I had a tangible, achievable plan. It was mine. I carried it well, and even so, it slowly disintegrated, at which point I had to turn and face the rest of my life--the part I was half-heartedly living, outside of work. Don't get me wrong, my half-hearted is remarkably heart-ful, but all the good and gooey parts of my life, so full of joy and promise, were more or less inaccessible to me. Unless they were suffocating me. I turned toward safe harbors, and stumbled into an intense study of mindfulness that has changed everything.
"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." - George Bernard ShawTweet It!
I never thought I'd leave my career in healthcare, though it feels accurate to say we both changed. I miss my clients. If there were two, or three of me, one or two of those would be gluttonously happy, working all day and night, and in all the little crannies, too. Since there is only one of me, she tired of watching my marriage strain and flex until that last little bend could have snapped it, or my children poking and knocking on me as if I were a fish tank. "Are you in there? Hey hello!" I walked away from so much, and yet into so much more. One year removed from clinical practice, incomprehensible gifts of awareness continue to fill my cup, every day. Here are but a few:
Judgment, or OPD (other people drama), ought not constrain you. I left the psychiatric clinical world, stepping lightly into the world of yoga, and I was hopeful. Early on, I had finished a class for teen girls; empowering, gentle, beautiful. One of the girls was waiting for her ride, and so I waited with her. We waited quietly. I knew she was taking medication for anxiety, and I was horrified when another yoga teacher walked into the foyer and started a mocking rant against the medicated, who can't handle life and so they just take prescriptions instead. My body registered a shock of discomfort, disarmed as I was, and I was reminded to breathe. I looked at my student, and I smiled. She was uncertain at first, then she smiled back. We did not discuss it. The man continued talking. We continued smiling. Lesson 1: We must be prepared to love, deflect, and manage--sometimes even in soft places. Lesson 2: When we stigmatize any of the tools available for any of the rest of us, we are incorrect, and we cause damage.
- Trust you will take new shape. Leaving my career, which I knew to be a calling, left me awkward, even terrified at times, in a completely foreign nudity of construct. Stripped of my credentials, I became amorphous for a time, before a new, more supple shape emerged. I have grown to love this opportunity for a new and humble beginning.
- Make time for art; it will not forsake you. Somewhere in my transition, I noticed words and art rolling free, from this place I still do not fully understand. I knew enough to trust it, feed it and protect it, and for that I am so happy. Truly, you need not know "how" to write, paint, or draw, though that makes it less frustrating some days. Simply craft words into strings and knit those into stories--your stories. Even if the works are not elegant, share them; people will love them.
Clutter is not a scarlet letter. Slipping out of my office, and the literally never-ending paperwork, into my home after so many years absent, defeated me. I still spend precious minutes, hours even, looking around my house at the accumulation, devoid of a starting point. The chaos creeps into rooms and cupboards, my mind, and my breath. Slowly, with diligence and the metronomic reassurance of a hard-earned mindfulness, I choose to survey the irregularities, as well as my efforts to control or erase them, and accept what is. This cannot undo me, for mindfulness is my friend even when the setting is cluttered and unnerving. Bit by bit, I work toward order, on my terms.
- Seek the wisdom of elders. I was told fiercely, "No slime, no lotus," and to stop crawling into the tidy avoidance of my messy mind. So, I no longer avoid that which is real, tangible, and decaying. It's all decaying. Again, mindfulness is not reserved for the prescribed, organized, or otherwise sweetly fabricated moments. Lotus need sludgy, slimy mud for a proper root. Sometimes we, too, need sludge. This week, I felt the pressure of the election. I turned to earth, literally. I turned the compost, and intentionally put my hands in actual slime. I unclogged the bathtub. With the cultivation of awareness, and a deeper seat in my life, I am thriving in spite of, and surrounded by, decay. If my teachers had tried to sell mindfulness to me, based on these truths, those many years ago, I'd have recycled the pamphlet. When I feel disconnected, I turn to earth. Dealing with filth, unflinchingly, is my way to affirm I have befriended the everyday sacred. This fills me with a joy so incongruent all I can do is laugh. It is my medicine.
