30 Day Mindfulness Challenge

I almost got stuck on a mountain yesterday. As the sun dauntingly sank lower in the sky, and my legs wanted to give way beneath me, I willed myself to carry on. I had to. There was no other option. My boyfriend and I silently regretted our decision to climb the highest mountain in England, but we didn’t say anything aloud. ¬†Many things went wrong on that hike: I was running on 2 hours of sleep, we hadn’t started until midday, we didn’t have a proper map or enough food or water, and we hadn’t brought along any emergency equipment. My toes were sore and my muscles were weak, and I am an inexperienced and slow hiker who was not prepared to scramble and rock-climb to get down the mountain. We were both nervous and agitated, but there wasn’t much time for thinking about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other, and slowly making it down the mountain. It didn’t matter that we were racing against the sun, if one of us went over on an ankle or had any other injury, things would have been much worse. I did all that I could do which was to keep walking, as quickly and as carefully as possible.

Even though I was tired and cranky and cold and wet going down the mountain, we made it. As we limped back to the main road in darkness to try to hitch a ride, I began to feel elated. We were still an hour away from a warm bed and a hot meal (and little did we know at the time the meal would be hard to come by), but I had climbed a mountain. I had been tired and grumpy and sore but I had climbed it. Hiking forces you to be mindful. You can’t get too deep into your thoughts, because you always¬†have to pay attention to the trail, where you will step next and what path you are going on. Each time I looked up at the peak it seemed hopeless, but I could always take one more step, and that’s all that is necessary to get to the top, to be able to take one step at a time.

The weekend in the mountains really made me face how I had been giving into the stress and pressures of city life over the past couple of weeks. City stress encourages the opposite of hiking stress: over thinking, over worrying, and mindlessness.When I was traveling, I didn’t need to put too much effort into being mindful and aware,because the situations I was in encouraged it; I often had no choice but to be mindful and aware of my surroundings. However, now that I am back to the real world, I need to prioritize, and make mindfulness a part of my daily routine. So, for the next month I am going to commit to doing at least three things mindfully each day, and begin to make it a habit. We make so many choices to be mindless each day, I’m hoping that by changing just three of those choices, I will be able to make a meaningful difference in my mood and energy. Here is my short list of activities that I will chose from for my mindfulness experiment:

  • Eat Mindfully
  • Cook
  • Get Dressed or Undressed
  • Shower
  • Brush my teeth
  • Talk to a friend
  • Meditate
  • Walk
  • Do Yoga
  • Other forms of exercise
  • Work

Before diving into a mindfulness challenge, I need to paint a clear picture of what mindfulness is to me, and what I hope to gain by the end of my challenge. For me, it is easy to see the day as a series of obstacles, and a simple task like getting dressed, which is a quick mindless task for most people, can seem daunting to those with CFS. But, by choosing to look at the tasks a little differently, they stop being a burden, and become a meaningful part of the day. How often, do you really notice what the hot water from a shower feels like on your skin? How many tastes and smells and textures do you experience when you eat? How well are you listening to your friends and how often are you just cluing out? We all want to be great listeners, and taste explosive flavours, and savour the small joys in life, but when we look at these things as an obstacle that is difficult to overcome, it takes our focus away from enjoying the task (even if it may be a challenge), to completing the task. It is daunting to think about paying acute attention for a 30 minute conversation, or to climb atop a high peak, but I can listen to just one sentence at a time, and I can take in the scents and flavours of just one bite of food, and I can take one more, rocky step.

The key to mindfulness, is not being able to completely clear your mind- this is a common misconception, and frankly, impossible. The real challenge of mindfulness is in the choice.¬†I’m always going to have thoughts running through my head, but I can choose to either give my complete attention to those thoughts, or I can choose to let them play in the background while I focus on myself. ¬†For example, usually in the mornings while brushing my teeth, I’m thinking of what I need to do that day, or how annoyed I am that I was woken up at 6am by sirens, or what I will eat for breakfast. I’m never going to be able to stop those thoughts from coming into my head, but what I can do is acknowledge those thoughts, and then¬†choose to say, ‘hey brain, that’s great thinking you’re doing, but right now we are brushing our teeth, so let’s just focus on how that feels for a few more seconds, even though you are hungry and tired and stressed out, all we are going to focus on right now is the way the bristles tickle my gums’. Meditation is not about clearing your mind, it is about making choices. I’ve been making some bad choices lately, so I am going to use the next 30 days to choose better. To choose mindfulness over worry, and self care over stress. I hope some of you will join me!

