, it has a simpler use: it's a natural diving board for jumping into the chilly water below.
John Muir is a hero of mine. His exploration and exposition of nature has inspired umpteen people to go outside, feel the power of nature, and find themselves in it. He created generations of outdoor enthusiasts, environmental advocates, and people like me who use time in nature to spur mindfulness. This blog is a product of that inspiration.
Now to be clear, I was planning to use the rock in its traditional John-Muir-thinking-chair form, rather than its more modern swimming-hole-dive-platform incarnation. I knew the water would be refreshing, and I had my swim suit and river shoes ready to take a dip, but I'm also pretty well afraid of heights, especially leaps from heights that land you in an icy river with a semi-swift current.
I waded into the water in full thinking chair mode. It was time to cool off from the day’s hike, to relax, to get inspired.
And inspired I got. The always moving, shifting, changing river waters metaphored me into mindfulness. I imagined John Muir sitting there on that rock, writing brilliant prose. I could almost hear his agelessly powerful voice resonate through the canyon.
Back on the modern diving board rock, I watched as kids and adults alike came face-to-face with fear, stare it down, jump, and conquer. It looked fun.
I also watched as kids and adults alike climbed up the rock, waited, debated, and turned away. Fear and worry are powerful forces, and for good reason---we developed them as a protective mechanism. Jumping off a rock into a river carries with it an inherent danger. Signs posted throughout the area warn you of such, luring you into a state of concern. I looked on worried. Parents worried aloud for their kids. I could almost hear my own mother worrying from afar.
Then as I watched an even stronger current of worry washed over me---the worry of regret. I became worried that I'd tell friends about this rock and quietly feel ashamed I hadn't jumped. Worried I'd be tempted to lie about it. Worried eventually all of this would lead to a regret over not jumping off that rock back when I had the chance.
I was very unmindfully predicting future troubles related to a current decision. In the past, I would have talked myself out of such emotions, ceding my control to the unknown future, turning back to the present instead, like a good mindfulness guru.
But this time I had a new thought---what if I used that unmindful emotion for good? Take it back and own it. Instead of worrying about regret, use that worry to inspire courage.
Was I really going to waste this otherwise zen occasion consumed with (possible) future regret, or was I going to just make a decision and be confident with it? Was I really going to go that deep into this wondrously wild national park and not take a leap off my hero’s rock, or was I going to get out of my comfort zone and have some unrestrained fun for a split second?
I already knew the answer to my questions, so I climbed that rock, waited a beat to soak in the moment, and took the plunge.
It was exhilarating, not at all difficult, and not really all that dangerous either (I swear, mom).
Looking back, the whole experience might seem about as basic as a life lesson gleaned from a Disney Channel sitcom, but sometimes it's those simple episodes that prove most potent.
It turns out we can stop over-complicating our lives with unmindful emotions like worry and regret in more than one way. For useless worry and regret over the unknown, we can choose to mindfully set them aside in favor of the present. And for valid yet resolvable worry over possible regret, we can choose to flip those emotions into a force for good.
It's the simple act of turning a negative into a positive. Turning unmindful roadblocks into courageous mindful mercenaries. Every day, every time an unmindful emotions wells up, simply flip it.
Each simple act adds up, until it becomes your norm. That norm becomes power. That power becomes possibility.
As someone taking the time to read the blog, I'm making a few assumptions about you.
#1, I assume you’re ravishingly attractive. No seriously, the inner beauty you craft through mindfulness almost always exudes an outer beauty of cool self-confidence.
#2, getting to the real point of this piece though, I assume you're interested in improving yourself, being more present in the world around you, and making that world a better place. Basically, you believe in progress. Individual, social, political progress.
But progress isn't an easy topic to define. Coming from their own individual starting point, everyone undoubtedly develops their own idea of what progress means. Those differences make the path of progress a challenging and uncertain one to follow.
But in the end we will always move forward.
In my own mindful world, progress fluctuates. One day I’ll do a hike, spend a few hours writing, maybe actually publish an article, check off a bunch of to-do list items, cook a healthy dinner, and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Then the next morning I’ll oversleep and waste the day on Facebook. My own progress ebbs and flows.
