Oftentimes when we use words such as mindfulness and meditation, we tend to conjure the image of a stoic person with the sun gently warming their face as they sit on a cushion and channel the Buddha. In reality, everyday tasks and situations are an opportunity to practice mindfulness and discover within ourselves a true sense of peace by embracing the present moment. With that, I will share a story of my own experience of active mindfulness.
Stress tends to creeps up on you and then one day out of the blue you find yourself burning out. This happened to me for the first time several years ago. I was working in a job I loved, but that required me to make myself available at all hours, including during vacations and holidays. I felt the constant need to be checking and responding to work emails. Overtime, I found myself frequently anxious, fueled by the pursuit of perfectionism and the desire to please. I found it virtually impossible to disconnect, much less relax. Every scroll of my iPhone would send my muscles into spasm. I developed neck and shoulder pain for which I had to go to physical therapy. I began to feel the negative effects of my stress, but still didn’t quite know how to get myself back to a healthy state. I was working long hours and the first thing to go was my fitness routine.
Then serendipity stepped in. A friend of mine organized a ski weekend in Vermont. It would be four days away from the constant buzz of my inbox. I was in. I had skied only once before at the age of about five, so essentially it would all be new to me. I embraced this adventure. Setting out on the bunny slopes of Vermont, I found the speed exhilarating and quickly picked up the basics of meandering down the mountain with control. My more seasoned skier friends suggested we try out a green (for non skiers that is the beginner slope).
We queued up for the lift. I nervously asked several times about the run. My friends reassured me it would be like the bunny slope, just longer. When we arrived at the top of the mountain, there was a slight awkwardness as they realized they had brought me to the top of a blue (the medium difficulty slopes, which in Vermont are really the equivalent of black diamonds or the hard slopes in other parts of the world due to their icy conditions). I had two choices. I could have ski patrol ski me down the mountain or I could let my friends guide me and make a go at it. I chose the latter.
With the steady and patient guidance of my friends, I made it safely down (of course with several falls and popped skis along the way). I was a bit shaken when we reached the bottom, but equally proud of myself for facing my fears and completely embracing the challenge.
After lunch, when the broader group of us had gotten back together to share stories and refuel, we decided we would all do a post-meal run together down a green. I was still a bit jittery from my first run, but figured a green may be a walk in the park after tackling a blue. My initial caution turned to confidence as I easily made it down the first part of the slope. There were slick patches of ice throughout, but I embraced the speed and took in the mountainside and the fresh air, enjoying every minute of it.
At the bottom of the mountain, I felt a wonderful mix of accomplishment and relief. I had been open to a new sport, faced my fears related to it, and enjoyed every bit of the good type of adrenal flow it offered. I didn’t once check my email or think about work. I felt an amazing sense of relaxation even thoug my body was fatigued from the long day of squatting and maneuvering down the mountain.
When we got back to the cabin, I had time to reflect on the day. What struck me most about it was how much I had been able to focus on the task at hand – learning to ski, appreciating the beautiful sunny day, spending quality time with my friends, taking in the gorgeous surrounding views.
At the heart of it, I had found myself able to fully engage in something without the distraction of work. I had found the ability within myself to cultivate mindfulness. Though this trip took place over five years ago, I still to this day remember how the experience made me feel.
Fast forward to today and stress is once again causing that creeping anxiousness that I had all those years ago. Though I haven’t been skiing this season, I’ve used mindfulness as my channel for getting back in touch with myself. I have found that simple things that I tend to do mechanically and without much active thought, such as walking, can truly change my perspective if done with intention.
When I take the time to fully engage in noticing the birds chirping, children laughing, dogs playing, the sun shining or even the rain and wind on my face, I am engaging more actively in my life and simultaneously creating space and relief from the pressures of the busy world. There are no quick fixes involved, but rather incremental moments that get me closer to that wonderful space of equanimity.