It has been said that thoughts create suffering. When we obsess about things that happened in the past or things we hope will or will not happen in the future, we become stressed and anxious; and we become disconnected from the present moment. The implied suffering is emotional, but I would argue it can also be physical.
After college, I chose to forgo a traditional career path for a stint with the Peace Corps in Perú. However, during my service I got frighteningly ill with a stomach virus and was forced back home to recover right before my service ended. At this time I was physically emaciated, mentally ashamed, and emotionally devastated. I felt I had let myself down and failed on my commitment. My thoughts were telling me: “You are not enough. You are not enough. You are not enough.”
Returning from Peru is also when I began to control food. I needed to control my food to recover the weight I had lost due to my illness, but more importantly, I had to control my eating because it was one of the only things I thought I could control in my chaotic life. I gave my power away to food and developed disordered eating patterns. The world was a dark, scary place and my life was dominated by fear. My days became a series of mindless routines and I hid away in my small studio apartment/cave, avoiding interactions with others.
Let me briefly illustrate what it was like to live in my head during social outings. I would begrudgingly agree to plans to go out to dinner with friends. The night before I would be worrying about the menu and thoughts about how I would be perceived and how to get home as soon as dinner was over. Would I find a healthy option? Would I be expected to have a drink and would I oblige? What could I wear to hide my skinny body? What questions were they going to ask me? How would I answer? Then when I made it to the restaurant, I hardly tasted the food because I was too busy debating if it was nutritious for my body. When I did catch a friend’s story about her professional successes or beautiful family, I felt ashamed and lonely for my lack of clarity and absence of companionship. The “you are not enough” sirens would begin to sound. This was not just one day, it was most days.
One day, at the height of my anxiety and depression, I looked into the mirror and had the urge to put on red lipstick. As I looked at myself, it was as if I was really seeing myself for the first time, pure and unencumbered by my mind’s pollution. I wasn’t looking at Keri, the broken woman who was full of fear, but I saw the perfect being I am. For the first time since returning from the Peace Corps, I felt pure love. I felt an unbounded love for myself and for the entire universe. And although it gradually faded to a more grounded feeling, it created an opening in my life to explore the stories I had been telling myself.
From there I discovered mindfulness and meditation. I started with simple exercises, where I would sit and focus on my natural breath or sensations in my body or on the sounds around me. By turning inward through meditation, I became more aware of my limiting thought patterns and beliefs. Mindfulness and meditation has allowed me to be able to recognize when emotions come up and deliberately choose not to believe the thoughts that triggered them, bringing my attention back to the present moment. When things happen to me now, I am able to take a pause, feel the emotions, identify and abandon the thoughts my mind creates, and choose a response to the situation that is more compassionate and productive, for both myself and others.
Now I am a different person. I am more spontaneous and open to try new things. I take the time to literally and figuratively stop to smell the roses. I actually taste food and listen to my body. I am alive. And, when thoughts come up, I notice them as they make their way on by, with a smile as if I were honoring old friends. I say friends because I believe thoughts are well intentioned and the more they are around, the more practice we get at bringing our attention back to the beautiful, wondrous moment that is happening right now.
The only moment that exists is the present moment. You can only truly experience the beauty, sounds, and smells of the present moment. Connections with others are made in the present moment. All of life happens in the present moment. Thoughts distract us from living in the present by bringing us back into past memories or forward into future worries. Mindfulness and meditation helps us practice returning our minds back into the present moment. We observe our mind and the moment we realize our mind is escaping the present moment, we are actually in the present moment. We are home.