I won’t pretend to know what's happening day-to-day in your world, but I’m just going to go ahead and make another assumption, that you experience days very similar to mine. Otherwise, why would you be reading up on ways to find more mindfulness in your life on this blog? Everybody’s individual progress ebbs and flows too.
Interpersonal progress follows the same pattern as well. All relationships come and go, grow or wither over time. The more time we spend getting to know different people, the more we change, the more they change, and the more the relationship between the two changes. Sometimes it changes in a way that draws you closer. Sometimes, you drift apart. The progress of interpersonal connection also ebbs and flows.
You’ll find the same order in the world of political progress. Empire’s come and go. Sometimes the Republicans are in charge, and sometimes it’s the Democrats. Laws are passed and laws are repealed. The politics of power and the issues of the day are constantly in flux
I’ll use a recent example: a few short years ago marriage equality for the LGBTQ community was a divisive issue for most Americans, and a hot potato issue for most politicians. These days a decent majority of Americans support it, and for anyone in the liberal-to-moderate realm, it’s the expectation. You even have the current Republican presidential candidate name-dropping “LGBTQ” in his nomination acceptance speech. That's progress too, but at the same time his party’s platform calls for roll back of all LGBTQ protective laws, marriage equality included. You can bet that if the tide of power shifts in their direction the rights we now take for granted will quickly evaporate. The progress of politics ebbs and flows.
Despite all this---the constant change, the victories and failures, from an individual to a national scale---we eventually move forward.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Dr. King was speaking about the politics of civil rights in the United States, which itself saw various ebbs and flows over time. From kings and queens of their continent, to slaves in a far off land; breaking the chains of slavery, to persecution by segregation; obtaining voting rights, to literacy tests and poll taxes that block those rights; the Civil Rights Act banning discrimination, even while racism continued (and continues). The progress of civil rights, like all politics, like our individual and interpersonal growth, ebbs and flows.
But in the end it flows forward. There is marked improvement of conditions, of equality, of fairness, of liberty over time. Maybe progress doesn't always move as fast as some of us would like, but it still moves. The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, eventually.
We're all somewhere on that arc of progress. I have a lot of work left to do on myself, but I’m slowly getting there. I hope you are all in the same boat---advancing, improving, or at least making an effort. Each relationship moves forward, sometimes into calm waters and sometimes more treacherous, but always evolving. And in politics, even when conditions seem hopelessly unjust, off in the distance there's a glimmer of hope... progress.
Knowing and accepting that life won’t be perfect, that everything won’t go our way, that we will run into both fast lanes and road blocks---that knowledge is power.
This is the way progress goes, sometimes it ebbs and sometimes it flows, but always it grows.
Sometimes what you receive is good, sometimes bad, but it's always exactly what you needed. Get mindful outside as often as you can. I guarantee you won't regret it.
"I was mesmerized, as I always am, by the contradiction of a [waterfall]: an always-moving flow whose shape is ever-constant. A thing at once speeding and still."
In nature as in life, we often appear static. At any given moment our jobs, our friends, our finances, our homes, our entire existence can seem to others, and feel to us, as immovable. But that's never really the case--underneath the shell we are a roaring rapid of constant change. Every friendly conversation, every new idea gleaned, every experienced moment, an opportunity for growth.
In nature as in life, nothing and no one is as simple as they seem... thankfully, because it would be pretty boring otherwise.
Why do we feel the need to post about every story, jump on every bandwagon, opine on every creation, and respond to every comment?
Life doesn't happen in an instant, it develops slowly over time. Whatever your reaction now, it will undoubtedly change later.
But instead of giving yourself the space to dwell on your thoughts, to give them real consideration, we quickly post it, permanently attaching it to our public persona. As if that instant and unnuanced reaction is somehow fixed.
Why do we expect to see an instant reaction every time we post a story, jump on a bandwagon, opine on a creation, or respond to a comment?
Life doesn't happen in an instant, it develops slowly over time. Whatever people's immediate response may be, it will change.
