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Looking for peace

I’m unsettled. Some days it’s hard to breathe. Some days tears just pour out. I’m not really crying, but it’s like my body is a pitcher that is so full, it can’t hold any more emotions. I’m full and I’m numb.

Take deep cleansing breaths. Meditate. Sit with yourself in a quiet space.

Nope. Doesn’t work.

My breath gets caught in my chest and exhaling is hard. Now that I’m not occupied with a full time job, my mind can easily go where it shouldn’t, down the rabbit hole of thoughts and worries that can suffocate me. Fear sits with me at every moment.

Be grateful. Keep a journal. Find the peace that is within you and hold onto it.

Sorry. Can’t do it.

I can’t sit still. I don’t know how to just be still. I find projects around the house to occupy my hands and my mind. I organize and scrub. I try to fill my time by doing things that I love. Cook. Bake. Read. Garden. It’s not enough. I am absolutely unsettled.

The rabbit hole gets wider and the “what if” scenarios start to play over and over in my head.

I’ve always been a worrier, but never a wallower. I’m not a “why me? why now?” person. I am a “such is life” person; a “this is what has been handed to you so make the best of it” person. So, then do it. Get on with it. Make the best of it. But I can’t, I just can’t.

So now what? How am I going to get through the next weeks, and months, with this unsettled, uneasy, anxious feeling?

I know enough about mental health to know that I need a therapist but in the meantime, I go to the computer and begin asking Google to define words. Maybe there’s a message in their meaning.

Anxiety. Fear. Mental breakdown.

Well, those definitions are scary and not at all helpful. Try again.

Courage. Happiness. Peace.

Scrolling, scrolling… Not finding anything to cling to, I go to Google Images and look for graphics that speak to me. I like images. There it is: the root of joy is gratefulness.

Joy. That’s what I need to find. Pure joyfulness will lead to peace. I need peace with this decision to let my son move so far away. I need peace to cope with this ever-changing reality that has shaken me to my core. I need peace to breathe.

Great. So, gratefulness will lead to joy and joy will lead to peace. How do I become more grateful? I’m already grateful for so many things…my family, my friends, my life, my home, my husband, my sons’ lives, the ability to stay home and care for our family…shouldn’t that be enough? What’s wrong with me? Where is the joy? What am I missing?

I research the quote, “the root of joy is gratefulness”. It was said by Brother David Steindl-Rast*, a 93 year old monk who travels the world teaching about gratitude. He believes that once you are grateful for something that you value, and that “something” was freely given to you, your heart will be filled with happiness.

Huh? What the heck is that supposed to mean?

I read more about his life and about his teachings. I buy one of his books. I visit the website of his organization, Network for Grateful Living. I watch his 2013 TED Talk ten times. I hear what he is saying but I’m not really getting the message. My thoughts continue to swirl, my breath stays caught mid-chest, and I can't stop moving.

And then, one day, it just hits me. I’m outside pulling weeds, my mind full of circling thoughts. I notice a pair of cardinals building a nest in one of our trees, chirping back and forth like an old married couple chatting away. I sit back on my heels and watch them for what seems like a long time. Finally, they flew off and I find myself smiling. I was quiet long enough to enjoy the moment. I was just there, enjoying the moment, and I felt a little bit of peace.

In his TED Talk, Brother David says to “Stop. Look. Go.”

Stop, take a breath and be aware of your surroundings. Look, listen, and smell what is around you and really take it in. Then, go and do something good for yourself, or your community. He believes if you follow this pattern you will begin to find gratitude in multiple places and joy will fill your heart.

I get it. I finally get what Brother David is talking about. Every moment of every day is a gift, and if we are able to find something of value in each moment, and it was given to us freely, we will feel true gratefulness and joy in each moment. But how do we slow down long enough to look for things to be grateful for in every moment?

I have always been a juggler - cooking dinner, answering emails and texts, hearing about the boys’ day and making mental notes of things to be done all at the same time. I was running at such a pace that I wasn’t enjoying anything. Life told me to stop, so I did, but I’m uncomfortable in my own skin, feeling lost and unsure of what my next steps should be.

But what if I am able to slow down? What would I notice that might fulfill Brother David’s requirements for finding gratefulness?

Although I finally understand it, I can't do it. I can’t just flip the switch and fill my heart with joy. It’s hard for me to slow my thoughts down. Hard for me to take a deep breath. I need to practice.

Listening to the birds in the backyard helps me. Watching the clouds move like God's breath helps me. I am starting to sit more quietly than before. I watch my sons play video games. I don’t watch what they are doing on the screen, I watch their faces. I try to soak in more moments, instead of rushing through to the next task. I leave things undone until the next day.

I still struggle. Every day. Fear hasn’t left me, but I am consciously trying to find my breath. Every day, I need to remind myself:

Today, I need a reset to settle my mind and remind myself who I am and who I want to be. To take the challenges life has given me and make the best of them. To breathe deeply knowing that, although the future is uncertain, today is a gift to cherish.

And with this, maybe I will start to find peace.

Please note I started writing this before all of the unrest that is happening right now.

COVID. Social Distancing. Face masks. George Floyd. Protests. Riots. As a nation, we are feeling broken and stuck in a reality that is so unbelievable that each day we struggle to find hope and peace. We want to fix it…now. Just hurry up and fix it so we can forget it ever happened and we can continue to live at a breakneck pace and not have to worry about anyone else. But that’s not going to happen, nor should it. Our society needs to change. Meaningful conversations, conscious decisions and education will help us. Time is moving so slowly right now, it has given us the perfect opportunity think about who we are as a society and where we are heading. I think of Brother David’s words often during this time and hope that others do too. Before we judge, before we speak, before we react, we all need to Stop. Look….and then, Go and do something good.

*Taken from DAVID STEINDL-RAST was born in 1926, in Vienna, Austria, and spent his early years there and in a small village in the Alps. He spent all of his teen years under the Nazi occupation, was drafted into the army, but never went to the front lines. He eventually escaped and was hidden by his mother until the occupation ended.

After the war, Franz studied art, anthropology, and psychology, receiving an MA from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and a PhD from the University of Vienna. In 1952 he followed his family who had emigrated to the United States. In 1953 he joined a newly founded Benedictine community in Elmira, NY, Mount Saviour Monastery, where he became “Brother David.” After twelve years of monastic training and studies in philosophy and theology, Brother David was sent by his abbot to participate in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, for which he received Vatican approval in 1967. He co-founded the Center for Spiritual Studies in 1968 and received the 1975 Martin Buber Award for his achievements in building bridges between religious traditions.

You can watch his 2013 TED Talk here.


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