Regression, or, How I Spent the Last Week of my Life

My apologies for posting this a bit late, but I think you will understand when you read the post ūüôā

‚ÄúI knew that I had turned my world back to cinders, sunk my lovely ship with my own stupid, wicked hands.‚ÄĚ
‚Äē Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting

It has been exactly ten days since I have returned from my round the world trip, and the worries of the real world have  quickly eroded my travel high. It turns out not driving oneself mad is much more complicated when one needs to think of the future. When will I find a job? What sort of job will be good for me? Where will I live? How long can I crash at my boyfriends until we start to drive each other mad? Can I afford a yoga mat? And other such questions that plague me day and night. Last week I left you with 8 tips on how to survive travel with CFS, and this week I will give you the antidote, 8 steps to ensure that things will get worse:

1. Worry. All the time. About everything

Moving to a new city is stressful, however, there are ways to handle this stress like an adult, and there are ways to sit¬†in front of the computer all day constantly refreshing your email, willing a job offer to come in and sobbing¬†uncontrollably. It is unclear if the sobbing is because you don’t yet have a job, or because of the horrors that will soon¬†come with having a job, but you do know that if you can stay up all night worrying about money, you will be really tired¬†the next day. Which brings me to my next step:

2. Stay up late and wake up early

There is nothing like sabotaging your sleep schedule to make you feel like a grump! The trick is, worry all day, and fill¬†yourself with caffeine to ‘get more done’ so that you are so jittery by the time night roles around that there is no way¬†you can possibly sleep. It’s good if you can get up during the night, turn on your computer, and repeat step one for a couple¬†hours until you eventually pass out around 4 AM from sheer exhaustion. Since you probably won’t fall into a very deep sleep¬†anyways, it will be really easy to wake up bright and early to repeat the cycle! Just think of all the refreshing you’ll get¬†done!

3. Give up things that bring you joy and energy because you ‘cant fit them in your day’

A well-known Teacher once said (and there is debate on who this teacher is), ‚ÄúI have so much to do today‚ÄĒif I hope to¬†accomplish everything on my list, I must meditate twice as long.‚ÄĚ I used to have this quote posted on my wall in my old¬†office. I do not have it posted anywhere in my new apartment. Though even if I did I would undoubtably ignore it, who’s got¬†time for meditating when I have emails to be refreshed and apartment hunting to be done! Maybe I can squeeze a bit of time for meditating in between sobbing and passing out…you know what…never mind.

4. Eat fast food

Or any sort of junk food that really brings you down. You already feel so tired and stressed out, that double cheesburger¬†from Mcdonalds can’t make anything worse, can it!? Yes, yes it can, so go forth and see how much of your daily calorie¬†intake can be done with fat and empty calories. I promise you’ll feel terrible!

5. Try to do everything

‘Work smarter, not harder’ is a quote I really like to live by, but sometimes, you have a lot of smart ideas at once, and¬†prioritization is for suckers! Try to finish all of your projects, and also, since you’re home all day, you should probably¬†be responsible for the cooking and cleaning and shopping. If you find yourself working more than your employed partner,¬†you’re on the right track!

6. Lament your uselessness

Make sure to reserve time each day to lie dejectedly on the couch, thinking about all of your failures. Youve been here a¬†week and don’t have a job? You must be unemployable! You’re not fluent in Spanish yet? You idiot! You can’t stop crying¬†when you think about your illness and your unemployment and all your other failures and you think your boyfriend can’t¬†possibly put up with this any longer? You’re probably right, no one could ever love you! Try not to dedicate more than 2¬†hours to this each day, as it could seriously limit your productivity in the first five steps.

