Thoughts on mindfulness, humanity and mental-health
As I write, I’m sitting outside. The sun is warming the right side of my face, and the birds gently call to each other. There is a slight breeze as the sun dips behind a cloud, and then in a moment returns to warming me once more. It is quite serene. For the first time in days, I feel settled. I am feeling the chair beneath me, hearing the keyboard clacks as I type, and am aware of a slight drowsiness that is making my eyelids want to shut. I steadily drink my black tea in hopes it will compensate for my poor night’s sleep. This is the moment I am in. It is Saturday morning, and I am drinking tea while writing. It is as simple as that.
For the past ten days I have been traveling. Currently, I am in New Zealand and have been staying at a retreat center where I will go on a silent meditation retreat in a few short days. In exchange for my stay, I have been volunteering— working with three other beautiful individuals who were all equally looking for some introspective time away with oneself and nature. I wish I could say that my past week here has been as grounded as this moment when I write, but it has not. In addition to navigating the challenges that come with international travel and a new set of daily responsibilities—jet lag, new cultural idioms, a changed daily schedule and the unfamiliarity of a place different than home— my mind has been creating another set of obstacles for me to plunder. Although my body arrived on the north island days ago, it appears as though my mind did not. My mind has been flying, first class, through future projections, worry thoughts and aversion. An itinerary that has certainly been appealing to the job of my mind, to think, but not one that has been kind to me. In fact, it has been causing me a lot of unnecessary distress.
Currently, I’m in a period of transition, and I’m certain this has been the main instigator of my mind’s unruly behavior. When I return home from my retreat, I will have five short weeks to prepare to move back to the United States from Singapore where I have been living for the past year and a half. In addition to the move, when I arrive back in America I will be starting graduate school full-time. Before I left for my trip, I finished my last round of teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for 2018, and have no more real location based business ties to Singapore. In a sense, I’m no longer fully immersed in my life there, and I’m yet to be fully engaged in graduate school. I’m now somewhere in the middle.
During the beginning of June, I traveled to France, visiting Paris and the Aquitaine region. One of the sites I visited was the Dune du Pilat, or The Grand Dune, the tallest sand dune in Europe. When I reached the top of The Dune, I paused to take in everything that was surrounding. In that moment, besides the sheer magnificence of the landmass, I remember being struck with a sense of groundlessness— this sense of unfamiliarity. Now, you see, the Dune du Pilat straddles both the Atlantic ocean and the forest surrounding the entrance to Arcachon Bay. When you look to one side of The Dune, you see still blue water turning into coastline, and to the other you see endless stretches of Evergreens. I was hearing the thunder of waves amidst the hum of forest winds. I had never seen or experienced anything quite like it. And so, in that moment, my mind was having difficulty grappling with exactly where I was. I was trying to attach the moment to something I had known before, yet there was nothing to hold onto— the witnessing of The Dune, to me, was completely unknown. I was somewhere between forest and ocean, feeling incredibly grand as I looked down on the scattered homes and boats below, yet at the same time was feeling ever so small in the vast landscape that surrounded.
So, in my sense of confusion I sat. I sat down in the sand, wrapped my arms around my knees, and looked out into all that was in front of me. I witnessed boats gliding across the the water and children running playfully down The Dune’s sloping sides. I heard their giggles and their tired parent’s sighs. I smelled the salt water laced air and felt it’s breeze on my cheek. The crackle of tree trunks moving to the wind teased my hearing as well, and I turned to meet it. I then saw the forest. The rows upon rows of trees, recognizing the illusion of shortness that The Dune’s height advantage played on them. I breathed.
In those moments, in my pause, I was able to experience The Dune. I was able to settle into it’s qualities, and ground myself with their surroundings. It was unique and unfamiliar and a bit disorienting, yet I was filled with a sense of wonder— awe. I didn’t want to turn away, I didn’t want to get up and leave because I was entranced with the beauty of this new discovery I was making. And, after sitting on The Dune for quite sometime, I realized that all the individual aspects of The Dune were familiar, it was just their context that was different. I had seen the ocean, boats, children and trees before— just never before in this way. I also became aware that I no longer felt so unsteady or groundless. I didn’t exactly feel completely grounded, but I certainly wasn’t floating either. And, I was okay with that. I was accepting of that, and in fact, even a bit excited by it.
Looking back at my experience of The Dune, I can see that it was a lot like transition. The Dune was not the ocean, nor the forest. It was between. It was this space in the middle of two easily recognizable places. And although it contained old, familiar elements, within it’s shape and context they were completely new and undiscovered to me. Really, it was a place in and of itself. It was only with time and curiosity though that it’s individual mixture of qualities became palatable to me— their newness was no longer alarming, but instead intriguing.
As I sit here writing, listening to the birds talk and flies buzz around, I’m struck wondering if I could perhaps approach my own current transition as I did The Dune. My mind has been so occupied with avoiding the uncomfortable state of groundlessness, that I have forgotten to become curious with it. In trying to suppress these less than ideal emotions— fear, exhaustion, hints of anxiety and loss… I have also been inadvertently keeping myself from fully experiencing any of the pleasantness that is also accompanying them—feelings of excitement, wonder, belonging and even love. My avoidance has allowed my mind to run wild with future projections and scenarios, and at the same time this loop has kept me from recognizing the beauty of the time I’m in— the remoteness, the sweeping landscapes of trees and sea and the slow pace of life. I know that if I consciously took more time to tend to whatever is arising, despite it’s certain difficulty, I would also be able to plant myself into the situation more.
Like on The Dune, I may not feel completely settled. I may never feel truly grounded during this time, but if I am able to shift the way I am approaching this period I might surely feel a bit more ease. In recognizing that my transition is both a mixture of old and new, familiar and unknown, I’ll be creating a more manageable environment for me to remain open and curious in. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it will be easy. Remaining open and curious can be difficult during even the most stable of life’s phases. Moving through transition skillfully not only requires gentle curiosity, but also a lot of self-compassion and kindness. It requires daily reminders that being in flux is hard, and a recognition that I have experienced unpleasant emotions before and I have survived. I have moved through them, and grown with them.
For the next several weeks, transition will be my home. Regardless of my own personal state, time will continue to move on. This is inevitable. Rather than continuing to let my mind rule my experience, as I have been, I’d like to try and shift my relationship from one of avoidance to one of partnership. Despite it’s difficulties, the transition is also ushering me towards new opportunity. It is the vehicle bringing me to my next destination, and I certainly would prefer a less bumpy ride. Soon, I will find myself on the other side of transition once more, and this time I’d like to arrive a bit more mindfully.
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