The real secret: know that it’s ok to lose your cool. And you don’t have to be going through cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery to do so.
But there really is a secret sauce to keeping your cool if that is something you’re interested in doing. And it is totally free.
I posted this blog on my PRISM Wellness Center site here. I offer a very integrative approach to wellness and physical therapy for patients of all ages and felt it was a very appropriate blog for that!
But I didn’t want you guys to miss out on the secrets either…so here you go.
What if I told that you could break up with your diet, your social media feed, your sleep aids, your busy fitness schedule, your massage therapist, your acupuncturist and your supplements?
To my massage therapist and acupuncturist: If you’re reading this, please don’t worry. I’m not actually breaking up with you.
But seriously—everywhere we look these days we are bombarded by diets, supplements, fitness training plans, beauty regimens, books, sleep aids, friendship and relationship builders, shows, grocery delivery services, vacation packages, self-made business schemes, and child care how-to’s that claim to provide that “one thing” that will create space, freedom, and simplicity happiness in our lives.
I don’t know about you but I’ve certainly tried out a few of those things I’ve been led to believe are the latest and greatest life fixer-uppers. Especially when Amazon delivers them for free within 48 hours.
But what if I told you that—for the most part—subscribing to those beliefs just results in you wasting your time, money, and energy? Ironically, isn’t it true that we spend so much time and money to hang onto…wait for it…time, money and energy!?!?!
What if I told you that the secret to getting those things is in buying or striving for NONE of those things?
If you haven’t already rolled your eyes, clicked away from this page and onto your Instagram feed, then take a deep breath and stay with me here
Take another deep breath. Inhale through your nose for a 4-count as you fill up your belly and your chest. Hold it for 7 seconds. Now let it out slowly through your mouth (like you’re blowing through a straw) for 8 seconds.
Now do it again. This time as you exhale, release any tension you notice in your forehead and jaw.
No really, do it again. I’ll wait here.
One more time, with your eyes closed—releasing any tension through your shoulders, hands, belly, butt, inner thighs, calves, and feet. Ok go on, close your eyes and focus on this.
Did your mind wander over to that email or text notification that just flashed onto your screen? That’s ok! This is the beauty of life—we can always start fresh and refocus. So before you proceed any further on this post, go back, start over at the first breathing exercise, and give it a go again.
Now let’s just do it one more time for good measure. In for 4, hold for 7, out for 8. Notice any tension and slowly let it filter out of you on your exhales.
Now, how do you feel? A little lighter? Maybe lightheaded? If you are—don’t worry. It may be because, like me, you haven’t stopped to focus on your breath lately and now you’ve hyperventilated a little bit. That’s no big deal—it will get better with practice (and less breath holding). Maybe you feel a little more focused. Maybe for a half second you forgot about your bestie’s Instagram feed, your grocery list, your kids’ after school schedule, or that big meeting you have coming up.
If you don’t feel any of those things, please don’t worry. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of life’s to-do lists over the course of a few minutes.
But congratulations—whether you feel different or not—you just participated in meditation!
For me, becoming a mindful meditator has been a lot like learning to roller skate for the first time—you can’t read about it on Facebook. Instead you must do it—and do it often—to learn best. I don’t really remember learning to roller skate but I do know I was never really good at it, so the metaphor still stands and maybe I could stand to practice roller skating a little more. Regardless, as I learned to skate—and to meditate—I probably drifted down a path I didn’t love without even realizing it. I felt awkward at first. I fell on my face. At times with meditation, I felt like I was making a fool out of myself when my husband would walk in on me facedown in some strange posture. For realskies—on occasion he’d come over and make sure I was still alive and breathing. Like skating, I felt I wanted to hold on to the side of the rink for dear life while watching everyone else do it seemingly effortlessly. But eventually, I found the balance in thinking through it (or not thinking at all), feeling what was natural, and finding what was just enough effort, but not too much. I realized that the more I did it, the more natural it felt and the less effort it took. And most importantly, I found that all of my world seemed to stop and calm as I continued to glide along amidst the chaos around you.
You may be thinking what I thought initially: But what do I do when my mind drifts? Meditation is SO hard! I can’t turn my mind off!
