After a recent eye exam, I spent about 5 hours in bright Arizona sunshine waiting for my dilated pupils to return to normal so I could have clear vision. I was definitely limited about what I could safely do in the meantime — driving home in rush hour traffic was definitely not an option.
That couple of hours of obscured vision proved to be a worthwhile analogy for the clouded view I had about myself, my emotions and the impact of my life experiences before I embraced mindfulness and meditation. Just like new contacts vastly improve my eyesight, mindfulness and meditation brought extraordinary clarity to my emotional triggers, well-worn behavioral patterns and healing to past painful experiences.
Its been four years now since I began learning and practicing mindfulness. I was determined to cultivate some healthier approaches to stress and my emotional triggers. My driving goal was to learn to respond rather than react when tensions ran high. Today I am not the same person I was when I started this “late in life” personal growth journey — and I am delighted to recognize the positive changes — most especially when I find myself not getting caught in old habits. The work was hard and sometimes brought me to tears, yet it was incredibly healing.
How fortuitous that I discovered Brene Brown and her inspirational Ted Talk on vulnerability about the same time I was knee deep in learning so much about myself through mindfulness. Brene’s talks really struck a chord with me because her stories were so relatable. It brought me great comfort to realize that I was not alone in this quest to get better at life — in a very genuine, big-hearted, authentic way.
I devoured most of Brene’s best selling books at the same time I was listening to mindfulness teachers like Pema Chodrun, Jon Kabat Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach and Rick Hansen (just to name a few). For me, Brene’s research and her teachings dovetailed perfectly with the mindfulness tools. It made it easier to integrate my improved self awareness with practical tools for positive change — things like setting boundaries and speaking my truth without getting defensive. Not surprisingly, this took more than a little courage and a lot of frequent practice.
Through Brene’s books I became cognizant of the many ways I’d “armored up” throughout my life. I’d wrestled with self worth, conflict avoidance and trust issues for many years due to a very troubled, dysfunctional childhood. I definitely shied away from standing up for myself because the consequences were often more painful than if I had just stayed quiet. Mindfulness helped me to recognize my long-conditioned responses to conflict, manipulation and not being valued. It also shed a lot of light on the painful consequences that would often arise from my triggered reactions. I’d often shut down and stuff my emotions. That is not healthy and trust me, they just simmer and marinate for a long time. Eventually those emotions would surface and usually at the worst time when I needed my energy and compassion for more important things in life.
Brene’s definition of integrity really resonated with me and it was how I wanted to respond when I realized I was triggered. In her book Rising Strong, she describes integrity in action: choosing courage over comfort, choosing what is right over what is fast, fun or easy, and choosing to practice your values rather than just professing them. For me, courage was the hardest thing to tackle. Yet courage to set a boundary on unacceptable behavior from others was so empowering and often eliminated a lot of unnecessary conflict. I sure wish I had learned this much earlier in my life.
In fact, I look back over events in my life through the lens of mindfulness and meditation, and realize that if I’d had these tools earlier in life, I would have handled situations with more truth and grace — and saved a lot of pain for myself and those I love.
I have been blessed with a few good friends who were also working on personal growth a little later in life. Together we would share what we were learning from our various resources, our journal insights and current experiences. As our conversations got deeper, we developed a foundation of trust for sharing some of our most vulnerable stories. This is the “vault” Brene Brown refers to in her acronym BRAVING. It is having a few trusted friends that you can rely on to listen, with empathy and without judgment.
It is truly remarkable how beneficial it is to be able to share your vulnerable stories. There’s a sense of relief and release. I’ve experienced valuable healing thanks to these heart to heart conversations with a trusted friend. When a friend tells me she feels so much better after one of our conversations, I know exactly what she means. What a gift we give to each other. I’ve been so inspired by my friends too — these tender hearted, compassionate and strong women have persevered through so many things in life yet they remain unwavering in their values and their capacity to love.
What I have personally gained from getting to know myself very well and then talking through some tough stuff with trusted friends is a huge reduction in things that trigger me. And if I do find myself getting hooked, I can usually stop and ground myself. I remind myself to “drop my anchor into my core values” and take a deep calming breath. It feels so much better to respond with a clear head and my values, than to react with highly charged emotions.
