Five Simple Lessons on the Path to Calm
This year I embarked on a new adventure, a new challenge, to simplify and minimalize my life.
What exactly does this mean? This means evaluating the things I own, keeping things that I love and things that bring me value, and ridding myself of the rest. From clothing to movies to books to kitchenware to the junk drawer and back again, I am going through it all and doing a serious evaluation of what matters. And this doesn’t merely stop with ‘stuff’; rather, I am de-cluttering the mental, emotional and spiritual self in search of clarity, peace and freedom.
To get an understanding of where this desire was first fired you need to get a bit of the back story.
It really began in October 2016 when I was faced with an unexpected bout of anxiety. After experiencing my first debilitating anxiety attack I became overwhelmed with my work and home life. I was struggling with basic day-to-day activities that I could previously do effortlessly. When my anxiety came on I would be flooded with consuming negative thoughts; that there was something wrong with me, that I would never be happy again, that I was weak, pathetic and undeserving of love. It felt like a terrible black wave washing over me and when it came on I couldn’t stop it.
My first instinct was avoidance; if I could just distract myself I would be fine. For weeks I did not allow myself any silence or room for thought, there was always music, movies and noise to keep me busy and distracted. This worked halfheartedly for a time, but it didn’t change the flood of anxiety when it came on. There were many good days without the tide taking over, but I became anxious about my anxiety and I worried about worrying, wondering where and when it would surprise me next. As I gradually began opening up about the subject I began to learn that avoidance was doing the opposite of what I intended it to, and pretending that everything was okay didn’t make it so.
So I began to talk about it. I began to acknowledge its presence and began to accept that even though I did not like it, it was a part of me. By doing this I began to understand that I could be proactive managing my stress and develop coping strategies to ground myself well before anxiety came on. The solution was not to run away from my self-awareness, but to become closer to it.
I began reading about meditation, relaxation exercises, deep breathing, awareness and perhaps most importantly, living in the moment. I quickly learned that I needed to minimize the stressors in my life. By minimizing the physical, mental and emotional clutter I could take the time to focus on what was really important; but where to begin?
My first lessons and realizations on the path to calm:
Acknowledge. Accept. Embrace.
Inviting Mara to Tea, blog post from Tara Brach
This story of Buddha and the evil God Mara spoke to me. Mara represents the darkness within us, the ever-consuming emotions of fear, anger, shame, name it as you like. The story teaches when we find those emotions creeping in we should not hide from them, ignore them or drive them away, rather welcome them in. Notice it and say aloud, ‘I see you’. Acknowledge its presence and allow it to be for that moment with an open heart. This taught me not only that darkness passes, but by inviting it in we can better embrace the qualities of compassion. We too often forget about treating ourselves with compassion – it is okay to be afraid, it is okay to hurt, it is okay to feel as you feel.
Focus on the Task at Hand
Multi-tasking is a myth. It is not feasibly possible for the mind to focus on more than one thing at a time. Sure we can juggle different tasks and be quite productive in the process, but it often leaves us feeling frazzled. When I started paying attention I noticed that my mind was often going a mile a minute making mental lists of what to do and when, and I would jump all over the place trying to get it all done. I forced myself to take a step back – focus on one thing at a time. Don’t allow a growing list of tasks dictate your pace or your mental state; there are only so many hours and minutes in a day, and you can only do what you can do. One. Thing. At. A. Time.
Honestly, just move. Do yoga, go for a walk, get some fresh air and get your blood circulating. Don’t underestimate the power of movement. It is no secret that exercise has been proven to reduce depression; even a short walk around the block can make a world of difference. I aim to get outside and go for a walk every day, sometimes on my lunch break or after work, whenever I feel I need it most. Whether it has been a difficult day or not, I always feel physically and mentally refreshed. There is no downside to incorporating a bit of movement into your routine.
Be Right Here
This one may seem simple, but it is harder than it sounds. We have a wandering fickle mind that replays the past like a broken record and haves us dreaming, longing and sometimes fearing the future. The funny thing is we do not live in either of these places – we live in the here and the now. This present moment is all we really have. Meditation is the best and perhaps only way to hone in the skill of learning to live in the present moment, treat it like a muscle you have to exercise regularly. The more you do it, the easier the practice of awareness becomes. I have found this extremely helpful when I can feel my mind starting to get wound up – pause, take a deep breath and notice what is happening right now. Use my mantra, ‘I have nothing to fear as long as I'm here’.
Be Kind to Yourself
We are all our worst critics. Many of us spend a great deal of time being hard on ourselves – we punish ourselves for eating unhealthy or missing a work out, we put pressure on ourselves to perform better and work harder or longer, and we are completely demoralized when we fail to meet the unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves. In the end, we are perfectly imperfect human beings. So how about trying to be kinder to yourself? Maybe even love yourself! Treat yourself with compassion and kindness, and allow yourself to be perfectly imperfect without any questions, repercussions or punishment. Love who you are unconditionally, all the good and bad bits alike.
As I embark on this year of minimalizing and de-cluttering every facet of my life I will be sharing my thoughts, plans and challenges along the way. But most of all, I hope that I can fire the desire in others who want to find clarity, peace and freedom in their lives as well.
Have you embarked on a new journey this year? If so, what is it? What are your plans to see it through?