The real world is what’s right in front of you

By all means, be informed. Pay attention to great global matters of historical significance, and don’t stick your head in the sand. But don’t let some vague sense of duty to more important things distract you from the present; and don’t, for goodness’ sake, believe the line that tells you that the more close and familiar something is, the less it signifies. Just the opposite is true.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (Wikimedia Commons)

On mindfulness (and nosefulness)

This week, I’m driving up and down, up and down the same twenty-mile strip of road every day. I was getting terribly bored, even though the car is stocked with a CD flip folder of the complete works of Pavement (I dunno).
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So I decided to stick my head out the window and see what I could smell as I drove and drove and drove. And there I was! Wet pavement, hot pavement, hot dust, dry dust, several kinds of pine, mold and mildew, wood fires, wood chips, wet wood chips, all manner of sweet grasses and sweet and spicy weeds, lighter fluid, and, in one lonely sumac grove, a startling cloud of chicken pot pie. So many invisible, disembodied, very insistent presences ready to be named as I hurtled past them down the highway.
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Strangest of all was when I couldn’t smell anything for minutes at a time. I could see with my eyes that there were things to smell: shining bogs, waving clusters of chicory, downed pine logs abandoned in piles and overcome with wild grapes and clematis. But no smell, just the everyday air. Either they somehow cancelled each other out in some kind of arcane chemical process, or else they smelled of something I live with day to day and don’t recognize as a thing anymore. I sniffed and sniffed when I didn’t smell anything, but I didn’t get anywhere. I was seized with a desire to change that, to know exactly where I am, nosewise.
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This olfactory walkabout made the ride fly by; and it’s also a pleasant way of practicing mindfulness, which in its basic form just means choosing not to skim heedlessly over the surface of your day, but to deliberately root yourself in the world and moment you’ve been given. Happily, olfactory mindfulness also brings extra oxygen up into your brain, which never hurts (assuming the air is clean).
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I was glad to happen across this way of spending time because I waste and disregard and scroll past so much of my life, and I want to do that less. It’s a beautiful world, and you can choose to gratefully, actively partake of that beauty, or you can choose to let it slip by.
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But also, the last several weeks have been intensely stressful for several reasons. I sometimes find myself panicking without really knowing why. Habits of mindfulness, olfactory and otherwise, help enormously. When I stop and decide to practice mindfulness, I don’t try to figure out or solve anything; I just mentally pause and deliberately name all the things I’m feeling as I hurtle down he road. No judging, just categorizing. If I feel guilty for feeling something, then that gets named and put on the list, too.
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Then, once I’ve taken a few minutes to narrow in on the best possible words to describe the top five things I’m feeling . . . they often sit back and let me deal with them. It’s like sorting a nightmarish mountain of dirty dishes into tidy stacks of plates and bowls: You still have to wash them, but my goodness, it’s suddenly a manageable task, rather than overwhelming chaos.
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Sometimes, once you’ve sorted everything, the task ahead of you turns out to be not as bad as it looks; sometimes there was a lot of empty space in between pots and pans, and the actual workload is much smaller than you thought; and very often, a few things can be dispensed of with a quick rinse, and then you’re done with them.
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Then maybe you do come across a grisly, blistered old broiler pan that’s going to take some extra work, if it can be salvaged at all. Well, you’ll feel a lot more at peace about letting it soak a little longer once you’ve cleared away the easier stuff. But you won’t be able to tell which is which until you pause and do a little sorting, naming.
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And yes, breathing helps. Get more oxygen into your brain. It may not make you feel calmer right away, but it will help you think clearly. Mindfulness is not a substitute for prayer or for a spiritual life (and there’s nothing especially eastern or pagan about it, even if your posture while you’re being mindful happens to resemble a downhearted dog or whatever); but it serves your spiritual life very well. It’s easier to pray once you’re calm and know clearly what is on your mind, and it’s easier to speak to God once you’ve rooted yourself, with attention and gratitude, in the world He’s given you. Including the smells!

Mindfulness, meet my bumper

road-meditation

This morning, I dropped off the high school kids and was slowly working my way around the building to get back on the road. I was headed to my therapy appointment next, so I mused as I coasted, plotting out what to say about the past week.