About two years ago, one of my friends encouraged me to give meditation another chance. I was still working on curing myself of rumination and letting my racing thoughts distract me from being fully present. I committed to using the Headspace app for guided meditation. As I have shared in previous posts, it was a game changer for me. Headspace offers a collection of courses including personal growth, stress and anxiety, pain management, and life challenges. Each guided meditation offers a nugget of wisdom to focus on for that session and to carry with you throughout the day. Over time, I could sense that my ability to recognize I was distracted and bring myself fully back to the present moment was seeping into my everyday life. I discovered that I was naturally making eye contact with others much more often. What really caught my attention was that I could see the reaction in their face and body language when my eyes met theirs — it was awesome. Is there any better way to signal to someone that they have your full attention?
When you turn your full attention to a conversation or an observation, you gain details and insights you might otherwise miss. Years ago one of my business mentors told me that multi-tasking was not possible and I’ve come to realize that what he meant is that when you are trying to do more than one thing at a time, one of those things will get short-changed. This is so evident when you are staring at your phone and only partially listening to someone who wants (and deserves) your full attention.
Very recently, the Headspace app has been asking people to share their personal stories about how mediation with the app has impacted their lives. I have marveled at the positive changes people have experienced through meditation. Many were compelled to turn to meditation because they had hit a really big obstacle in life — life-threatening illness, loss of a loved one, divorce or broken relationships. People of all ages and from all over the globe are sharing their vulnerable low points and the healing benefits of meditation. I find something that I can relate to in almost every story that has been shared.
A key component of mindfulness and meditation is stopping the cycle of wishing things to be different and simply accepting things as they are — except that it isn’t quite so “simple”. It doesn’t mean we have to like it and it doesn’t mean that we aren’t heartbroken. One thing I have learned is to be patient and gentle with myself when I am wrestling with circumstances that can’t be changed. It is so important to allow yourself the time and space that you need to process heartfelt emotions. I’ve also learned that during this time of raw emotion and vulnerability, having someone who genuinely cares about me, who can sit with me and just listen is a source of great comfort.
This is one of the areas of my life where hindsight truly is 20/20. I spent far too many hours replaying events in my life that I wished could have been quite different. I wish I had known many years ago that I would have been better served to accept reality, use the time I spent ruminating and crying to process my emotions and ask what I had learned from the experience, and to respect myself enough to take accountability for my part and to set healthy boundaries.
Four years ago when I started embracing mindfulness and meditation, I knew I needed to get back to my true authentic self and I’d been off track for some time. I am so grateful for having fully invested in myself for perhaps the first time ever. Mindfulness teachers tell us that when we get to know ourselves better, we also get the added benefit of learning to know others better too. Brene Brown reminds us to be generous with others because they are probably doing the best they can with their own stories and their own emotions. I now find myself more curious than judgmental about others and it opens a new lens into understanding their behaviors and choices.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t share some of the very positive health benefits that I’m experiencing through mindfulness and meditation. With better tools to navigate life, stress and emotions, I find I am physically healthier and more resilient. I am sleeping incredibly well and have learned that a good night’s rest is a superpower for our bodies and brains. I am currently doing a 21 day mediation with Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey on “Perfect Health”. What I am learning about the power of our thoughts and its effects on our health is astounding.
I was recently listening to a SuperSoul podcast where Jack Kornfield, mindfulness author and Buddhist practitioner, was sharing that as a young man he had a Harvard education but he did not have any education about emotional awareness and regulation. His own dysfunctional childhood left him with emotional scars, learned behavioral patterns and even some of the anger his dad brought to the family. He wanted to avoid all these pitfalls, but he had no tools to do it. Jack’s desire to balance his life with good skills for managing his emotions led him to become a leader in the mindfulness field. From my personal experience, I too wish that I had been taught that my stories didn’t define me and that there were invaluable tools for emotional awareness and regulation. I’m grateful to have found it late in life and I’m committed to helping others learn these invaluable tools as well — especially young people.
Supersoul Podcasts by Oprah Winfrey (YouTube and Apple Podcasts)
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodrun
Any and all of Brene Brown’s best selling books