On Beginning a Practice: A Potential Path to Making Peace with Anxiety

“I don’t know why it never occurred to me to try this before?” I asked a friend.

 

He responded (paraphrased) that perhaps we become open to things when we are ready for them. I thought back on previous opinions I held on meditation, which fell in various categories: “I could never do that because I have anxiety” and “I will never be able to clear my busy mind.”

 

However, meditation wasn’t far from reach growing up in Boulder, Colorado. Yet it felt reserved for people living a different pace of life. The idea of being “zen” and moving about the world in a more mindful (which I interpreted as slower) way felt anti-productivity and success. It is no surprise that I felt at home, living a busy and fast-paced East Coast life. Now more than ten years into that life, I question the sustainability of this busyness and stress.

 

This flirtation with meditation is very much a beginning, a honeymoon phase. This flirtation began only twenty-five days ago, inspired by my companion, anxiety. Meditation began to carve a path towards my life over the past year. Last fall, a close friend, L, brought the App HeadSpace to a dinner party. I was enthralled at the idea of guided meditation. A few months ago, flying home, I snatched the new book, 10% happier by Dan Harris, from the airport book store shelf. Immediately, I identified with his skepticism towards meditation as a fast-paced person thriving on stress.

 

Twenty-five days ago, I was inspired to drop down onto the floor and try it again. Why? I think sometimes harder moments open our brains to new ideas or maybe we just feel we have nothing to lose. On the floor of my bedroom, I struggled to get comfortable, closed my eyes and pressed play on a Headspace meditation. Ten minutes later I felt a break from anxiety through listening and breathing. I decided to do it for 30 days in a row, to see if it was a new habit that could play a role in managing anxiety. What I didn’t realize and only have a sense of from reading and talking with friends, is that meditation is an open door to more than potentially curbing anxiety. The idea of mindfulness seems to root itself in enough aspects of your life that it transitions to being a way of living rather than something one considers at specific points throughout the day. While it makes my heart jump to have potentially found a tool (or way of life?) that could adjust my relationship with anxiety, it is too early to understand what this path looks like or where it could lead.

 

I am harnessing the energy of the honeymoon phase to gather information and seek guidance.

 

Step 1: Gather information

 

I am reading and listening to everything I can get my hands on. Here is the current list:

  • 10% Happier by Dan Harris follows his journey to building a meditation practice following an on air panic attack he suffered as a news anchor
  • 10% Happier podcast, where Dan Harris interviews people who meditate and individuals who have helped shape the meditation landscape
  • Course on meditation put on by Insight Meditation
  • Autobiography of a Yogi (in progress)
  • The HeadSpace App which offers guided meditation
  • The “Breathe” App: short meditations on specific topics, such as compassion and sleep
  • An app of nature sounds (this seems to inspire a sort of meditative work state

 

I would love suggestions on books, guided meditations, retreats and, really, anything meditation and mindfulness related. I often learn through hearing the experiences of others. I am asking friends and random people I meet in cabs and on the street about their practice. I’d love to hear about yours.

 

Step 2: Try it out (without really knowing what you are doing)

 

I am a hands-on learner. I need to hold the paint brush myself. Coupled with my hands-on nature, is an impulsiveness to jump in and try things, at times throwing caution out the window. For the past twenty-five days, I have meditated once or more a day. I meditated on flights, lying on my floor, sitting at my office desk, uncomfortably sitting up, outside, inside, with my cat licking me, at a bachelorette party and in a tent under the stars. So far – I love it (hence, the honeymoon phase description). I warded off a panic attack by plugging into a guided meditation, I can focus better at work and I’ve created a space between a trigger and my emotional response.

 

The bottom line: meditation feels like an option instead of sitting with anxiety or panic. I share this notion with caution, as from what I’ve heard and read one’s relationship with their practice has highs and lows. One day the magic meditation wand may not cast a spell on a panic attack.I have more questions than I have my own answers.

 

For example: Should I find a teacher? A community? Why is a community important if it is more of a solitary activity? Is it okay if I lay down while I do it? Am I really not supposed to move?

