Posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA
A few days ago, my client settled into her chair with a heavy sigh.
"Can we just skip the mindfulness today?" she asked. There was a quality of sadness to her voice, and it seemed to cost her to even speak this thought.
"Certainly we can," I said, "how would you like to use the time instead?"
She proceeded to share how exhausted she was, how she struggles to meet the basic needs of the multiple people she cares for, how her schedule is so overwhelming that her head spins at the end of the day-- she can't even sleep to recharge herself before facing it all again in the morning. When she finished speaking, she looked up at me again, even wearier and sadder than before.
"Honestly," she said, "I don't even think I should have made time for therapy today. There's too much on my plate."
My client gave me permission to tell her story here because so many of us share these struggles. Sometimes, even the thought of taking a moment of quiet contemplation can seem like an impossible luxury in the face of life's urgent demands.
Even if we deeply long to slow down and savor life, we know that slowing down would swamp us in a tide of unmet responsibilities...and so we forge onward, unhappy, distracted, and overwhelmed, but feeling unable to do a thing about it.
My client had taken a pillow from the couch and was hugging it to herself. I tossed another one to her.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"I'm filling up your plate!" I replied, tossing another pillow, and then another. I went into the art room and came back loaded down with pillows and yoga blocks and began to pile them up in a wall around her.
"Here they are," I said, "All of your needs, all of the people and places and emails and forms and appointments and obligations that demand your attention."
I could hardly see my client, though I could hear her laughing behind the wall of pillows.
"Where are you?" I asked. "I can't see you!"
"I'm here!" she called, "behind all of these emails!"
"How do you know?" I asked. "I don't see you at all, all I can see are the pillows!"
"What do you mean?"
"Where are you in your life?"
She got very quiet. I heard her exhale. I came and sat beside her.
"How do you know you're here?" I asked again. "What do you see, and feel, and smell, and know, that tells you that you're here?"
She began to describe the sounds in the room, the gentle hum of the air conditioner and the lingering scent of the sweetgrass I'd burned in the morning. She described an aching in her heart that remained after talking about her sleeplessness. She described how good it felt on her spine to rest against the couch. Her voice got softer and softer and her eyes began to shine.
"I believe you're here now," I said. We both started to laugh. "Even though the pillows are still there--you still have all of those needs to meet-- now you are here too!"
"You're so sneaky! We did the mindfulness anyway!" she said through her laughter.
"And what do you notice?" I asked. She thought about that for a minute.
"I feel happy," she said. "I thought I was too exhausted to feel happy!"
Something lit up inside her at that moment, and she asked in a wondering and resonant voice:
"why do I deny myself the time to feel happy?"
"What a wonderful question. Why do we do that to ourselves?"
"You do it too?" she asked.
"Every day! In fact, may I share this on my blog?" I asked her. "I think there are so many people who could relate to these feelings."
"Only if you tell them that you started the pillow fight," she said.
Okay. I started the pillow fight.
This matters, because sometimes all we have for ourselves in a day loaded with obligations and responsibilities and appointments is the decision to pay attention. One quick inhale of the sweetly blooming butterfly bush as I walk between appointments. One lingering hug before I wave my child off on the school bus. One moment to close my eyes and smile at the first sip of tea as the sun rises.
These tiny moments of mindfulness place us back at the center of our lives.
When we are at the center of our lives, we are choosing and experiencing our actions, rather than simply going through the motions.
That means that our actions start to reflect our values, and slowly, slowly, even as we meet all of our obligations, our lives start to change.
There is a two-breath meditation that I use to claim the moments of my life. I learned it from a book that Thich Nat Hahn wrote, and it serves as just enough pause that I can realign with my life, my values, and my experience before I resume action. May it be as helpful for you in striking the balance of mindfulness and committed action as it has been for me.
Breathing in, I calm my body. (inhale)
Breathing out, I smile. (exhale)
Dwelling fully in this moment (inhale)
I know this is a wonderful moment. (exhale)
Whatever you may be facing today, I welcome you back. Back to your breath, to the beat of your heart, to the soft animal of your body. I welcome you to the colors lit by the sun, to the scent of flowers and the first fall of leaves, to the taste of warm food and the soothing heat of a warm mug between the palms of your hands.
Whatever you may be facing, however urgent, may it be tempered with moments of mindful awareness, and may you continue to live toward your values in a life that is balanced with joy, self-care, and meaningful work.
Special thanks and gratitude to my amazing client for her willingness to share her story.