Mental Health,  Zen

Life is Good.

Each December I engage in an annual vision board / goal-setting / intention-setting ritual that has served me well for almost ten years. This exercise ends up being the foundation for what I hope to do going forward for the following year and I spend several weeks leading up to this exercise by taking into account everything that has happened in the current year, sizing up my gains/losses. This is my feedback loop for growth and development on a personal level. (Yes, I realize this is ridiculously geeky, but there are worse ways to travel through life.)

If you’re connected with me on social media or IRL, you’ve no doubt seen or heard me allude to some of the shit I’ve been processing over the last 10 months. To sum up: I ended 2022 debating whether or not I still wanted to live. My depression had gotten so out of hand; my desperation had grown so large; and my hopelessness had become so deep that I’d begun thinking of a way out. In January, my boss had the honor of landing the finally straw on my back. So, I quit my job and haven’t worked for a paycheck since. Instead, I spent the entirety of this past spring and summer trying to remember why life is worth living.  Thanks to therapy, family, friends and Zen, I was able to find my footing again by fall.

A huge part of reclaiming my vitality came, paradoxically, from doing nothing. For many weeks this past spring I let myself sit quietly and feel my pain. I took it out and turned it over in my hands, examining it from all angles. At the same time, I began I giving up all kinds of things – material and otherwise – sloughing off the old and allowing myself space to simply be. I embraced stillness and listened to my heart. I let my family hold me. I cried. A lot. Instead of rushing to ‘fix’ myself with bandaids, I scraped my festering wounds and rested while I healed from the inside out.

One afternoon a few weeks ago I was swimming at Barton Springs Pool. It was a perfect afternoon. The summer crowds had dissipated and the pool was clear and quiet enough to hear the sound of dragonflies buzzing overhead. My body felt truly alive. My mind was at ease. My heart was open. I felt… good.

And then I realized something astonishing: for the first time in almost fifty years, I am enjoying my life.

I mean this quite literally. See, I’ve had some good times – some fun experiences over the years. But I have never actually enjoyed being alive for any extended period of time. Instead, I’ve lived almost fifty years feeling dread, sadness, despair and terror as the overriding themes of my day-to-day life.

Today, I feel free. Mind you, I’m not talking about living a life that is a nonstop party, or where nothing goes wrong. Plenty of things go wrong for me every week, which is how I know that this change isn’t something that has happened externally. My gains this year have been enormous, but hard for most people to see – because they are happening on the inside.

I grew up in an end-times cult where I was taught from the time I could walk that the Armageddon was coming – literally – at any moment. We believed God was going to destroy all the evil people on earth, and then reward the (few) good people (who agreed with our interpretation of the bible) with Eternal Life. I was told as a preschooler that I should be prepared to die for the sake of God’s Kingdom, and not to fear death because God had the power to resurrect me once Armageddon was over. So I spent my whole childhood and part of my adulthood ignoring myself; pretending that my life didn’t matter, and that focusing entirely on a doctrinal fantasy about how great life would be someday – once God’s Will was done – was the way to please God and save ourselves.

This kind of thinking exists in all sorts of religions and ideologies. It’s hallmarked by anxiety about not doing enough to please some authority figure who will deem us ‘unworthy’. Shame at being labeled selfish that keeps us from addressing our very real, very human needs. Fear of being left behind or missing out motivates us socially to toe the line. For the majority of my time on this planet I have withstood great pain, abuse and indignities under the auspices that I was earning a better future for myself and everyone else I managed to ‘save’ along the way.

Until I couldn’t do it anymore.

What I realized this year is that the purpose of life is simply to be alive. Fully. At all times, in all moments. To meet each living thing with respect and camaraderie, recognizing that we are all struggling in some way or another; offering relief without cost; receiving support without shame. And that the reason we must work for justice is so that every person can also live their ‘one wild and precious life’ to the best of their abilities.

Any effective contribution that we are able to make in this world stems from our ability to come to wise decisions with a clear mind and a steady heart. This can’t be done if we don’t focus on our own health and wellness first. We do this by recognizing and valuing our own humanity, and nurturing a connection with all other living things; by leaning into our fears and frailties, mapping humanity in the most intimate way we possibly can; by tightening and strengthening the bonds we have with the people who genuinely love us; and by treating ourselves with the same kindness and respect we want to see reflected around us.

Then, and only then, can we help others by choosing our responses to their struggles with genuine empathy and compassion.

I’m moving a lot slower these days, and it feels good. I’m paying attention to how my feet touch the ground as I walk. I’m re-learning how to enjoy sitting still with a cat on my lap, or reading a good book made out of paper. With each passing day my mind and heart are getting stronger. With very little effort I’ve begun to see – more clearly than I ever have – what is truly important. I’m building myself a better life around those priorities.

And, I’m happy. At last.

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