I woke up a few days ago with my mind racing. I felt anxious, as if something were terribly wrong or something bad was about to happen. I got up, started my day and I racked my brain to figure out what was bothering me. Had I had a bad dream? I didn’t remember one. Was something coming up that I was dreading? Not that I was aware of. Was something troubling me from yesterday? Nothing I could put a finger on.
It was hardly the first time I woke up like that and I began to question everything I might have done wrong and every mistake I might make in the future. Had I made bad life choices that I couldn’t remedy? Had I missed out on things that would have made my life better? Was it a sign of failure that I lived alone? Was I paying enough attention to my friends and family? Had I made bad decisions for my future? Was I screwing up?
I sat in my big comfortable chair drinking coffee with my cat purring beside me, the newspaper in my hand and I thought about what was going right. Granted we were living in a pandemic but now, a year after we became aware of it, I hadn’t gotten sick and I was vaccinated. I lived in a beautiful home, I was about to have a brand new bathroom and my contractor couldn’t have been more honest, kind and efficient. I treasured my freedom, I adored my friends and I was living the life that I chose. So what was all the angst about?
It was a bad habit. Plain and simple. I was living in a false sense of fear and regrets that had no basis in reality. I was telling myself scary stories, not because they were true but because they were familiar. It seemed like there was a loop in my brain that kept catching me and causing me to spiral downward with no foreseeable way to make my way out. That was another false story, the idea that was no way to reverse my punishing behavior, to rid myself of these thought patterns that were painful and sticky as glue.
If you’ve ever found yourself in the same dilemma, when the dark waters threaten to capsize your boat and drown out the goodness and the light, there is a way to sail along and find clear waters. So why don’t we just do it? Because it isn’t easy and it takes constant practice. It takes tremendous focus, awareness of breath and a steady practice every day, all day, of mindfulness to forge new synapses in the brain. It’s tedious and challenging but however long it takes, however obstinate the bad habits are, what else could be more important and rewarding than catching them and shifting them?
Buddhist philosophy tells us that life itself doesn’t cause suffering. Rather it’s our stories about life, our interpretation, that cause so much distress. A mentor of mine, Lois, was dying from pancreatic cancer and she’d had a particularly painful night. When the dawn came and the sun began to rise and light up the room, I was holding her hand when she quietly whispered to herself, “Thank you God for all my blessings.”
If she could do it in the midst of so much pain, so can I. As persistent as my bad habits are, when I find my mind making a bee line for a dark place, when the proverbial dish runs away with the spoon, I think of Lois, I check my breath, I look around to ground myself in the present moment and I give thanks for all my blessings and the wonderful life I have – even when I don’t believe it.