‚ÄúIn order to understand, I destroyed myself.‚ÄĚ
‚Äē Fernando Pessoa

7. Do what others expect of you instead of what you want

Is your mother pressuring you to ‘get a real job’? Do you think your friends will respect you less if you want to take a¬†job that will be better for your health rather than something more traditional? I mean, who cares about being happy and¬†healthy if you can’t impress anyone, what’s the point! There is no way your friends like you for who you¬†are, no matter if they let crash on their couch without saying anything for months at a time because you are so unemployable and exhausted and can’t¬†pay rent right now, it doesn’t mean they like you, it just means they feel obligated. If you can’t get a ‘good’ job as soon as you are starting to feel a little better, may as well write¬†off the support of most of your friends and family. It’s best to try super hard to live up exactly to other peoples expectations.¬†Not married yet? For shame! Haven’t begun your ‘career’? You’ll never succeed at¬†anything ever again! Definitely base your choices on societal pressure over what you want. Haven’t we established you’re¬†too useless to decide anything anyways!?

8. Push away the people you love

Don’t, under any circumstances, surround yourself with the people who make you happy and support you and love you. What are¬†you trying to do here? Feel better about yourself ? It’s best if you can push them¬†all away by constantly needing to be alone. How else will you sob uncontrollably while refreshing your email and lamenting¬†your uselessness? You don’t have time for these people anyways! You’re too busy and you’ll only hurt them in the end. Who¬†am I to deserve their love and support? What have I done to make them love me? Treat them as badly as¬†possible so they are forced to take distance from you and can’t give you the support you want and need. And then maybe,¬†just maybe, in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep because it burns to close your eyes from all the crying and¬†staring at nothing you’ve been doing, you’ll give your best friend a call, and you’ll tell her everything and let her into¬†your life. And somehow, you’ll feel a tiny bit better, and maybe in the morning, you’ll even sleep in for a couple hours,¬†and the need to cry and refresh your mail and lament your failures won’t seem quite so strong.

Maybe your sanity will begin to come back, and you’ll pick up the pieces and start again, because there is no other choice,

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed on an equal or greater benefit.”
Napoleon Hill

How to Travel Stress Free

I have just finished a 12 month journey around the world, hitting up 13 different countries in Asia, The Pacific, and Europe. There were times when I felt like I had all the energy in the world; I could climb a mountain, go for a run, wander for miles around town, and other times when I felt exhausted and became prone to taking quick naps on the heated toilet seats of Japan’s bathroom stalls. ¬†However, I am living proof that enjoyable travel, and specifically long term travel, is possible with CFS. Having become somewhat of an expert of managing travel over the past year, I am leaving you with 8 tips and tricks to reduce your chances of relapse and allow you to live out your travel dreams, whether that includes a long term backpacking trip, or a two week jaunt during the holidays. Enjoy!

1. Travel Alone

Or at least with someone who will leave you alone when you need it. There is nothing more exhausting than trying to keep up with someone else’s plans and expectations. You may have a spouse or a family that makes traveling alone impossible or undesirable. That’s okay too, you can bring them along, just make sure everyone understands that you might choose to lie in til noon and then wander down the block to enjoy your afternoon with a book and a cup of tea some days while they are out sightseeing.

Solo travel gives you the flexibility to go at your own pace, and do what you want when you feel like doing it. Imagine waking up every day and doing exactly what you want to do or feel up to doing. I often felt more energetic when traveling despite being quite active and moving around a lot because I followed this rule. Each morning  I woke up and assessed how I felt, and then built the days plans around how I was feeling. This is a very rewarding way to travel, and It is much more difficult to do that with a travel partner.

2. Don’t Plan (Sort Of)

Some things are important to plan. You don’t want to end up sleeping under a picnic table because you didn’t book your B&B early enough. ¬†But the thought of fun filled, scheduled days makes my head spin a little. Try not to be a checklist traveler; the type who needs to see every main sight or attraction. It’s tiring to sigh tsee, and no matter how hard you try you will never get to¬†everything, so don’t waste your time and energy trying. Pick a couple things that you really want to see, and then spend the rest of your time enjoying the culture in other ways, like sitting for a few hours with a tea or gelato in Europe or people watching in India. These passive activities can allow you to experience more of the culture than standing a top the Eiffel Tower, so don’t put undue pressure on yourself to see it all! You can superimpose your super relaxed self in front of a photo of anything you like to show your friends!

