In his memoir, Eat A Peach, David Chang says “our limited perspective feeds the narrative we want.” The notion explains how I got by for so many years telling myself that “moving is my meditation.” Believing that spinning like a top, constantly doing, and accepting the difficulty I had sitting still, quieting my mind + resting my body. It wasn’t that I lacked mindfulness in my movements or my life. But that didn’t mean I was mindfully moving forward.
But then 2020 happened. And as the world ground to a near halt, I was forced to stare the great discomfort I had with stillness and fullness straight in the face. My restless mind was preventing me from sleep, from productivity, robbing me of joy. With so much on my rolling personal/professional/life to do list, I rarely found myself content with the present moment. That story I told myself was that a run, a ride, a romp in the wild would help, but as the pressure mounted those activities seemed to help less and less with my overwhelmment.
I carved out a week in the California desert to stop moving. To try stillness. To unplug and unpack my brain. Seven whole days of deep silence, gentle movement, no unnatural lights, and absolutely no contact with the outside world, nor the digital or physical obligations of it.
And that’s when I learned that the story I had been telling myself about moving and meditating at the same time was all wrong.
The desert was a fantastic place to wipe my slate clean; Joshua Tree is a proverbially empty place devoid of familiar things, people, and all expectations. A place that looks dead on the surface, but below is thriving. It was a hopeful metaphor – or, at least I hoped that it would be.
I packed mostly questions and left all of my regular routines behind at home.
“What if I get bored?” I wondered. So I packed all the books.
“What if something HAPPENS while I’m disconnected?” If the quiet is…too much? Or if I need to go for just a little hike or something?
It never became too much. And I never wanted for anything the empty desert couldn’t provide. The world found a way to keep right on spinning without me. The only consequences were reconnecting with a part of myself I had forgotten, and coming to a realization that a whole new chapter of my own story – a way of mindfully moving forward – was waiting to be written.
It’s not accurate to say that I “did nothing” for a week out there.
It’s that I didn’t do anything I ordinarily do.
For starters, I slept all the way through the night, without waking to a spinning mind. Instead, my eyes would flutter open just before the sun cracked open the sky. My phone, buried in my suitcase, didn’t buzz or bing so I woke to my own depth. I would pull back the curtains to watch the bunnies munch, darting between the brush as the sunrise painted the sky in a color box of hues.
I’d spend those first hours of the day actually breathing – focusing on it. At first it was so uncomfortable. So, I spent time gently, mindfully moving; practicing yoga and walking in the desert, then writing all the things that my brain dumped out while I wandered. In the space I created, my muscles relaxed, my shoulders fell from my ears, and the tiny aches and cracks from the romps of weeks’ prior evaporated.
If I’m honest, I hardly recognized myself in these days. The joyful-but-tattered, enthusiastic-but-exhausted person who went to the desert crushed by her own expectations was creative, passionate, energized, strong and relaxed deep inside. She was completely content meaningfully, mindfully moving through the desert, no matter how slowly. When the drone of my regular life died down, my inner voice burst out loud, as if it had been waiting for when the coast was clear to speak up.
This Woman Within me knew what she wanted to do, and she knew how to do it all better.
It took almost 6 days for all of the lovely ideas floating around in my head to fall out and for my body to settle in its own form. I finally understood my own shape and weight when I wasn’t trying to propel myself through space at a furious speed. And, I learned to recognize my own easy breath; something that couldn’t have happened when I was in “moving meditation,” with my ego yelling at me to move faster up the mountain so I could make that meeting.
It took my being still to realize just how much my brain/body/emotions were moving behind the scenes – it was a constant vibration.
In my normal life, I was literally never, ever still. And that was a bad sign.
You’ve heard the story before: we can’t know pleasure without pain, nor bravery without fear, joy without sorrow…nor motion without stillness. Being constantly in motion was the equivalent of eating only Spaghetti-O’s for every meal. My body had learned to survive, and maybe even “to be strong” on a diet of movement and motion alone.
