I have two cats, Clare and Grace. They don’t like each other much, even though they have lived together since they were both kittens. Clare likes to ambush Grace with some regularity, usually on the stairs, and Grace falls for it every time. I think she knows Clare’s waiting for her – she’s always in the same place – but it’s a game, so what the heck? Breaks up a long, boring day.
Today at lunchtime, Clare saw Grace heading through the den on her way upstairs, so she scooted through the living room quickly to get in position. She waited…and waited…and waited. I have no idea what Grace was doing in the den, but in a few minutes she wandered back into the living room.
It took Clare a few minutes to realize her plan had been foiled, but when she did, she sauntered back into the living room, grabbed a toy and plopped down on the floor to play. Grace walked past her on her way upstairs and that was that.
That is exactly what I’m trying to get to in my life: immediate acceptance when things don’t go as planned, and the willingness to move on to the next thing without looking back. Totally in the moment, totally in the flow of life. A lofty goal, and one I will never achieve totally, but I’m working toward it everyday now.
It’s the default for animals, of course. They are, for the most part, free of worry about the future, as well as regret over the past. Humans…not so much. In fact, almost not at all. Anxiety and depression are pervasive among humans. Life is hard, and our brains are hard-wired to alert us to that fact. The fact that it’s not hard in the same ways it used to be – we rarely encounter animals that mean to kill us anymore – doesn’t matter. That wiring is in place and it works very well. Too well.
Granted, some folks are more prone to anxiety and depression; either we’re born with faulty brain components which overreact to life’s difficulties – real or imagined – or something happens to us which causes the wiring to short out or the chemistry to be thrown out of whack. In my case I think it was a combination of both.
Whatever the cause, my life has been shaped by depression, mostly, but since menopause, anxiety has joined the party. It’s very popular there in Brainland, and is now selecting the music and serving the drinks. The life of the party, and the life of my life.
I could take medication, but I don’t want to. I took drugs for depression for a number of years. They saved my life. After 10 years or so, though, the side effects outweighed the benefits, and I weaned off of them. I don’t regret that decision – it was the right one for me at the time and it still is. I had been through therapy and was going through peri-menopause – consequently I was in a much healthier place at that point, and depression no longer ruled my life as it had when I was younger. Therapy had given me tools to deal with my emotions, and menopause had stemmed the tide of hormones.
After I moved in with my mother and I was post-menopausal, the anxiety moved in, too. So it’s been about 5 years now, and I’ve been looking into natural remedies and coping techniques. That’s how I came to mindfulness. It’s been on my radar for a long time. I was a yoga practitioner and a regular meditator many years ago, so it has been like welcoming an old friend to revisit those teachings. Mindfulness is more than just meditation, though, and my practice now is more meaningful.
Gratitude and self-compassion are part of my mindful journey now, but when I was a young woman, both of those concepts were utterly foreign to me. I wasn’t ungrateful, necessarily, but I didn’t really think about gratitude in the real, tangible way I do now.
Self-compassion was the farthest thing from my mind as a young person. I was very hard on myself – and on other people. Very judgmental, beating myself up for everything that didn’t go well, certain there was something different and terribly wrong with me. There was, of course – my brain didn’t work like most other people’s – but that wasn’t something people acknowledged or talked about then. I, and probably most everyone I knew at the time, thought I was just immature and lazy, terribly needy and self-centered, difficult to get along with, and an unforgiving perfectionist.
It took decades of suffering for me to finally learn just to give myself a break. It took being ready to end my life to get me into therapy, and it took 3 years of therapy to get to the point where I could accept myself as I am: flawed.
Not perfect. Just like everyone else.
What a relief. That was quite a few years ago, and since then I’ve been trying to keep my head and my priorities straight, manage the anxiety, be kind to myself, stay well, and take care of my mother.
This winter life with my mother got a lot harder, and I found myself at my wit’s end again. So I started reading and watching videos about mindfulness and taking baby steps toward meditating with regularity. Life is not much easier yet, but I am starting to feel better-equipped to cope with the daily twists and turns, and that helps keep the anxiety at a more manageable level.
I simply try to focus in the moment. In each moment there is safety and sanity, and as long as I stay there and pay attention to what’s happening now and how I’m feeling now, anxiety doesn’t have a chance to sneak up on me and start spinning everything into chaos.
Is mindfulness the cure for anxiety? No. It’s a way of thinking about and experiencing life that makes you more aware: of your mind, your body, other people, the planet, life. Studies have shown, though, that being more mindful can fundamentally change the way your brain works, including calming the centers that send the erroneous danger signals to the rest of your brain and body all the time. So though it is not the intention, mindfulness has the effect of calming anxiety.
That’s a side-effect I can live with.