When last we met our brave hero, she decided to shed her mantle of sadness and pursue her own self-improvement. Armed with Google and deep breathing, she trudged valiantly forward unto the breach, desperately reaching toward happiness with both hands.
Gratitude and mindfulness.
That’s where I decided to begin. One would think these would be the simplest of starting points given their prevalence in modern self-awareness circles, but they have proved to be infinitely more complex than I expected. I chose these two in particular because it seemed the most logical. If I wish to be happier, I should first make sure to notice and appreciate the parts of my life that are already happy. As I mentioned in the first of these posts, I know full well that my life is not miserable. I have simply stopped experiencing the happiness that is already within, instead spending my time checking items off a never ending to-do list that could really be so much more fun.
These moments are already a part of my life, concealed like a toddler playing hide and seek, so obvious in the corner. The most sensible thing for me to do is to notice their existence, take them in fully and experience them as they happen. Surely once I begin noticing the happiness in my life, I can be more acutely thankful for that which I already possess.
Gratitude is a common theme within humanity. Nearly every major religious or spiritual path espouses thankfulness, particularly in times of hardship, as a way to not only maintain one’s well-being, but as a ladder up from despair. It seems that over the course of human evolution, we have discovered that being aware and grateful for our blessings and joys allows us to appreciate them more fully. Thus it appears to me that gratitude and mindfulness are two sides of the same coin– a tricky coin that keeps getting lost in my pocket.
I’ve taken a run at practicing mindfulness several times throughout the course of my life, and what I have discovered is that I have A LOT going on in my brain All. The. Time.
I actually have a great deal of trouble quieting it, which is the reason I struggled so hard with this initial step. I spent days telling myself to be quiet, look around, take in the moment, only to find that I was constantly distracted by a barrage of random thoughts. Oh look at her skirt. That’s so cute … Did I put shoes in the diaper bag? … Did the refrigerator door close completely this morning, or is it open right now? and on and on and on.
Every so often, though, while standing in the grocery line or driving home, I would get a glimpse behind the curtain. For just a handful of seconds, I would feel my awareness expand a little. It was a cool hand on the back of my neck, and it was less quieting than the pre-existing chatter, and more of an inclusion of a new layer. This is how I slowly began to shift my perceptions. It occurred to me that, in these instances, I wasn’t pushing for a quiet mind. I was simply letting the brain do what it willed, free of judgment and frustration, and yet ALSO taking in the moment.
I was reminded of a story a friend of mine once shared, regarding a struggle she was having with her personal yoga practice. She was so focused on grounding herself, convinced she wasn’t quite getting it, that after a few weeks of intensely pushing through downward dog, she developed some wrist pain. Then one day, as she was again trying to force her roots down into the earth, she realized what the problem was. She was pushing so hard to make something happen, she was causing the opposite. She was trying to force the change. In that moment, her understanding of the issue transformed. She stopped pushing so hard. In fact, she went in the opposite direction, choosing to put as little physical pressure into her grounding as possible, and simply focus on her breathing, letting it all happen on its own. “I just need to be there and remember that I am taken care of. Everything will be okay.” This woman is a genius, and remembering her moment of epiphany fueled my own.
It was so simple, I couldn’t actually believe it was real. This is another quirk of my personality. I have difficulty accepting simple solutions and have a tendency to make things more complicated than is necessary, so when this realization presented itself, I was immediately distrustful. It was another week or so before I accepted that perhaps, if I was browbeating myself into mental silence and still failing, it may be time to consider the alternative as truth.
I share the details of this realization because I believe it is a human tendency to attempt to fit ourselves into a mold, to take an idea at face value and assume it is only ineffective as a result of our own failure. It wasn’t until I accepted the reality of my constantly chattering mind that I was able to make any progress whatsoever. I may someday be able to sit in silence, with a quiet mind, but that will never happen if I cannot accept myself as I am in this moment. These are the first halting steps in a new direction, not abject failures, and they should be treated as little victories.
I was at my mother’s house when something bigger shifted. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and my son and I had driven to my parents’ house in North Carolina the night before to get his monthly dose of Mimi and Pappaw. I was sitting on the couch, listening to the light rain outside as my toddler and his slightly older cousin played on the floor, wrestling for toys and giggling at each other. My Mom was in her chair, smiling from ear to ear as her grandsons replayed scenes her daughters had enacted decades before, and I was suddenly struck at the enormous beauty of that moment. I was overwhelmed with happiness, seeing our boys playing and seeing the light in my Mom’s eyes as she took it all in. I was so incredibly thankful to be there with all of them, to have her and my sister and the rain and the giggles. All of it. The bliss of that moment washed over me and my eyes welled a little. I thought about running into the next room for my journal to chronicle what was happening, but the idea of missing even one second of the magic that was taking place in that room was intolerable.
This was what I consider my first real progress marker in this new journey. This was when I realized that mindfulness can be a catalyst for gratitude, which in turn can recalibrate the way you look at the world. In fact, gratitude and mindfulness are not opposite sides of one coin. Rather mindfulness is the spark that sets off the gratitude explosion. And that’s what it felt like; a sudden, brilliant burst of light in a formerly dark space. That day at my mom’s house, I knew I was not yet near the end of my journey, but for the first time, I felt like I may actually be making progress. I felt revitalized, validated and ready to push further against the uncertainty. On that day, I knew I could actually do this.