Anxiety often emerges in the late teen years, and sometimes it makes quite an entrance. Mine had me crying in bathroom stalls over nothing and slumping down onto my kitchen floor, heart pounding, too panicky to make a bowl of cereal.
I happened to seek counseling during the beginning of the mindfulness movement, which manifested itself in the form of a meditation class at our campus wellness center. Along with eight other anxious students, I learned the incredibly simple philosophies of mindfulness and how easy it is to work in ten minutes of meditation every day. More importantly, we learned that being mindful is less about meditation and more about choosing to be present in every moment of life. It’s such a small commitment. All nine of us saw amazing improvements in the three months we were attending. I made a friend in the class and he and I kept up our practice for another year.
Then I did something ridiculously human: I forgot everything. Like all of it. My circumstances improved and I thought I didn’t need my mindful strategies so much. This is what we do — we seek help during mental and emotional lows, but when the going isn’t so tough, we return to former habits or lack thereof. But whatever your burden — anxiety, depression, straight up stress, or sadness — it will be back. They’re reliable companions and will often reemerge in all their splendor.
And when my anxiety did return, I couldn’t seem to shake it until the van ride.
That’s the day I remembered: I was bumping along a two-lane road in an old van with rusty floorboards, five of my friends alongside me. It was drizzling steadily but every window was down. Our bathing suits were wet and our legs stuck to the split vinyl seats. Everyone was quiet, a little tired, but totally comfortable in our shared silence. I hadn’t been so at ease in months; it was an all-consuming calm. I wanted to stay in that van with the five other girls forever, but time doesn’t really work that way.
You see, true, contented happiness, the kind that wells up from deep down inside — that can’t last forever. We can’t buy it, steal it, or borrow it. Certainly we can’t own it, though nothing would feel better than to move into that state of blissful happiness and call it home forever. In reality, all we can do is welcome those periods when they arrive, live gratefully inside them for as long as they’ll stay, and hold the door for them when they go again. (They will always go again, but more will also come.)
This is me imploring you to stop forgetting. Mindfulness isn’t just for anxious people. Everyone can use these methods to improve their mental and emotional health. It will make you genuinely happy, and often. Mindfulness sounds like hippy dippy quackery and will feel like it for a while too, until one day, it feels sort of normal.
The principles are basic:
1. Say no to any and all judgment. Accept everything as it is because (rocket science) it is what it is, and most things you can’t change.
2. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, but don’t let your anxious thoughts keep dragging you backward to a place of negativity. It’s not healthy or productive.
3. Actively stay present by paying attention to the little things around you.
4. Finally, get rid of any expectations of yourself, your ability and the end result of the mindfulness process. Unmet expectations breed — guess what? — judgment.
Maybe we can’t own happiness, and maybe we can’t live there indefinitely, but we can always try to make the rent. The best way to do that? Look around you. Take in all the nuances — cheap beer, tan lines, the rumble of tires on a road — because these are the things that make a life. That’s mindfulness.
The best part? Once you make the rent, you’ll know you can do it again. And if you play your mindful cards right, you might find a little Zen in a beat-up Chevy Express.