But instead of giving them the space to thoughtfully react to our screed, we wait impatiently for a like or a share. We let ourselves feel deflated when the response is quiet. We backtrack on something we found important and delete a post, simply because not enough people decided to give you an instant pat on the back.
Ideas are a tortoise, not a hare.
I call for patience.
Next time you have an immediate gut reaction, think on it for 30 minutes instead of immediately saying it. Notice how your feelings change over time. Notice how that instant reaction feels extreme after the patience of time softens the sharp edges.
Next time your saying something, wait on reaction without expectation. Notice how your confidence grows over time. Notice how that instant gratification becomes less important after the patience of time strengthens your self-worth.
The first three National Parks I visited on my #journeyman trek all liberally used a "one moment in time" theme (cue the Whitney Houston).
Each park - Zion, Grand Canyon, and Arches - sit on the Colorado Plateau. Each park was made of ancient layers of sediment that was pressed down into sandstone and then elevated by plate tectonics. Millions of years later a river rolled through or the rain and wind raged, and the landscape changed. They are all still changing today in fact, as rocks fall and sands move. I know all of this because I diligently watched the visitors center movie at each park.
It's like the 1970's "be here now" movement. These parks are here right now, but in a hundred or a thousand years, mere seconds in their history, they'll be completely different.
Like the parks, we are also find ourselves in a unique one moment in time. Unique to each of us. Unique to our pressed down layers of experience. Unique to the storms of tumult that weather our mountains of knowledge. Unique to the winding river of life that cuts through our personal landscape.
We will all change. We will grow taller, delve deeper, shift in one direction or the other, and lose things along the way. But through it all we gain experience, uniqueness, and beauty. We really aren't so different from the Grand Canyon, the Balanced Rock, or the Virgin River Narrows. We are unique.
All we really have and all we can control is this one moment in time. Your past layers of experience got you here and future erosion cannot be predicted, so all that really matters is... now.
Now we have a choice: lament the past and stress about the future, or be here now to marvel in the beauty of this one moment in time.
I say we choose to be here now, because like these national parks your unique moment in time is a pretty magnificent place to be.
"Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." ~Dr. Suess
In case you didn't already get this from the sad, lament of a poem I posted few weeks back, I'm not good with goodbyes.
It can be anything from the end of a long vacation to the end of a dinner, and my heart sinks a little. I'd like to think it's because I love people so much and want to hold on to the good times as long as possible. I definitely know part of me is anticipating the melancholy I'll feel as I look back on it. Alas, I've already written on the topic.
Either way, I‘m acutely aware that this mournful pre-nostalgia isn't very mindful.
As I sat in my tent at Yosemite on the penultimate day of my journeyman trip, I was waiting for it. I always get bowled over in the waning days. I'm so aware of it at this point that my brain now sends out an early emotional-tsunami warning. Time to prepare for the coming tidal wave of nostalgia.
But the wave never came.
Out of all 7 national parks I visited, Yosemite is the only one for which I was already familiar. I've been there more than a few times. Growing up and now, it’s always been close to my heart.
For most of the rest of the trip though, each park, forest, trail and camp felt foreign and unfamiliar. Some literally felt otherworldly - Arches is like Mars, Zion is Venus, Yellowstone a wooded Neptune, Mount Hood like Pandora from Avatar, and Redwood is definitely Endor.
But as I arrived at Yosemite I was welcomed home with familiarity. The trees, the mountains, the view of valley itself, the smell of the woods, even the freeways and truck stops on the way, all familiar. Yosemite, to me, isn't another world, it's California. It's home.
So I knew the end of my journey was nigh - I could feel it. I should have been upset by this. I waited to turn the corner on a trail and have it suddenly jump out and attack me, like the bears they warn you about.
But the bear never growled.
Maybe my journey was just long enough to make me home sick. Maybe I subconsciously planned it so I felt more comfortable as I got close to home. Maybe absence really did make the heart grow fonder and I missed the loved ones I'd left behind.
Maybe, just maybe, I finally learned to be present and stop giving a shit about the past and the future, which was one of the intentions of the journey in the first place.