 

I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences.

I Struggle with Anxiety (and I know I’m not the only one)

I struggle with anxiety.

 

(and I know I’m not the only one)

 

A myriad of reasons exist to not write about anxiety in a public space. To name a few: future employers who search your name, current coworkers and bosses, acquaintances who you only see at happy hour who now have a look at your squishy insides, friends and family members who are sure that public blogs are no way to deal with anything, people who may be quick to judge and the list goes on.

 

Tonight, for the first time I sat in an uncomfortable plastic chair trying not to obviously fidget while cautiously paying attention to my breath. The minute the instructor asked us to close our eyes, discomfort crept up my back and my mind seemed to short circuit, cutting between unread emails, mixed and challenging emotions about an unfolding change* and the noise of the air conditioner. Twenty minutes later I was ready to be done and simultaneously a little more settled in.

 

The post-meditation discussion centered on types of love and suffering, I raised my hand, “Is there any benefit to suffering?” I braced myself for a stern no, followed by a “why are you even asking that” look.

 

Instead, the instructor said “Of course. Suffering is where we launch from into happiness. Having suffered ourselves, we can use that experience to share with others.”** I think she also said something about ballet dancers leaping off the floor (in this analogy the floor is the suffering).

 

Click. My short-circuited brain lit up. Yes, I thought “you can share and you should, because you don’t know what you will learn in the process that will inform your journey or the journeys of others.”

 

Anxiety is an interesting companion. If I had a do-over and could pick the challenges I’d confront in my life, I would not pick anxiety. “Interesting” is my vague word of choice, because anxiety has many sides, like some sort of emotional hexagon. It can present itself as motivation. I’ve never*** procrastinated on a school or work project, because of this internal work engine. At other times, it presents itself as excitement, such as the beginning of a new relationship, job or move. Sometimes it shows up in a low-grade form that nags at you throughout the day. You may search for a problem, but come up empty and decide you just “feel off.” And, in its stronger form it just sucks. It takes the form of a debilitating anxiety and panic attack monster.

 

My journey spans this hexagonal spectrum. I cherish the excited and motivating elements that dial me in to achieve goals and I loathe the panic. It is a voice inside my head that questions everything. I swear, the voice is being paid on commission, to weave nonsense stories that are just close enough to reality to raise a red flag, distracting you from your work or relationships. Most of us have been there: He/She doesn’t text back for a day. The rational part of the mind doesn’t draw conclusions, while the anxious insecure part has already written a book of potential stories about everything you said wrong on the first date.

 

Anxiety’s presentation is as unique as the individual. In my experience it puts up hurdles in romantic relationships, makes detailed and focused work more challenging and at times, evaporates self-esteem. I do not know if the struggle with anxiety stems from the ever-present nurture versus nature debate, if it was catalyzed by tragic events or if it has simply been present long enough that it feels like the status quo. As with the presentation, the approach to managing (I’m not sure curing is possible?) anxiety varies by the individual. Over the past ten years, I’ve worked with therapists on and off, tried light medications and exercised – more recently, I’ve tried coloring, painting and cutting out alcohol and caffeine. I’ve discovered that time outside and good friends help. Luckily, I have plenty of both.

 

J**** has told me since my early twenties, that breathing helped her get through the anxiety she experienced at a similar life stage. I detest the idea that managing anxiety (and many other things) comes down to the breath. Seeking the magic bullet is a much preferred method. Maybe my therapist will give exactly the right insight and BOOM the anxiety would be gone? Maybe the next relationship would cure it? Maybe the next trip away from cell phone service would give me the space I need? Maybe? Maybe? Maybe?

 

Or maybe it is about the breath. Cue next yogi sounding term: mindfulness. Maybe there is something to this form of awareness and acknowledgement (with an attempt to release judgment) of emotional ups and downs. I’m not sure where the mindfulness path leads, but I’m curious.

 

I bring myself out of the anxiety closet after at least two decades. I know many of you walk a similar path, because I know you and I’ve read the stats. Let’s converse and share insights.