Yeah dude, me too. I’m the President of Mind Chatterers Anonymous (though I guess it wouldn’t be anonymous anymore would it?)<–See? There’s my mind chattering away during this very sentence.
But the thing is—minds DO wander! Meditation doesn’t have to be perfect. Your mind can drift. It can be messy. Welcome to being a human and not a pre-programmed robot.
And this is how you handle a wandering mind. You know that friend you hang out with sometimes who has one too many glasses of wine and gets a little silly, drifting from stranger to stranger at the bar, swearing they are all her new best friends? Yeah, that was my mind when I first started meditating. It liked to wander and talk about any and all other things, distract itself, and most definitely run down my 30000 to-do lists. During meditation, I’d just have to do for my mind what I’d do for my friend: put my arm around her, whisper gently in her ear to “shhhhh”, and pull her back into my safe circle, telling her it’s ok to drift away but I’d much prefer she stay with me.
So why do I meditate?
The real answer is “Why not?” But that wouldn’t make for a very juicy blog now would it?
Throughout my 20’s I was the picture of anything but the roller skater gliding amidst the chaos. I was the chaos. I invented the chaos. I had to be the best, brightest, prettiest, healthiest, smartest, sexiest, coolest, and funniest at everything. I was having my cake, eating it too, all with a smile on my face. Everything was perfect.
I was also the drunk girl at the bar. Though in actuality I was never really the drunk girl, because that would interfere with my ability to be perfectly in control of everything. But I certainly distracted myself from my own thoughts and became the President of Mind Chatterers Anonymous.
You can probably guess where this is going.
Eventually the effort it took to be perfect all the time caught up to me in the form of a severe panic attack. Ok, wake up call. Time to make some changes. And change I did. I’d say overall that I was pretty good at taking care of myself and finding the secrets to freedom and happiness. Here are some examples of things that I did:
Changed to an extremely clean (no gluten, no dairy, low sugar, high protein, plant-based) diet –check
Daily exercise –check
Plenty of water –check
Decaf coffee only –check
Organic cleaning products –check
Shorter commute –check
Plenty of outside time -check
Plenty of time dedicated to playing and fun -check
Keeping up with friends via social media –check
Plenty of vacation –check
Reading a million self-growth books –check
Keeping a journal –check
Shed the perfectionism left and right –check
Spending quality time with husband and family –check
Quiet time for myself –check
Hiring a kick ass coach –check
Listening to what kick ass coach told me to do –check
After all, this was overachieving me we’re talking about here. Of course I did all of those things with bells on! You tell me to jump, I make sure to calculate exactly how high and build my own springboard in order to help me not only get there, but get there fast and stick my landing for a perfect 10.
While I was admittedly making big strides to shed the demons of fear, anxiety, shame, and perfectionism, I continued to be abundantly aware that the feeling of “not _____ enough” was still dominating more of my thoughts than I would have liked. I realized that despite all of the wonderful self-growth I’d done, I’d still feel brainwashed to believe I needed to do a million things to be happy, free, successful, and enough.
Meanwhile, along the way of “life renovation,” I faced a new life hurdle that many might consider the Mount Everest of life hurdles. Without disclosing too much, let’s just say it starts with “C” and rhymes with “answer.” Yep, it is what you think it is, though if you can come up with another word that rhymes there, please humor me.
I’ll save you the story behind that one. The point of talking about it at all is to show that ironically, navigating this huge hurdle seemed to point me in the direction of the answer to life’s best way to renovate and improve itself. The secret sauce finally awaited me with open arms.
What was it?
Spoiler alert: you’ve already experienced it as you’ve read this.
Before the huge hurdle hit me, I’d give myself what I now consider a B+ at being mindful and carving out “quiet time” for myself. Whether it was through a long walk, a drawing or painting, a long swim, simply laying and stretching or breathing or cleaning every nook and cranny in my house—mindfulness and meditation seemed to come easy to me. Or so I thought.
On the long walk, I always found myself focusing on how I was moving—which muscles were working, what my cadence was, what my heart rate was, how many steps I was getting in, etc. One might consider this mindful—I was focusing inward, right? But if you know me, you’d learn I’m an athlete and physical therapist. Movement is my wheelhouse and a constant challenge to perform—to reach an elusive goal of movement perfection that is probably nonexistent or unattainable. On the long swims—there was a constant focus on how I was performing in technique and speed. For laying and stretching and breathing, it was always a physical therapy exercise. Cleaning…well…you can imagine how much perfectionism potentially had a field day there.