I don't have an answer to this, my new reality. I was on this journey, primarily alone, for 19 days...it was the most time I've spent with only myself, ever...it was profoundly different than every other trip I've been on...it taught me a million things and it continues to teach me now that I’m home...I'm still sorting through it in my mind and will for god knows how long.
But there are already two glaringly apparent lessons:
Right now is the only time that matters. Your right now could be the beginning of an amazing adventure or a the end of a difficult road, but no matter what, living in it with gusto is empowering.
Somehow, someway, on these pages I will attempt to explain this and all the other millions of thoughts this journey inspired. My new assignment is to contort my mind around the profound rather than the trivial.
This journey has changed me for the better. Hopefully by writing this all down, my journey can help change you for the better too, at least a little bit.
“We need the tonic of wildness. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Nature is my therapy.
It feels like I met my therapist only recently, taking on weekly therapy sessions in the local mountains. But when I really think about it, I realize I've slowly discovered her over the course of my whole life. She was there all along, as a seminal component of my upbringing and a quiet docent leading me into adulthood.
Nature has helped me figure out life, long before I realized life needed figuring.
Growing up, I lived in an area of California with a lot of open space--rolling oak-dotted hills, peaceful babbling creeks, stunning rocky shorelines, open fields of grapes, horses, and cattle. I think California is the most naturally beautiful spot on the planet, and the Central Coast is the heart of that beauty. I was extremely lucky to spend my first 18 years on there.
Though truth be told, you would never have heard me say any of that when I was a kid.
I didn't truly appreciate that beauty as a teenager--all I wanted was to live in the big city. We regularly traveled to Southern California to visit family and Los Angeles was where I absolutely had to be. Big freeways, big buildings, lots of lights, rap music, grit, cement. Its endless possibilities scared me, but that fear bred excitement, and excitement was what I wanted in life.
Now that I actually live in Los Angeles, and have for some 17 years now, I know I was right--I do love the city life. But living in the city also gave me a gift that I never anticipated--an appreciation for the beauty of my hometown. A real appreciation for wide open spaces.
Nature, forests, creeks, rivers, fields, weeds, wildlife, quiet, calmness, and all the things that you find in small town life are all just as important to me now as the excitement I find in the city. They balance one another. Without my ability to explore all the gorgeous natural wonders California has to offer, or to simply visit my mother back on the Central Coast, I'm pretty sure Los Angeles would drive me insane.
So I go into nature as often as I can.
I go to find stillness, where all I can hear are the birds chirping and leaves rustling.
I go to find peace and get away from my everyday stress.
I go to soak in the natural majesty of the world around us.
I go to feel small, and really understand the insignificance of my personal dramedies.
I go to spend a few hours with myself so I can think/reflect/process.
I go to find myself.
Therapy, to me at least, is pretty much the same thing--taking the time to think/reflect/process--except with a paid professional. The training and expertise of a professional therapy experience shouldn't be underestimated. They can guide you to unexplored areas of your mind, encourage you to ask the right questions of yourself, help you to open the doors on your life you might otherwise choose to lock up.
I'm 100% certain I could also benefit from a real trained therapist. But in the meantime, I have Dr. Earth, and she usually does a pretty good job.
The more time I spend in nature the more I am able to deal with life and all its complexities.
The more time I spend in nature the more I learn to distance myself from distractions.
The more time I spend in nature the more I understand that not everything needs to be perfect.
The more time I spend in nature the more I realize there's so much I don't know.
The more time I spend in nature the better I feel, and isn't that the point of therapy?
When I am running my mind empties itself. Everything I think while running is subordinate to the process. The thoughts that impose themselves on me while running are like light gusts of wind — they appear all of a sudden, disappear again and change nothing." ~ Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
I love to run. I especially love trail running. Getting lost in nature takes me away from all the concerns of my everyday life and gives me a renewed focus. I also really enjoy yoga. Not only does it keep my back from throwing a hissy fit, but it's helps keep me physically and mentally balanced.