3. Get Out of the City

Not all stress is bad stress, but all stress is stressful! (I made that up just now). Big cities are fun, and there are a lot of exciting things to do and interesting people and places to see. However, it is really easy to get over stimulated, so while I don’t advise avoiding big cities all together, try to limit your time to a few days in each one, and spend some more time in smaller towns or in the countryside where you can be surrounded by beautiful nature and the questioning glaces of the locals who have never seen a tourist before.

4. Go Slow

Only got two weeks? Try just choosing two places. There is a lot to see in the world, and when you are heading to your dream destination it can be hard to cut out some of the places you really wanted to visit. But travel, the actual act of physical travel, is very tiring. If you know French or Spanish you may notice that the verb for ‘to work’- ‘travailler’ or ‘trabajar’ respectively, sounds and looks suspiciously similar to ‘travel’. This is because travel comes from a Middle English word; ‘travailen’, inspired by the French, to mean: ‘to torment, to labour, to journey’. That’s right,¬†to torment.¬†In our rush to get away from it all to lie on the beach for a week, we often forget that the act of travel in itself is a labor. For some a labor of love, but be aware of the challenges of travel; waking up early to catch a train, long, uncomfortable bus rides, altitude changes in the air, etc. Go slow, and you will be rewarded not only with less travel time but by getting to know one spot or town really well. I try to stay in each place at least 3-7 days when I travel.

5. Stay in One Climate Zone

This is one piece of travel advice I never actually follow, but if you are worried about burnout on long term travel I would take heed of this. Changing climate zones is like jumping in a cold pool after sitting in a sauna, a little refreshing but a major shock to your body. Every time I’ve gotten a cold, or started to feel like rubbish on this trip, it has been in climate zone transition.

6. Make Time for your Coping Strategies

If you are feeling well enough to travel, I’m guessing you’ve come up with some pretty stand up coping mechanisms to best utilize your energy and stop relapses. One of the biggest challenges of travel is keeping this up, as you no longer have your daily routine. It doesn’t matter where you are, you will need to make time for this! I was recently bed ridden for three days (something which rarely happens anymore), because after traveling with friends for a few weeks, I hadn’t done any yoga or meditation, and had been eating a lot of bread (three things that I find really help me keep my health solid). Even if it was just 5 minutes of meditating in the morning, or a quick stretch or sun salutation after a long walk, I made sure, for most of my trip, to remember what allowed me to get this far in the first place, and to continue respecting the limits of my body. Just because I often now feel quite healthy and energetic, it doesn’t mean I can go back to my old habits and expect any different results this time round. This one is very important so I will say it again: Make time for your coping strategies!

7. Give your Travel a Purpose

Travel can often give us insight both into who we are, what our values are, and how we function, as well as giving a broad insight into the global community. Maybe you want to see if you can learn a new language, or survive on your own in a small Thai village, or maybe you want to Travel to East Asia or India to learn about Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurvedic practices to help you understand your own health better. Maybe you want to meditate with the Tibetan monks, eat your way through Europe, or learn something you have always wanted to learn. Travel is always more rewarding when you come back feeling like you are better off than when you left, not just with a burning hole in your pocket. You don’t need to become one with the land, or learn a tantric yoga pose to have a purpose, just something to write on a piece of paper, that you can pull out and look at every time you feel like you are crazy or tired or want to go home. Purpose will give you the courage to persevere when things are tough!

8. Go somewhere you love, to do something you love, with someone you love

The most important thing CFS has taught me is to value what is really important in life. And it’s not having an important career, or getting the highest marks in school, or surrounding yourself with perfect and important people. What really matters is surrounding yourself with people whom you love unabashedly and who love you back just the same, and being able to do the things that fulfill you. If you can follow your passions, while being with the people you are passionate about, you will not find yourself wanting for more.

I hope this helps you get on the trip you have always dreamed of! Post your travel stories, tips or questions in the comments!