 

*Details with held to respect other people’s desire not to have their squishy details on the internet.
** Not exact quote. This is my interpretation of what the instructor said.
*** This is n0t 100% true.
****Even the first initial of people’s names have been changed to preserve privacy.

Love Letters between Friends

Dearest R,

As with so many of these letters, I am writing to you from the floor. I lay here on my back to grasp at moments and questions without answers from a different physical perspective. I steady myself by running my fingers along the carpet. Last time I wrote, this beige floor was new. It marked a new beginning: a moment in time. Now this floor and these walls hold much more than a moment.

 

Two years ago, as I waxed nostalgic for white-tiled floors in Rwanda and red-tiled floors in Honduras, I asked questions about how my personal journey intertwined with my work. I was still building the synaptic connections that opened my mind to the strength of blending of personal and professional. I was still learning to root my professional experience in both my personal and professional past. R, I have to say, we have to fight to elevate what we know in our core to be right. We have to keep saying it until we are heard, we can’t only whisper it to each other. We have to stand up, we have to move forward. And, yes, of course, we have to walk away sometimes.

 

R, this floor, which you too have rested on after wine and tear-filled evenings, has seen a fight, a struggle, a process of growth in these past two year. This floor has not seen days and nights passing easily. But, R, I didn’t move again. Instead, I got back on this floor and breathed in and out hundreds of times. Yes, you are right, I did run briefly last year. I ran to find myself again, and I left this floor. I left the physical brokenness the floor had witnessed and I left the heartbreak that ripped through me. But you understand, I had to run. I had to lay my body down on the cool white-tiles in Rwanda, to gather my strength to fight this fight and to gather stories. The stories that help us, the big us, not just you and me, go on.

 

R, last time I wrote, I was both nostalgic for and worried about memories. Today, I sometimes wonder about memories. I wonder about how they fade and change. R, today, those ghost ships don’t feel so far away. Today they are drifting close. I’m not waving at them, letting them pass. I am looking on curiously, wondering where they will someday dock and if the ship I am on will find a port that fills my soul. The transient nature of these ships is only metaphorical, as my life is a little more rooted than when I wrote to you last. I have loved and lost – and then – loved and lost again. And, from this floor, I picked up the pieces, reassembled and moved forward. I stand on this floor today with both my feet firmly rooted in the carpet. I know the big questions exist, as they always do, somewhere out there, but I have my two feet on this ground.

 

I have to chuckle, R, when I read my own words about finding more certainty in my life. The things that seemed certain, such as simply (and literally) putting one foot in front of another, became impossible and uncertain. You know it too well, R, what happens when the “baby steps” metaphor becomes literal and what happens when our bodies challenge us. But, then one foot does go in front of the other and you practice walking on that beige carpet.

 

R, I asked so many questions of you about what could possibly unfold in that new space two years ago, on that new carpet. I read them now with both heart ache and strength, yes I whispered words of love, yes I grieved a loss, yes I was hurt and ask questions that still don’t have answers, yes I struggled and yes, I took steps on the path of embracing self-love and conquering self-doubt. So, R, I guess it is a journey, even though moments on this floor caused time to stand still. What are the questions to ask about what will happen next, R? What I know now is that I can still get down on the floor, as I am now, and count my breaths. In and out.

Love and stories,

K

Walking Towards Openness

I have been attempting what the author, Tim Boomer, discusses in “The End of Small Talk” for a number of years. It was no surprise when a number of friends emailed me his Modern Love article with a note “this reminded me of you” or “you’ve been saying this for years.” Embracing openness and vulnerability goes beyond leaving small talk behind, which is a thread that runs through Boomer’s article, as he finds meaning in not only asking bigger questions but hearing the answers.

Seeking deeper connections means finding a situation where both people lean into the conversation and enter into a more vulnerable space. I imagine others feel the same way when they guide a conversation into a more vulnerable space – questions pop into my head “should I say that” or “what will they think”. Rarely, is the answer negative to a big question, but at times vulnerable spaces are politely dodged.

