the art of being still

At least three or four times a week, I take this routine walk by the lake. It’s about two miles to and from my apartment…and really the only form of exercise I actually enjoy, especially when it’s nicer out.

On one of my recent walks, I stopped and sat down. It was around 8pm, so the temperature was slightly cooler and there were less people around. I watched in silence as the water rippled from the wind. I listened to the sounds of the waves crashing into the shore. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, feeling the last bit of sunshine of the day on my skin and the smell of fresh air only a lake can bring. And I was hit with the realization that this was the first time in a long time (probably ever) that I was truly just being.

Like so many others, for as long as I can remember, I have been constantly on the move and planning every second of every minute of every day. Hell, I even plan for things months and years in advance. I do this so often that I have spent the last 20+ years of my life never really appreciating the small moments where I can just be. I don’t even know how to appreciate those moments.


I believe that there is exceptional beauty to be found in the quiet and stillness of our world. Unfortunately our world is always moving, always striving to achieve something new, and always running away from things we wish to forget. So it’s rare that we ever truly find moments of stillness. I know for me, my mind is constantly running with thoughts about my dreams, expectations and responsibilities, hopes and aspirations, regret and fear, etc.
 

When I was in India studying, after a long week of exams, I’d occasionally pack a small suitcase and hop on a train to a paradise awaiting 5 hours away. There’s this scene I play over and over in my head when I feel like I need a breather. My happy place, if you will. It’s of a street in Goa I once visited. I’m riding around in a vespa; unknowingly observing things that were going to be imprinted into my mind forever.  The sweet smell of earth before a rain shower, fills my lungs. Off in the distance, you can hear the sounds of a soccer game.  The whole town seemed to be out.  Groups of women in floral dresses clutching their Bibles as they walked home from church.  The priest joins in on the soccer game, lifting his cassock to avoid the mud and to execute a splendid kick that sends the ball flying into the air. Families leaving little ice cream shops with cones topped with scoops of ice cream in the most vibrant hues of pinks, greens, and purples.  Children frantically licking away at them as the heat melts away their treats.  The corner shop is playing old Hindi tunes while the bakery next to it puts out the sweetest smelling pastries. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. In reality this whole scene happened in less than 30 seconds. But in my mind I’ve slowed it down to frame by frame and have tried numerous times to re-experience it all again.

I listened to a TedTalk recently called “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor. He spoke about our tendency to constantly put happiness over our cognitive horizon. Meaning we adopted this mantra that we’ll be happy after we reach a goal. “I’ll be enjoy my life after I graduate college,” “…after I get a my degree,” “…after I get a job” or “…after I get married and settle down,” and so on and so forth. We all do it. And there isn’t anything necessarily inherently wrong with this mantra. But unfortunately we adopt this as our reality, as the ultimate formula to achieve true happiness.  The only problem with that is that we’ve pushed the possibility of being happy so far over the horizon that it becomes unattainable, and we miss all those moments in between. It also contributes to our difficulty finding pride, appreciation, and satisfaction in the goals we do achieve. “I got good grades this semester…next semester I’m going to get even better grades,” “I graduated high school…well, no big deal, still got to graduate college.”

 Just today we were talking about wanting to jet off to the Netherlands (Dutch people are the top 10 happiest people in the world) to get away from the noise and start farming our own produce. But there I went again waiting for joy. When I get there, then I’ll be happy. I’ve wondered why this particular scene from Goa sticks with me. I have an abundance of amazing memories to choose from, but this one fills my heart with warmth.  I’m always subconsciously telling myself that I don’t deserve to relax or enjoy my life yet. “You have a mountain of things to get done and you’re sitting here daydreaming. Get a grip girl!”  Actually that’s exactly what I need to do: get a grip…on right now!  The people in my story aren’t doing anything extra ordinary. In fact, they are all quite mundane, everyday things.  It’s not that people in Goa or the Netherlands lead particularly stress-free lives. If I were to move to a new place, I would still carry all of my baggage with me. I need a change in perspective not a change in geographical location.  Practicing gratitude and awareness (aka Unagi) can help.

 A wise teacher once told me “if you change nothing, nothing will change.”  So what can you do to learn to be still? 1.) Unplug. This is easier said than done, but has become essential in the world we live in. If there was an app on our phones that told us the number of times a day we picked up our phones to check “what’s new,” we’d be left feeling a little embarrassed.  Whenever I’m in a situation where I don’t know what to do, I pick up my phone.  Opening apps I’ve never used before to avoid a slightly awkward social situation.  Hmm…stocks, don’t know anything about it but now would be a great time to open it and pretend to be interested in it.  Our phones have become our lifelines.  Easily connects us to everyone we know but still leaves us more distant than ever.  It gets so exhausting, constantly checking what other people have posted, what the latest breaking news is, tracking the location of our latest Amazon order, and the list goes on.  And if I lose my phone, I’m a frantic mess. A series of “what if” scenarios play out in my head.  “What if someone calls me with an emergency and I’m not there to pick up? What if I lose all the pictures and videos on my phone? What if someone steals my personal information and steals my identity?” After all that worry I usually find my phone buried in the bottom of my purse.  And wouldn’t you believe it, there was no crisis in those 10 minutes it was lost.  Therefore, unplug. Learn to sit with yourself and be comfortable.  The person I fear most of facing is myself.  

 This leads me to my 2nd tip, allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling.  I can’t count the number of times I push away unpleasant thoughts because I think it will ruin my mood.  I never allow myself to acknowledge feelings like fear, anger, and sadness.  Everything is about “positive vibes only” and “fake it ’til you make it.”  While I understand the good intentions behind such phrases, the truth of the matter is, we are human.  There is a whole spectrum of emotions and its okay, and actually good to feel and experience them all.  So if you are feeling anxious, allow yourself to feel anxious. If you are angry, be angry! But, then move forward. Repressing thoughts temporarily numbs you, but like any anesthetic, it wears off.  

 My 3rd tip is to allow yourself the chance to grow. This is not an overnight change.  We don’t think you’re going to read our post and have an epiphany.  These are all things we already know but occasionally need a reminder. It is a constant struggle, but will get better with practice. Allow yourself some grace and find joy in the journey.  

I looked at all the stragglers on the beach, the couples holding hands and walking along the shore, the group of friends laughing and pushing each other around, the runners/bikers who make the rest of us look bad (successfully), and I wondered how many of them truly appreciate this moment in time. I wondered if I even truly appreciated the new found stillness of that moment.

 As I sat by the lake, I was mesmerized and enchanted by the immensity of the water…of our world. A world that is so inherently beautiful, still, and quiet, drowning out the noise of our expectations, responsibilities, and regret.. A world where we keep pushing happiness over that cognitive horizon. A world that we can continue to let pass us by…or try to truly live in.

 “Ego says, “Once everything falls into place, I’ll feel peace.”
Spirit says, “Find your peace, and then everything will fall into place.”

 Marianne Williamson

*Featured image retrieved from: https://www.jamendo.com/radios/Relaxation

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