To my delight, I realized that I had mostly good things to report. Maybe it doesn’t look like it from the outside, but on the inside, I’m doing really well.  A year ago, I reminded myself, I would have done unhealthy and useless such-and-such, but now I’m more likely to do sensible and productive thus-and-so. A year ago, I would have been all bogged down in nonsense X, but now I’m working my way steadily through manageable plan Z. Why! I marvelled in my head, I’m even getting better at that mindfulness stuff!

“BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPP-GGGNNNNNAAAAAAAAA-guhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguh-guhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguh,” said the van.

A horrible, scraping, flapping, grinding sound from the front end, the kind of sound that makes your heart drop right out of your chest.

My initial diagnosis was that the engine had broken into two halves which were angrily trying to crush each other into rubble. Or possibly the transmission had fused and was fixing to explode. Not a healthy sound. I pulled over as quickly as I could, parked, and dragged myself out of my seat, cold with dread, preparing my eyeballs to find that the front end had spontaneously crumpled itself into a smoking, oily ruin.

I . . . had hit a pylon.

A big old fluorescent orange traffic pylon, about three feet high, and it was wedged under the front bumper, and was dragging on the pavement. That’s it. I have no idea where it came from because, duh, I didn’t see it. I was too busy thinking about how good I was at mindfulness.

I tried to pull the pylon it out, but it was pretty stuck. So I got back in the van, backed up a bit, got out, and yanked it out. I sheepishly threw it into the passenger seat, drove around front of the building, punched on the hazards, tossed the pylon out onto the grass, and got the hell out of there before anyone recognized me.

(Because no one recognizes the dented white 15-passenger van with the peeling blue racing stripes and the raggedy pro-life bumper stickers on it, no sir. Completely anonymous. No one will harass my kids about it, definitely not.)

Yeah. So. Mindfulness! I’m ever so good at it, on the inside.

I wasn’t really wrong. It has been a very productive year. I have lots of hope and even some confidence about the future, I feel at peace most of the time, and I have much more interior freedom than I’ve ever had.

Therapy has been literally a game-changer for me. So much of my life has been taken up with all-consuming mental and emotional games that I didn’t really want to play, but which I didn’t know how to quit. I knew I wasn’t happy, and I knew I was making other people unhappy, but I was afraid that getting healthier would mean losing my identity. I wasn’t crazy about my personality, but, well, it was me. It was what I had, all I knew. Even if the ground I was travelling was unpleasant and rocky, I didn’t really fancy jumping off a cliff into the blind mist.

Well, it hasn’t been like that. I’m still myself. I’m more myself than I used to be. The mental illness of lifelong anxiety and depression were not, are not the real me. I’m closer now to being the real me than I used to be. I still have ups and downs, and I still have plenty of work to do. I don’t always act the way I want to; but at least I feel like I have a choice in how I respond to the world.I’m not on any drugs, because I don’t need them right now. It’s been a very good year.

Does it seem this way from the outside, to people who know me and live with me? I have no idea. For all I know, the rest of the world still sees me driving around like an idiot with an orange pylon wedged under my bumper, and it’s only by good luck that it is just a pylon, and not a puppy dog or a crossing guard. I hope that my work with therapy has made life easier or better for people who have to live and work with me, but I am not sure.

Either way, it’s been worth it.

I’m telling you in case you need the encouragement to make that phone call (or several phone calls). Get a good therapist, be honest, do the work, be persistent, and your ride through life will get a lot smoother in the best possible way. You’ll still be in the driver’s seat, and even if you do have to drive off a cliff at some point, you won’t be in free fall forever, I promise. If you stick with it, you will still be yourself. More yourself.

On the inside, anyway. On the outside? Just keep an eye open for crossing guards, I guess. But you can do it! And it will be worth it.

Here’s more of what I’ve written about going to therapy and about taking an SSRI.

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Image: “Road Meditation” by Nickolai Kashirin via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A note about the photo: I am not saying that I would have hit this chick with my van on purpose, but I am saying that if I did hit her, it definitely would have been on purpose. That’s the magic of mindfulness!