“Not only does the small stuff matter. The small stuff isn’t so small…Tiny shifts in viewpoint, in attitude, and in your efforts to be present have enormous effects on your body, on your mind, and in the world.”-Jon Kabat-Zinn
Okay, so I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I had a hard time this week. Even with all of the coping strategies I’ve amassed over the years: yoga, meditation, gratitude lists, warm baths, cold showers, deep breathing, reading, etc., I still couldn’t shake the heavy frustration and sadness most days. I even followed the advice of self-help gurus and my mom (who is essentially an amateur self-help guru) by posting a bunch of these around my home. Inexplicably, I wasn’t totally convinced by my neon pink post-it notes.
While looking up at the trees on my longer walks around the neighborhood has been helpful, the effect seemed more fleeting this week. And while continuing to see “my birds” on morning runs has been reassuring, the optimism they elicited seemed to deflate within hours of returning home.
Instead of maintaining a positive outlook and focusing on what I can control, I have to admit I’ve been doing a decent amount of stress eating. Although I’m not known to discriminate when I get into these states (you might be shocked to learn that one can, in fact, stress eat kale), I made a downward spiral into the the mother of all unhealthy foods: sugary carbs. And to make sure there’s no confusion: no, I don’t run to train for anything, so this couldn’t count as intentional carb-loading. I already attempted that self-rationalization, and even I wouldn’t accept that excuse.
This wasn’t a case of wallowing all day, binging on Netflix and cookies (though I might have done that if my husband weren’t home to witness it). Instead, I was pretty productive this week. And when I’m productive, I’m less likely to deal with stress by resorting to old, unhealthy coping mechanisms. I’m proud to say that I secured a new freelance client and submitted a long form piece to a food magazine this week. I should have been riding high, energized by the momentum I’m starting to build with my writing. So then why do I still feel this way?
As someone with a roof over her head and plenty of food and toilet paper, I’m ashamed to admit this. I have every reason to be grateful and absolutely no reason to feel depressed, aside from the global pandemic impacting everyone else–many in much worse circumstances. Even when faced with the written proof of my good fortune in my daily gratitude list, I struggled.
Far from feeling sorry for myself, I just felt blue, and a bit unmoored. I believed everything on those gratitude lists, but I didn’t get the heartwarming lift this exercise usually produces. Logically, I know that a person can be both grateful and depressed at the same time, but when applied inward at this time, it felt shamefully unappreciative.
I was especially disappointed in myself when I saw my dog, Arthur, lying in the sun one day. Similar to a cat, Arthur spends a few hours every day following little scraps of sun around the house for his morning naps. When I came upon this sight, I felt embarrassed. If Arthur can find the bright, sunny spots in his world with a relatively small brain and only one option of decidedly unappetizing food, then why can’t I focus on the bright spots in my life as well?
Don’t worry, I didn’t come here to complain to you about my rough week (or only to complain, anyway). Instead, I wanted to share something that finally worked and gave me some peace in the midst of my inner turmoil: mindfulness.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that before.” Or, if you’re a little less experienced with “woo,” you might be thinking, “Isn’t that basically the same as meditation?” Either way, I’ve thought the same things, too, but this week I finally understood the concept in way that was actually useful for me. Maybe it could be useful for you, too?
Recently, I read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, which I understand to be a seminal work in the realm of self help/personal development. In essence, Tolle argues that instead of happiness or other transient emotions, we should seek inner peace, and the best way to achieve that is by living in the moment.
I know. And that’s the simplest way I could distill the message. After reading the book, Tolle’s idea sounded plausible, but the “how” still eluded me. I could get on board with focusing on the present, being “mindful” of my surroundings, etc., but how can you hold onto that feeling and experience true inner peace, especially during a time like this?
The one passage that stuck with me, echoing in my mind was Tolle’s explanation, “There is no past. There is no future. There is only now.” Confused yet?
I was, too. That is, until this week when I was feeling less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. What was upsetting me? Thoughts of regret for the past and fear for the future. What was reassuring? The thought that I have everything I need right now in this moment. The past is gone, so it cannot hurt me now, and the future has never been guaranteed, as much as I like to think it would have been without this pandemic.
Concentrating on Tolle’s ideas seemed to keep the dark thoughts at bay and help me focus on the light. I definitely haven’t achieved “inner peace,” or the ultimate “woo” goal: “spiritual enlightenment.” But as with most of this stuff, I took what seemed to make me feel better and disregarded the ridiculous rest (which, in my experience, will inevitably turn out to sound completely logical to me five or ten years from now–I’m just not ready or able to understand it yet).