Over the holidays I was seated next to a man on a flight from Washington, DC to Colorado. On past cross country flights, I have dreamt of engaging in deep conversation with a seat mate in this suspended-in-air time. It is in some ways unnatural – you don’t know each other and most likely won’t see each other again, so a safe space is created to enter into vulnerability. An hour into the flight, he shared that his divorce had just been finalized and this was his first family Christmas without his partner. We discussed losing and falling out of love, starting over and the (at times) challenging dynamics of families and holidays.

While I seek Boomer’s “big questions” in most of my human interactions, this type of conversation, while preferable for me, doesn’t always manifest. On a date recently, I tried to explain the importance of rock climbing in my life, touching lightly on the role climbing places in helping me manage anxiety. He looked at me and said something about never wanting to take the kind of risk involved in outdoor climbing. So, the door to bigger questions didn’t swing open. However, that is okay. We don’t find that space with everyone we meet and it is hard on dates as one tries to balance sharing – but not too much – and interest in someone’s life – but not so much that you feel invested. It is a tricky dance, especially for vulnerability seekers.

Yet – the most unexpected moments can unfold in to “beautiful” moments, as he describes in the last line of the article. In December, I asked a man about a beautiful bouquet of flowers while heading home on the metro and “heard something beautiful” about making his home feel like home in his response. I met a friend of a friend recently, who responded to my question “what are you passionate about” with details about why he does his work, stemming from his mom’s illness. It was the first time I met him and I could already sense what drives him. The desire to step into a more vulnerable space comes from a sense of wanting to be known and wanting to know others – real human connection. We should cherish the big questions and listen to answers knowing that the moment is a gift.

the pieces of the life mosaic

This April, Helping Friends Grieve, will turn 5, but the idea of creating a space where anyone can learn about grief and supporting others would be turning 10. Born out of the loss of my father, I sought to create an open space for discussion and stories on how to support grieving friends. While there is still work to be done, and stories to share, there are many more people seeking to make grief open and safe than in 2005. The Dinner Party and Modern Loss are just a few wonderful examples. It is moving to see others walking this path.

In anticipation of this anniversary I am launching the next phase of this space. The pieces will retain much of the color and feel of Helping Friends Grieve, in that I will continue to write and post stories of loss and healing. Yet, it will leave space for grappling with life questions and stories that arc beyond grief and healing. As I walk the journey of grief and healing, I notice that the desire to share stories “beyond grief and healing,” is a world that I could not imagine even a few years ago.

the pieces refer to the pieces of a mosaic, something beautiful  and whole, that is created from pieces. Much like the creation of our lives. Below is a post from my column Of Memory and Loss on the disparate pieces of loss, grief, healing and memory.

In loss, we retain memories; in memories, we hold on to pieces of what we have lost

Memories. Pieces of the past that flow—in and out of our minds, called back by imperceptible senses in our present. The flow is unpredictable. In seconds, I may be transported from sitting in my kitchen, eating oatmeal and mapping out my day, to a past moment—a memory of my now-deceased grandmother slathering butter on my oatmeal. A fleeting memory of a carefree, cherished childhood snow day enters my conscience. In the next bite of oatmeal, I return, reluctantly, to the present. The memory draws a thread between my present mind and past moments, filling my heart with the happiness of a glorious November snowfall while my stomach turns and I long for my grandmother’s adventure-filled love. I return to my oatmeal as the thought crosses my mind that no new memories will be created together.

Memories lost, memories preserved.

Last week, I visited my still living grandmother on her 90th birthday. Armed with my camera and a fool-proof plan to ask hundreds of questions, I set out to capture her stories. Over carrot soup in the confines of a nursing home, I heard tales of my grandfather’s embarrassingly junky car, the twenty-seven cats that lived on her childhood farm, and tales of working as a young nurse. Through stories, I attempted to create memories of my grandfather to fill the void where I only hold a few—he died when I was five. As my grandmother hesitated between thoughts, I slipped in more questions—How did he propose? What was your wedding like? What did you think when my mother first brought my father home?  Most of my questions remained unanswered.