Whenever I'm focusing on my body in this way—pushing it, stretching it, engaging it, wearing it out—it clears my mind. It's hard to explain, but when I'm exercising I think of everything and nothing at the same time. All the same unmindful thoughts come in, but they move right through me, like passing clouds. They don't carry the same weight they normally do. I see them for what they are... temporary.
This is the mindfulness of exercise.
Up until now I've mostly used this blog to explore the ways I find mindfulness in my everyday life, and it usually involves some sort of reminder that takes us away from drama and back to a happy place:
Physical activity is the best way I know to quickly screw my head back into place. By going out to the mountains, by laying down on my mat, by lacing up my shoes and putting on an empowering-pop-music playlist, I escape from the craziness that's weighing on my mind and put the focus back on breathing, being present, seeing the world around me, and not letting the little things get to me. By engaging my body in exercise, I almost force myself into mindfulness.
My March Monthly Challenge to you is to take on a mindfulness activity.
If you're not used to activity at all, start small: get up from your desk once a day and go on a walk. I find the Human app to be a great motivator. The more you walk, the more you want to walk. And thus begins you mindful activity addiction.
If you're already a gym rat but don't find it to be very mindful, you also start small: instead of going to your normal gym with all its normal distractions, go outside and exercise in public. Run on a path, take an outdoor yoga class, or use the exercise equipment built into many of today's parks.
For everyone, every time you exercise take a moment beforehand to breath and clear your head. In yoga we the start every practice with breathing—inhaling the positive and exhaling the negative—and the same should go for every activity. You don't exercise to cause your body pain, you do it to foster physical health and mental happiness. So take 1 minute, close your eyes, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and allow yourself to focus on the activity at hand.
When you're out there walking, running, stretching, and moving, focus on only what you're doing and what's around you. Every other thought that comes into your mind is like a cloud, passing by.
After all the clouds move through and you're done moving your body, you'll feel calm. You just hit the reset button on your mind, and you're ready to take on the world.
This article is cross-posted with Elephant Journal:
We've all heard the whole “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” idiom thrown around.
I hear it a lot in yoga, often referring to the emotional pain that comes in life, or perhaps the few seconds of “pain” you feel when you get into a triangle pose after a week away from your practice. Suffering in either situation being a choice. That phrase, as I used to know it, sounds so quaint to me now.
Last week I had a tonsillectomy, and for those who've never had one let me tell you, it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I had a terrible recovery, but as with any dark cloud in life there is also a silver lining. The pain/suffering idiom became lodged in my mind, and it was the first time I truly, actually, honestly understood it.
The suffering was real, and not in some esoteric yoga way, but in the real-life, excruciating pain way. It was a powerfully important lesson. Pain in all its forms just exists, there’s nothing we can do about it. But how we handle that pain is a choice. We can wallow it until it’s physically and emotionally out of control. Or we can change our perspective on it, see it as a means to an end, and ultimately be in charge of our own happiness.
I’m definitely not the first, nor the last person to go through this. I talked to many friends about it beforehand, and those who had their tonsils removed as a child said something like, “It’s not so bad, I just remember eating a lot of ice cream!” Contrast that with those who has the surgery as an adult, who said, unequivocally, “It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life!”
So I was warned. I knew what I was getting into. Or at least, I “knew” what I was getting into. I came to learn over the week-plus of recovery that it’s one thing to imagine what the “worst pain in your life” might feel like, and it’s quite another thing to actually feel it. The value of experience cannot be underestimated.
In those seven or so days I endured more pain than I could’ve ever imagined, the worst being night four, which seemed illogical (shouldn’t you be on the mend at that point?) but was true. Terribly true.
That night the level of constant, throbbing, overwhelming pain—and in the throat which is so central to our everyday life—quite literally broke me. Forget swallowing food or water, it hurt just to breathe. My ears were cauldrons of fire. My jaw had just finished a round in the boxing ring. Speaking one word sent razor blades down my throat.
No mindfulness exercise or act of positive thinking was enough. I was bulldozed by regret, “why did I agree to have this surgery?!” Flattened by anger, “you are such an idiot!” Conquered by suffering, “you are so weak!”