But, I was missing out on a lot of rich experiences, a deeper well of prowess within myself by being too afraid to sit down with my busy mind and buzzing body, and wait until the whirring stopped.
And it did stop. Like a wind-up doll bouncing around on the countertop, my body and mind finally stopped whirring. When they did, I wasn’t the shell of a person, unfit or inactive, like I thought I might be when movement escaped me. Instead, I was more energized than ever; rested, focused for the adventures ahead. At last, I was mindfully moving forward.
I can’t explain the determined spirit towards “finding space” by moving in nature. Running, riding, swimming, skiing – I gain a great deal of clarity from pushing myself in these ways, and I reap priceless fruit from sowing those seeds. But I see now that I can’t see or feel my spirit or connect with my breath when I’m constantly, proverbially and actually breathless.
My modern-life practice of “squishing in” a little run or a ride or a hike was still squishing something into the room of my being, already chock full of ideas, energy, and passions. Imagine going hunting for a precious object in a room filled with hoarded mementos. You can barely open the door to peek in there are so many obligations, objects emotions and tasks inside. And, you must sift through it all to get the thing you’re really after. When you clear out the clutter, you’ll be able to recognize what you’re looking for and mindfully move forward.
This boundless woman within me was that precious object. She was trapped in the back of my being all along. Overwhelmed and hidden by all my “stuff,” unable to budge from her corner on account of all the moving, navigating, shapeshifting and TCBing. It was impossible for her to escape until I cleared some space from my usual program.
Once she was out, she had a lot of answers; for how to do my life better, more deeply. She could see what was important to me, and what was fluff.
Before I went to the desert, I felt maxed out by the life that I had created. But once I carved out a bit of space and embraced some stillness, it was easy to see that my previous maximum was actually a bare minimum of what I was capable of achieving, a mere shadow of what I hope to create and share in the world – as an athlete, a cook, a human.
I always worried that slowing down and softening out of my athletic, no-excuses persona would weaken me. But, I’ve found the opposite to be true.
Slowing down, doing less, being easier on myself didn’t soften my edges – it sharpened them.
Facing my fears of slowness, embracing stillness helped me to understand, appreciate, and harness my strength.
These days, I carve out a bit of time each morning to sit and breathe. Nothing else. I some gentle movements – mostly sun salutations – but anything that feels right. I roll out my yoga mat, light a candle, leave the lights off and leave my phone in a corner.
I’m taking more rest days – especially on the days when my schedule is hectic and I’m bouncing from space to space. I’m not beating myself up about it, and I feel strong and sturdy as ever to run up those mountains, crush the canyons and tackle the big adventures. When I get out to move (which is still most days,) I feel more mindfully connected and alive.
When I need a break – really need a break – I realize it’s unrealistic to believe I can get it from running or riding away into the sunset. It was impossible for me to hear my own heartbeat with my heart constantly beating out of my chest. Hard to interpret the messages on the wind with it whipping past my ears. The direction of my passion was imperceptible with my ego yelling and nipping at my heels.
Acknowledging my own deep breaths when I’m pushing my body is one way of knowing I’m alive. It’s part of my story. But I realize now that moving and challenging my body isn’t actually my power or my voice; it’s a way of amplifying it.
I want to carry a vast perspective on the world. And, I’ve got a lot of big goals this year – in sport and life. But one of them is listening to my own breath, learning it’s rhythms, sitting still more often. I’m convinced that this constructive stillness will write a whole new story of balance for myself; will help me to better navigate challenge and choice, to move and speak more confidently and deeply.
It’s not a resolution, because there isn’t a marker to tell me that I’ve succeeded. Along the way, I suppose I will face some fears, learn more about my own passions, and achieve new heights. But overall, I can’t think of a more worthwhile way of focusing a year’s worth of adventures in this powerful body, with a ravenous mind than mindfully moving forward.