Through snippets of past moments, I cherished her stories. Yet, her touchingly vivid memories did not become mine. I yearn to experience, to feel the memories, and to create more connections to my past. I yearn for a deeper understanding of the people I have lost—in a sense create new, closer-to-present memories with them. What was my father like as a teenager? Do you remember meeting my other grandmother? Again, unanswered questions.

I like to think that some of these memories are preserved for her safekeeping; they are not for sharing. Perhaps, they have lost their color over the decades of life. A few of my questions caused a smile or giggle—a clear sign of a memory returning to the surface. When my grandmother is gone, will these memories be lost? My own romanticized imaginings of my grandmother’s childhood farm or my grandfather’s triumphant return from war will have to suffice. Will my version of idyllic farm life become the stories I tell my (future) children? (This post was written a few years ago and she has since passed away.)

Memories of loss.

Memories of loss span time and place, as I grow, move, and experience new forms of loss—of place, childhood, friendship, family, and at times the loss of a sense of community and home.

At times, memories bring to the surface the moment my father died, the days, weeks, and months afterwards, tough break ups, saying goodbye to wonderful places and friends with tear-stained cheeks—each moment at times still vivid. Though, some of the memories now appear hazy, they shift along with my life, their color and aching fades. The narrative is no longer one of brokenness or unglued pieces; it is now an assortment of memories, flowing in and out in sleepy afternoons and early mornings.

I suppose we have a choice to remember or not; to cherish moments flooded by memories or push them down, burying them. In this false binary, I choose memories. I choose the potential emotional shifts, the latent sadness, the surprise happiness—the joyful childhood moments, the utter sadness of sudden loss, and the longing for communities that no longer exist.

These are the pieces that woven together create the mosaic.

Dia de los Muertos – Guanajuato

Guanajuato, Mexico 2014

It is about taking time. It is about taking time to acknowledge that people have died, that time has passed, and that we are still living.

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It is about celebrating the lives of people who lived and acknowledging that these memories are still a part of our lives.

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It is about understanding our place in the process.

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It is about presence in an important process.

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It is about celebrating a process.

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The Stories All Around Us: Reflections from time with the Wounded Warriors

He said “Thank you for listening.” I probably muttered “of course” or “you’re welcome” out loud, yet my heart was screaming, thank you for sharing, thank you for your openness. Thank you for taking the leap to share your story with someone.

 

We all carry stories. They make up our core. They define our person and often our view of the world. Sharing these stories invites someone else into your world to bear witness to the pieces that you are made of. The power that stories yield comes from the process of telling them – from the effect of the process on the teller to the response of and effect on the listener. It is a shared experience. Once shared, the story is transformed beyond the individual, as it is held by both people. It becomes part of both individual’s understanding of each other and the broader world.

 

Our lives present countless moments to hear stories – from the person next to you on the plane to a close friend who you continue to learn more about. The moments exist, yet they require an openness and confidence in the process. Stories require listening and questions, and above all curiosity.

 

This week my life presented me with many opportunities to hear stories. I traveled to San Antonio, Texas to support the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football team. I had met team members during a previous football game and was excited to connect again and help out with the game logistics. One does not arrive to playing for a veteran’s amputee football team without a story. Players most likely have a story of service, potentially of combat, followed by one of physical and emotional healing. Yet the contours of each story are dictated by varying countries, traumas, and challenges upon returning home. The stories contain threads of grief, loss of friends killed in action, family, desire to protect fellow soldiers, the pain of healing physically, and the emotional scars that make adjusting to post-military life challenging.

 

Listening, really listening requires empathy. It is an emotional and physical act to allow yourself to walk in someone else’s shoes. My new friend took me to Iraq through his descriptions of missions, his experiences of family and friendship, and the memories that persist. I listened, attempting to project empathy as his map of loss meshed with my own understand of grief and healing. Listening to him reminded me that it is a continual process, some parts fade, while others continue to feel raw. Navigating the contours of grief and healing together is crucial and it begins with a heart that is open to stories.