At the peak of my suffering I briefly considered taking every pill I’d been prescribed, because it just wasn’t worth it anymore. Life was no longer a viable option. Thankfully, that idea was quickly dismissed by the quiet voice of rational thought I could still hear through the white noise of pain and narcotics.
That emotional breakdown was a low point in my life. But sometimes it’s at our lowest that we finally learn to look up.
At a very basic level, my emotions that night made the physical pain worse. Like so many other things, crying uses your throat. So that was my first realization: by wallowing in my pain I was making the pain stronger. Getting upset by it was actually counterintuitive, because it perpetuated the problem.
The same lesson goes for many other parts of life: nerves before public speaking is counterintuitive, because that anxiety can actually cause you to make the verbal mistake you’re so nervous about. Anger at someone when they’ve talked smack is counterintuitive, because that anger causes you to be an asshole which actually encourages a negative persona.
At a much broader level, letting myself get dragged down by the pain caused me to lose all hope. This was my most important realization: by wallowing in the pain I was letting the pain win. I had no choice in the matter—the pain existed no matter how many deep breaths I took or vicodins I popped. But the suffering I felt, that was entirely up to me. Instead of suffering I could be mindful about the pain, view it as part of the healing process, a means to a much more positive end, as evidence of my throat repairing itself.
Wallowing in any pain—physical, emotional or yogi—and letting that pain drag me down, that is entirely up to me.
I had a choice: continue to suffer or make up my mind to be happy.
I chose to be happy.
The next morning was day five, and I woke up in the same excruciating pain. But I also woke up with a smile, because I knew that in a day or so I would feel relief, in a week I would feel back to normal, and in a month my sleep apnea and constant colds would (hopefully) go away. I woke up with a smile, because I knew it was all downhill cruising from there. I woke up with a smile, because I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
I woke up with a smile, because I knew that I no longer had to suffer, and turns out that was really all I needed to know.
"You have to wait until tomorrow to find out what tomorrow will bring."
Our basic animal instinct is to survive. After that, I'd say our basic human instinct is to live. That's not the mere act of being alive, but the much more powerful act of actually living--creating love, exploring our earth, finding a fulfilling path, meeting some amazing souls along the way, and maybe passing down your experience to others who will carry your torch.
Or to say all that in a word: happiness.
But there are a lot of obstacles in the way of our path to happiness. There are the obstacles our society has created through social and economic constructs and those we create in our own mind. The problems of society are big picture, and we should all do our part to right those wrongs. But that's not what this blog is really about--this blog is about each of us, individually, doing all we can do make our personal world a better one.
One of the biggest obstacles we create for ourselves comes from the world of the unknown. If you think about it, this problem runs deep: fear of what the future might entail leads to worry and anxiety, fear of how our decisions are perceived by others leads to indecisiveness and regret, fear of the how those same decisions will play out in the long-term leads to doubt and second-guessing.
I think a lot about the unknown. Sometimes this is good thing--pondering our universe and it's endless possibilities almost hurts your brain, but it's a good hurt. Visualizing yourself in a successful and happy place can give you the positive affirmation you need to help get you there.
But spending too much time in the realm of the unknown is a slippery slope. There are only a few precious hours of life we get every day, and spending them lost in a sea of contemplation about what tomorrow may bring--how a particular scenario will play out, or how someone will feel about you in a week, where your relationship will be a year from now--that'll just drive you insane.
Worrying about the unknown is a fool's errand where we squander our time attempting to predict the future instead of mindfully focusing on the present. It's a wild goose chase as the mind of today scrambles to try and capture some insight into the mind of tomorrow. And just when we think we've captured the goose--that we've somehow figured it all out--reality comes and plucks the goose away, proving to us once again that all our predictions were totally misguided.
We all struggle with the unknown. Those of us whose lives seem stable--relationships, jobs, cars, dogs, white picket fences, 2.5 kids--worry about all that falling apart come tomorrow morning. Those of us whose lives seem to be in flux--breakups, fights, unemployment, financial woes, shared custody--worry how to ever find the relative peace of stability again. And no matter how our lives are perceived by others, most of us don't fall into either camp but rather find ourselves somewhere in between.
