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
- Get Dressed or Undressed
- Brush my teeth
- Talk to a friend
- Do Yoga
- Other forms of exercise
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!