FINDING PEACE THROUGH PRESENCE
It wasn’t the most convenient of places to fall apart, but I happened to be navigating the frozen food section of my neighborhood grocery store with a full cart of items when my world began to melt down. In this place I frequented weekly, I suddenly felt like invisible walls were closing in on me and that I was going to die. I couldn’t breathe, but tried desperately to hold in the tears and keep myself together. I was gripped with fear of some imminent danger. I was certain the shattered pieces of me that must be spilling all over the floor would result in a “Clean up on aisle 6” announcement at any moment. Unable to think clearly, I raced out of the grocery store. Abandoning my cart and taking refuge in my car, I cried and cried.
“What is wrong with me?” I thought. “I am completely out of control.” This wasn’t the only time in the last month that this had happened. It was then, out of utter desperation, that I finally realized I needed help.
For most of my young and adult life I suffered from anxiety. Not just a niggling worry in the back of my mind, but a continual, and sometimes crippling, fear.
Fear of disappointing someone,
fear of not being accepted,
fear of doing anything wrong, and mostly
fear of failing at anything that would result in loss of respect, love and acceptance by others.
I’m not sure exactly where it came from, but for as long as I can remember it was there.
I don’t think there is anything innately wrong with a healthy amount of fear or caution in our lives – it can alert as warning of potential danger and help us avoid unsafe places, things or even people. Healthy fear provides us with that fight or flight response hardwired into our human brain to protect us. However, persistent anxiety, becomes a blockade keeping us from savoring life deeply, experiencing new things, and enjoying people.
In my case, it had become a self-erected prison. As I gave into this kind of persistent fear, my world became smaller and my self-talk became darker. But I told myself I was fine, so long as I didn’t expose myself to opportunities for failure of any kind.
Finally in the first half of 2014, I experienced a series of difficult life events that helped me realize I actually was not fine living in this prison of anxiety. My older brother disappeared the day after Christmas of 2013 and for 3 weeks we feared the worst. Finally, in late January, he was found dead from acute alcohol poisoning. He had suffered for years with alcoholism but had been doing amazingly well in the months prior to his death. He and I had been communicating daily for the first time in years and I loved it. I was feeling more connected to him than I had in a decade, so his sudden disappearance and death left me shocked and devastated.
Then the thoughts came . . .
What had I failed to do that could have helped save him?
“Now I am my parents’ only child – I cannot die or they won’t make it. Oh no!”
“How can I keep myself safe?”
These weren’t fears for myself of dying but rather fear for my parents if I did die. I was a healthy 46 year old woman, so intense fears of dying are not normal. In addition to this devastating event, there were some major changes at the University where I work which found me covering the responsibilities of not only my job but two others with no known end in sight. The revolving cycle of an impossible workload, acute insomnia, and constant, persistent fear that ensued began manifesting itself in random panic attacks like my grocery store experience.
Finding Peace Through Presence
The beauty of hitting such a point of desperation as I did that day in my car outside the grocery store, is that I could no longer tell myself I was fine and that my way of living and thinking was working. I began going to counseling and one of the first tools I received was learning a few step process to “being present”.
This consisted basically of stopping in the moment where I was and either with eyes open or closed asking myself a few questions:
What can I see right now?
What do I hear?
What do I feel physically in my body?
This was followed by a few minutes of just breathing in and out and focusing on feeling the breath come in and out. If my mind would start to wander to thoughts of fear, I would try to recognize those thoughts, and without faulting myself for them, simply turn my focus back to my breathing. Finally I would close by thinking of 3 things I am grateful for. When possible, I would say those three things out loud.
Implementing this various times throughout my day allowed me to give my mind and body a rest. When anxious thoughts would arise, I would try to stop and quickly run through the steps of being present. Whenever I could, I would practice in a place where I naturally feel more peaceful such as a park, in the comfort of my bedroom, or even when taking a break to gaze through my fish aquarium at work. The beauty of presence is that it can be practiced anywhere. While it wasn’t this alone that ultimately helped me free myself from persistent anxiety, it was a key component to finding peace in my mind and body.
Practicing presence helped not only to alleviate anxiety, but now actually bring me joy by helping me more fully experience the world around me.
When I am at the park with my dog, I practice this and find myself noticing wonderful things about the world. Things that perhaps glided past me before, became peaceful and even beautiful: the sound of rustling leaves, the giggles of children, the contrasting coolness on my skin while sitting in the shade versus the warmth of the sun when I step out of that shade, the smell of grass, my dog’s wet tongue as she licks my hand.
The world, my world, becomes in those moments more real, less frightening and so does my life. I am no longer a victim of circumstances, but rather someone who can choose what I focus on in my life.
I encourage you to try and put into practice these steps of “Being Present”. Make them a part of your daily life – not just when life is stressful but even when it is not. See how it cultivates a connectedness with this world we live in, with the wonderfully imperfect people who inhabit it, within even the deepest parts of your spirit and how this in turn cultivates peace and thankfulness in your daily living.