It's only natural, because in each of our individual pursuits of happiness, there will always be bumps along the way--there will be good times and bad. We can use our time and energy worrying and wallowing in the bad times, or we can take a deep breath and be here now instead.
It’s time to think about what we can control in the present and start controlling it. The only way to create a better tomorrow is to use your energy working on a better today.
The unknown is a powerful force that can pull us in many unforeseen and unmindful directions, if we let it. So don't let it. Starting right now, make a conscious commitment to set the unknown aside. Let it stay in the darkness until that one day in the future when it's finally real, when it's finally known.
And in the meantime, live your best life, be your best self, love all that you can, and understand that being happy here and now does way more to forecast your future than all your best predictions combined.
I’ll be honest, I’m not really a fan of New Year’s resolutions. If we are the thoughtful, sentient beings we claim to be, shouldn't we be able to make a change in our life any day we choose? That change is up to us, not a calendar.
But I also know it’s important to people. The end of one year and start of another (even if the calendar was semi-arbitrarily determined by some Romans a few thousand years ago) is a milestone in our society.
A milestone like New Year's can be a trigger that encourages us to better ourselves, and that’s always a good thing, That is, if it’s done right.
There are a number of problems that can come from relying on a date like New Year’s to trigger a set of big life changes. Here are 3 big ones:
So if you're currently working through the starting phases of a New Years resolution, and by all means do, be smart about it:
I love movies--the way they can take you out of your world and into another is magical. For me, peering into that other world through the camera lens is really about discovering a new perspective, and you can find that in a scifi space odyssey just as much as you can in a real life story of redemption.
From time to time on this blog I'll highlight a movie (like Boyhood) that I find particularly meaningful from a mindfulness perspective.
WILD is one of those movies.
I believe that we are best able to truly find ourselves by spending time with no one else but ourselves. Alone, quiet, thoughtful, with ourselves. You don't find your footing by using someone else or some other thing as a crutch.
That is the central theme of WILD. Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, doesn't find herself through a self-help guide, she finds it using a trail guide and then by writing her own guide.
The other star of the film is the Pacific Crest Trail. I've found that time spent in nature is some of the best time you can spend with yourself. No distractions from people, stoplights, smart phones, TVs, or Twitters. Just you, the trees, a creek, and maybe a coyote. Without those distractions you can't help but turn inward. That's how a search through nature eventually leads you to yourself.
This is why you'll find me exploring Griffith Park, the Angeles National Forest, and the other hills around Los Angeles on a regular basis. It's my urban retreat into nature. It's my nature retreat into myself.
For each of us individually, we don't have to take on the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail, a heavy undertaking, to get to that place of mindfulness. We can start with something as simple as a walk in the park or as basic as taking a moment at home to breathe and reflect.
The movie eventually comes to a much more profound mindfulness ethos: our path in life.
Here's some questions I've been asking myself: what if I forgive myself? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn't do a single thing differently? What if all of those things I did were the things that got me here?" ~Cheryl Strayed
Regret is a powerful emotion. It makes us want to go back in time and change things. It causes us to do things in the present to make up for our past transgressions, be it seeking forgiveness or turning to mind numbing substances to forget.
But our path has already been forged, it cannot be changed.
Whether you realize it or not, you don't actually want to go back and change those decisions. As difficult as they were, they were an important lesson. The only reason you are able to know how to do things differently now, how to do things better, is because you did them incorrectly in the first place.
That mistake, that lesson, gave you the wisdom you carry with you today. Without it you'd be a different person on a different path with a different understanding of life.
Every decision we make, every step we take, is our path. It's being written as we walk, created as we go. Without both the slipups and the successes, we wouldn't be ourselves.
That's the realization Cheryl Strayed came to understand during her walk alone through nature. It makes me want to run off to the woods and start searching, thinking, being.
WILD is an exploration and a real life example of abandoning regret in order to find one's self, and it might just be the inspiration you need to start that exploration on your own. I highly recommend it for my fellow mindfulness seekers/adventurers/nature lovers/dreamers.