- One year removed from clinical practice, I have pieces of clarity. Medicine is an art and a science, wherein a discerning clinician can skillfully tease out symptom from nuance, and yet still see you, the fellow human, beneath the struggle. I taught people living in darkness, fear, danger, ambivalence, ungrounded exuberance, and/or all of these, on shuffle, every day and every season, to push away the din of stigma. Our work was sometimes impossible--how does one hone in on the clear, knowing voice inside when the mind has forsaken us? No matter how grand the delusions haunting an individual, how does one repeatedly make the best choices, with the best supports possible? And yet we did, time and time again. I have met resilience, and it is accessible to us all.
- We are not a population divided, with all who are mentally stable gathered sweetly on one side of a thick black line, and all who are mentally ill sorted off to the other. It is more clear to me now, than ever, that we are all humans, and made up of moments. We are all flawed, and vibrantly so. Our leaders, are human and flawed; dissected, elevated, and inevitably, unrecognizable as such. The stories we make, about who we are in our best or least balanced moments, are simply unjust. The truth lies instead, somewhere in the middle. In our moments of balance, we learn about who we really are, and we all have a modicum of balance to reference. Using that measurement, we are all mentally stable at the core, and it is our life's work to get the anchor dropped there. There is no thick black line. There are only pause and choice, and the hard work of striving for something sweeter than errant human tendencies.
- Loving silence can transmute darkness into light. In that past life, my clinical life, I sat with those in great suffering and worked to humanize the medical model. I listened, guided, and comforted, though I can say my most profound moments were those where I could do nothing. I have witnessed pain so great, and so untouchable, that silence was the only appropriate response. After all measures are exhausted, there is still silence. It is potent, worthy of respect. After years in the practice of medicine, these are the ones--sitting, breathing, holding the moment. These were some of my most powerful interventions.
- We are beings capable of thriving, in spite of our suffering, our trials, our wounds and our wars. Through the most egregious of barriers to our growth, we are able to make gains. And there are times when we do not thrive. There are times where the big moon is not visible, and cannot guide us home. There are times where the wild nature overcomes us, and we must adjust to fight those fights. These are the realities of our human conditions, and yet, I have not met a fighter who did not earn every inch of progress toward freedom.
- We are safe, and yet only relatively so. Part of me is comforted by this harsh reality, because it gives me what I need to take mindfulness, not as a practice, but as a lifestyle, very seriously. The more I learn on this path, the less things change. There is no guaranteed place of love, acceptance, or safety. Hatefulness is its own powerful force. There is only that which is unfolding at any given moment, and gravity rules. Through the beautifully mundane work of mindfulness, I have developed unanticipated resilience in the face of that which previously would have taken my breath away, knocked me off my feet, or provoked a large scale and protective shutdown, even 1-2 years ago. When tragedy strikes, groundlessness no longer sweeps me out of my power.
- There are no panaceas. Mindfulness, like any other method or tool, is still but one piece of a larger body of work that allows me to access moments of peace in the face of distress, moments of joy, and a quiet appreciation for the times darkness reigns over my preference for light. My wellness is fueled by foraged blocks and bits so complex and different than the ones you might construct for yourself. Leave no stone unturned in your quest. We must allow ourselves to surpass the paradigm, and push against the status quo. It is the hardest work, and yet it is how we earn our incremental victories, illuminating that which we call hope along the way.
- Monitor internal chatter, for it will set you free. Our own horrid thinking is the most eloquent, exquisite, and sophisticated alarm system, and it is free--built right in! When that smooth talk oozes through the landscape of your beautiful mind, take notice. Ignoring hostility serves only to betray you in the end. Learn to honor it as an elegant clue that you have slipped from comfort into discomfort, though really, you haven't gone anywhere. Practice stopping in your tracks, finding your center, and then taking a few breaths to clear the system. It is possible to listen until the rant subdues itself to a murmur, and then slips merrily away. From there, it is possible to relax shrugged shoulders ever so slightly, and perhaps delve back into the merry chaos a little lighter and more effectively. Perhaps.
If you are unsure about making a significant life change, I commend you because that means you are proceeding with caution. Take your time, then take your steps. In its own way, and exactly how it needs to, clarity will unfold. You are meant to walk your path, and there are many divergent options. Allow fear to fall away; the world has not seen anything like you.
Tanya Beard is a recently retired psychiatric nurse practitioner, yoga teacher, and writer in Redmond, Oregon. Her blog is a heartfelt tribute to the nuance and universality of little human moments.
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