On the surface, I was doing all the right things. But was it mindful?
Fear. Shame. Perfectionism. Comparison. Like it or not, these things rule our lives, folks.
So finally, as I was clearing space and time to increase self-love and healing amidst this big hurdle, I was given the task of meditating and being mindful no less than 3 hours per day. You laugh and probably think “Ha! 3 hours!!?!?! I don’t have time for that. You must not have kids/a job/a life if you expect to get that done.”
That’s what I thought, too.
But I was feeling a little adventurous, so I made the time. I figured out what meditating and being mindful really meant and got right to work. Soon I would find it took a whole lot less effort and work than I originally thought. Just like roller skating.
I cancelled appointments. Better yet-I meditated during that massage or that 2 hour medical test I had. I meditated while walking and painting instead of obsessing over what I was doing. I logged out of social media. I built a fort out of Pilates and yoga equipment and got some sun/vitamin D while meditating and moving outside in the spring weather-focusing more on the liberated feeling of moving outside and less on how I was performing. I asked for help and delegated tasks I didn’t need to have control over or someone else could easily do for me. Or even better-I realized there were many things I thought I needed to do that I could easily skip, postpone, or eliminate altogether.
And what happened in just one week dedicated to 3 hours of daily mindful meditation practice?
- I started bleeding zen. And people noticed. And they were envious.
No really. People started telling me they couldn’t believe how “zen” I was and how beautiful it made my smile. I also realized that was the biggest compliment that this overachiever/perfectionist/straight A student/athletic achiever has ever received. I was able to let even the smallest stressors just roll off of my back. Chemotherapy? No big deal. Major cancer surgery coming up? Come on, hit me with something that’s actually stressful. I didn’t get everything done and fell a little behind on emails? Oh well, they’ll still be there tomorrow. Skipped makeup and wearing my favorite outfit to work? Nobody cares. Worry was gone. Fear took a hike. Perfectionism was a thing of the past. In other words, #zenisthenewblack.
- I slept like a baby.
Like my other driven and high achieving peers, I, too, have one of those cool activity trackers on my wrist. Usually I only pay attention to how many steps I’m getting, how many miles I’ve walked, and how many calories I’ve burned. You know—the “doing” metrics. But what about sleep? Sure, I always paid attention to how much sleep I got. But what I never really paid attention to was the quality of sleep. My Garmin VivoFit tracks light versus deep sleep and I pretty much always got 50% deep and 50% light sleep for at least 9 hours per night. I thought I was kicking ass at sleeping. Until I dedicated targeted time to meditation. What happened? Every day that I meditated, my percentages shifted to 80% deep and 20% light sleep. Perfectionism LOVED this: YOU MEAN THERE’S A WAY TO GET A HIGHER SCORE!!?! But for me the secret was not in doing more. It was not in sleepy time tea, nightly magnesium pills, and cutting out caffeine. Sure, those things are important and helpful, but just giving my mind time to breathe was the secret sauce. I also started to require less total sleep. My average of 9.5 hours/night turned into 7-8 hours and I awoke more light, vibrant, and energized. I didn’t require that coffee or feel resentful when my alarm went off. #zenisthenewcoffee
- I could breathe a little easier.
No really. I teach breathing for a living in my physical therapy and Pilates practice. I know almost everything there is to know about the physiology of breathing, and then some. But I’ve always felt muscle tightness around my chest that I can’t attribute to my decades long asthma, musculoskeletal issues, or the grapefruit-sized tumor in my chest. And newsflash: you don’t have to have cancer to feel the effects of stress on your breathing (though having a tumor certainly doesn’t help). I noticed that mindful meditation and a focus on breathing has melted away most of that tension. I also noticed that when I’m in tense or anxious situations, my stress is carried right at my heart and I feel like I can’t breathe. If you’re familiar with the 4th chakra (heart chakra, emotional center), you’re probably nodding along thinking “Duh Julie, that makes sense.” But being more mindful and aware has helped me release those demons, so to speak, and learn how to breathe into the area and face the world with courage and self love during tense situations. #zenisthenewoxygen
- I slept in the most random of places.
