I hate to get all cliched, but life really is a roller coaster. One minute you’re steadily climbing that rail and the next you’re flying face first down a slope. There’s corkscrews and loop the loops and sometimes you really need to just be strapped in. I’ve been on a bit of hairy roller coaster ride for just over a year now with my health so I’m here to share with you how participating in Mindful in May offered me the tools and resources that I needed to hold on for dear life as I was hurtling down at a rate of knots and what supported me to climb upwards again.
If you signed up for Mindful in May last year you might remember my story. Last March I was in Nepal when I developed a severe headache. Long story short – I had two giant blood clots blocking the two largest veins in my brain and was 12-24 hours from having a major stroke and coming face to face with an almost certain death or severe disability. Suffice to say, I survived.
Over the past 14 months, I’ve spent just over a month in hospitals including 15 days of solitary confinement in a pitch-black Kathmandu ICU, I’ve attended more doctors and specialists appointments than I dare to count and experienced more intense pain and serious side effects than I want to think about from the gazillion medications that were pumped through my body. In January this year I got the physical ‘all clear’. The clots in my brain had almost entirely resolved, there was only minor damage to my veins and I was to come off my blood thinning medication. Happy days!? Not so much. As I’d been in fight or flight mode for so long instead of breathing a big sigh of relief, that information seemed to usher in a period of intense anxiety, traumatic flashbacks, inability to perform basic tasks, suicidal thoughts, unstoppable crying and insomnia. So I found myself on the end of a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and severe anxiety diagnosis that forced me to make some significant life changes and decisions.
See now why I used the roller coaster metaphor?! Last year was hard and filled with intense, euphoric highs (‘Oh my god life is so amazing, I can’t believe I nearly died!’) and deep, deep lows (as I’ve described above) and EVERYTHING in between. And I’m here to tell you what has been my saving grace…
Mindfulness meditation, yoga and getting back to nature.
If you told me 18 months ago that I would be writing about the benefits of meditation, yoga and spending time in nature I would have straight up laughed in your face. Then you’d hear the laughs of everyone who knows me as I’ve been vocal about being practically allergic to exercise and nature for many years. Just goes to show that people can change I guess!
I was really lucky. I feel like I cheated death at 25 and I ain’t going to waste my second chance wondering ‘what if’ or worrying that ‘I’m not ready’ or ‘I’m too scared.’ Now I’m that person who marvels at the sight of wondrous clouds and who loves listening to the sounds of rustling leaves on trees. I am not afraid to say that I am somewhat obsessed with the smell of the air when it rains and I am filled with gratitude for everything. Feel free to dry reach now, I know I would have 18 months ago.
For those who are still with me, I’ve put together a list of three of my biggest epiphanies since doing Mindful in May last year as well as three of my biggest challenges with mindfulness meditation.
Gratitude changes everything. This word resonated with me from the very start of Mindful in May to the point where I was considering getting it tattooed on my body. Instead I bought a couple of necklaces and trinkets for my house with gratitude written on them and saved myself a long lecture from my dad. I cemented the practice of gratitude by taking the time each and every day to write three things that I am grateful for with the help of a gorgeous friend who bought me a Gratitude Journal. I found that it didn’t matter how terrible my day was I could always find at least three things that I was grateful for – even if it’s just ‘I had a nice cup of tea.’ More often than not, I can think of a lot more than three – but I try and make them as specific to that day as possible and then my journal acts kind of like a diary too. Two birds one stone. You’re welcome.
Some of the biggest benefits of practising mindfulness come when it permeates the moments not spent lying on the floor or sitting in a chair with your eyes closed. Being able to translate the calm, non-judgment, curiosity, kindness and awareness from my meditation practice into the rest of my life has had an enormous impact on my relationships, my work, my happiness, my positivity, my self-love and care as well as my sustainability and energy levels. Things like mindful eating, mindful walking and detaching from critical thoughts have all been really useful tools in coping with and reframing the inevitable changes that occurred throughout the past year. It’s not necessarily the change that we have a problem with but the resistanceto that change.
Mindfulness and meditation are not things that you do but they’re something to be. They are mindsets, attitudes and practices for life. A lot of my ‘epiphanies’ came by way of changes to my vocabulary – instead of saying ‘I have to do this’ it’s ‘I get to do this,’ instead of just writing ‘To Do’ lists I’ve started writing ‘To Be’ lists as well. Why do we spend all of this time and effort thinking about what we have to do and so little time thinking about how we want to be? How do we want to be in our work, in our relationships, in our world, in the world of others? This can be just as, if not more, important than ticking things off an inventory of daily tasks.
Three big challenges that are continuing to kick my ass:
Retraining my brain to be kind to myself in the same way that I try and practise kindness towards friends, acquaintances and strangers. There are a lot of people making a lot of money by making us, particularly women, feel really bad about ourselves and it’s really hard to push back against society’s messages about how we ‘should look’ and ‘should be’. Indeed I am trying fervently to banish the word ’should’ from my vocabulary and replace it with ‘could’. A subtle but important shift. I’ve never been more convinced of the fact that self-care and self-love in our society is a radical act. The revelation that you don’t actually have to believe all of your thoughts, that they’re just thoughts, was one of the biggest ‘penny drop’ moments for me – thank you Eckhart Tolle.
Not labelling pain as good or bad but just noticing the sensations of your body and trying to detach from thoughts labelling those experiences as suffering. This is a really hard one particularly when you’re in pain that is excruciating and debilitating. I feel so grateful that my physical pain only lasted a year. I know there are many people who live with chronic pain, illness and disease day in day out. If this is you, I’m deeply sorry for what you’re going through. However, I did find meditation was useful in disconnecting me from narratives and language around pain and rather trying to just feel it as sensations in the body. I’m not going to preach too much about this, I only know what worked for me – if it helps one person in pain, that’s more than enough. I was lucky enough to go to MiM’s screening of The Connection, an incredible documentary about the ability of mindfulness meditation to cure chronic disease and illness. Find out more about it here.
Thank you to the beautiful Dr Elise Bialylew, who has now become a valued friend, and the Mindful in May team for the opportunity to share these experiences and to again take part in what I believe to be one of the most truly incredible programs going around. It’s a privilege to be part of the #sitforsomething movement that’s bringing us MiMsters a clear mind and at the same time bringing clean water to those in Uganda.
Here’s to turning compassion into action.