I don’t know if you’ve also been struggling recently, but if it helps, remember this:
You, too, have everything you need in this moment.
I hope this thought gives you the kind of relief it provided me, even if temporary.
I also hope that this week’s purpose-driven life motivates you to seek out other practical ways to be more mindful in these challenging times. If you have any suggestions, please write them in the comments below–I clearly can always use more!
To that end, this week I wanted to briefly look at the life of someone who has been influential in the rise of mindfulness in America. Jon Kabat-Zinn is a professor and researcher who expounded the benefits of mindfulness and trained others to help people like us learn how to use mindfulness to feel more balanced. This week, he is our teacher in mindfulness and in fighting to find our purpose.
Born in NYC in 1944, Jon Kabat-Zinn was the youngest of nine children. His father was a biomedical scientist and his mother a painter. After graduating from college, he went on to pursue a PhD in molecular biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, he studied under Salvador Edward Luria, a Nobel Prize winner who researched viruses and genetics. In addition to working together in the lab, Luria and Kabat-Zinn were both political activists who protested the Vietnam War, among other causes.
While he was earning his graduate degree, Kabat-Zinn attended a lecture that would change the course of his life. Zen missionary Philip Kapleau visited MIT and spoke about meditation, a new concept to Americans, and Kabat-Zinn was hooked. He began meditating, studying the practice, and learning from Buddhist teachers. This was unexpected and outside the norm at the time, as he explained, “Almost no one I knew was meditating back then, and anyone who was, was considered to be somewhat beyond the lunatic fringe, a drug-crazed hippy communist.”
After he completed his PhD in molecular biology, Kabat-Zinn changed his research focus to “mind/body interactions for healing.” He has called this shift and finding his life’s purpose in researching mindfulness his “karmic assignment.”
“I always felt in some sense, from the time that I was a little, that something was missing in the way life was unfolding. It was almost as if it was all about ‘out there’ but nothing about ‘in here.’”-Kabat-Zinn
In 1971, Kabat-Zinn established the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. With this program, he coined the term, “mindfulness-based stress reduction,” or “MBSR,” and created a curriculum on how to use MBSR for those suffering with chronic pain and stress disorders. His research there and at the subsequent Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at UMass led to findings showing MBSR to be beneficial in treating depression, chronic pain, addictions, and many other conditions.
Today, there are more than 720 medical centers across the world using MBSR. Kabat-Zinn’s decades of research showed the impact of MBSR on “psoriasis, pain, anxiety, brain function, and immune function,” and his results have been published in the highly-regarded Journal of the American Medical Association. He has written two books on the subject, and he’s recognized as the leading expert who brought mindfulness to the mainstream. If you’re interested in his method, you can find recent live-streamed meditations with Kabat-Zinn on YouTube.
“Mindfulness is a skill that can be developed through practice, just like any other skill. You could also think of it as a muscle…[that] grows both stronger and more supple and flexible as you use it.”-Kabat-Zinn
So, aside from trying mindfulness as a way to cope with this stressful time, what can we learn from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s life as it pertains to finding our purpose?
I actually think Kabat-Zinn said it best when he wrote, “Over the course of my own meditation practice and of doing the work I do in the world, I have come to see the cultivation of mindfulness as a radical act–a radical act of sanity, of self-compassion, and, ultimately, of love.”
From this and Kabat-Zinn’s story, I think we can learn that sometimes finding your purpose is a radical act–something that others might not understand or support, especially if it’s something new.
For Jon Kabat-Zinn, fighting to find his purpose meant ignoring the criticisms of society, as meditation in the 1960s was seen as “beyond the lunatic fringe.” But think of what would have happened if he had listened to those who called him crazy. The people whose lives and health have been perceptibly improved by MBSR might still be suffering more than necessary, and I might still be in the dark hole I was sitting in on Thursday.
Kabat-Zinn’s purpose led him to explore something new to his culture, but I don’t think this lesson is limited to those who are similarly pursuing something outside the norm. It could just be something new for you, something that your family or friends don’t expect from you. In my experience, some people might react as if you’re pursuing something foreign–or radical–simply because it doesn’t align with their vision of you or what they believe in.
It’s not an easy road, but if we’re too afraid of being seen as “radical” to pursue our life’s purpose, then who knows what kind of positive impact we might be depriving of the world?