If you meditate well enough, you’ll be asleep in no time. Case in point: I fell asleep on my hardwood floor and spent the entire night there, only to wake up in a puddle of drool and with an aching hip. But seriously—you know you’re truly in the zone when you fall asleep while meditating. And that’s a good thing! #zenisthenewsleepnumberbed
- I had better focus and more free time than I ever imagined.
I found that I was not constantly distracted during a task and could really dedicate my mind and heart to things I really needed to get done. This led to more free time and more time for meditating. What? Seems counterintuitive and doesn’t seem to make mathematical sense, doesn’t it? You dedicate more time to meditating (IE “doing nothing”) and end up with more time to do nothing. Don’t believe me? You don’t have to. But don’t knock it until you try it. #zenisthenewpersonalassistant
- Life became an Instagram Filter
The flowers were brighter, the trees were greener, the rivers and lakes sparkly-er. Or maybe that’s just because it’s springtime in Georgia. But still—there was more joy, zest, playfulness, and fun in life. With no Clarendon or X-Pro II filter required. #zenisthenewcolorbooster
- Annoying people didn’t exist
Ok that’s a bit of a stretch. After all it IS an election year here in the good old US of A. But by raising love for myself, other people’s nuances and neuroses become much more agreeable and forgivable to me. It’s called compassion and patience, folks. #zenmakestheworldgoround
- My metabolism sped up
I was hungrier but craved vegetables, clean meats, and anything but sugar and all the things that are “comfort foods.” I fueled my “perfect” machine with life-loving nutrients. I took the care to prepare my food, sit, observe, chew, and swallow my food, and had none of the “normal” symptoms we all have like cravings, binges, heartburn, bloatedness, and indigestion. #zenisthenewfaddiet
- My energy skyrocketed
I felt powerful and on top of the world. Workouts and activities that would normally feel labored or intimidating were an adventure and I moved through them with ease. #zenisthenewadrenaline
- I was enough
I didn’t give in to the temptations to compare myself to the photoshopped versions of others’ lives. I finished each day and put it behind me. I felt like there was more than enough love, beauty, forgiveness, belongingness, trust, faith and surrender to go around among all of us. I built up and supported others. For once I had enough gas in the tank to give and give and give to others without feeling like I was running on empty, because I had taken the time to give the greatest gift to myself. #zenisthenewpride
Don’t get me wrong. I have a long way to go to become the zen master (is that even a thing?) and I realize that meditation is truly a daily practice. After my week of very dedicated practice, I had no choice but to sit in a conference for 2 full days straight. As I did that, I felt all of my old mindsets and habits creep in and my sleep and energy suffered for days to follow. Our lives will ebb and flow—as did mine. I also realize there is really no “goal” or “end point” to meditation—so I didn’t fail by skipping a few days. It’s a practice—even during those busy times. Even finding 5-10 minutes here and there would work better than not being mindful at all. I just had to do the best I could.
As for all of those things I was doing on my long and seemingly perfect self-care list—I’m still doing them—because they are truly important too. So don’t worry, you don’t really have to break up with those things. But for me I just learned that I don’t have to put so much energy into believing all of those things will solve all of life’s problems. Instead, I’m learning how to incorporate meditation and mindfulness into everything I do so I can lead myself and my life with that mindset instead of leading life with a “go go go, do do do, be mindful only with whatever time is leftover” mindset. And most importantly, I’m learning to “Kick ass at being, not doing.”
And that, my friends, is what I believe is the secret sauce to it all. We can change our diets. We can change our routines. We can change our friends. But we can’t diet, exercise, and supplement away a non-mindful lifestyle and mindset. Believe me, I’ve tried—and it did indeed help. But there was more to be done with less effort (and what’s not to love about that?). The true change and healing to the body starts from within: from the mind and the spirit. These are the only things over which we truly have control. Being mindful won’t always be easy or pretty and it definitely won’t always be perfect. And it does not have to be 3 hours long…though for me I’m starting to find I crave (and often give myself) way more than 3 hours to allow the zen sink in. But what’s perfect enough is that I’m giving it a good daily try, I’m taking baby steps. And you can too! Happy meditating!