How Can I Be at Peace when Fear Nibbles at My Heart Like a Mouse?

In Parker Palmer’s  column at  On Being,  he writes about allowing  his life’s unfolding  to be guided by open-ended questions that look at the big picture.

Here is an example question he gives at the end of the post, which he arrives at after some give and take with the wording:  “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?”

Questioning the universe and then listening for its wisdom seems like a gentle and good way to live a life. In yoga there is a similar practice of sankalpa, translated as an intention, a resolve, or a wish.

When I practice yoga nidra, a 45-minute relaxation meditation, at the beginning of the session I allow a sankalpa to manifest itself in my mind. Sometimes I have a clear image of myself realizing my wish. When I was preparing for my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I would see myself walking on an open road under a blue, blue sky, experiencing total freedom. And ultimately, at moments, this freedom is what I experienced.

When my son returned from India, he told me he learned that a yogi makes plans, sets an intention, and then lets the intention recede from his conscious mind. In other words, he doesn’t fret over the outcome. All his actions will lead toward the manifestation of his wishes.

I like the practice of posing a question and waiting for the stream of life to unfold. By allowing a question to guide us, our very lives become the answer.

My question is this: How can I feel more at peace in my heart and mind, and how can I share this peace of mind with others so that they too can experience peace?

In a way, the question is a mission statement for a life, but since it’s open ended, it doesn’t presuppose that we already know how to achieve the outcome or even what that outcome will look or feel like.

When I came home from Spain on June 30, I was not anxious at all, even after discontinuing all the medications I had been taking. Now, two and a half months later, some of the old anxieties are creeping back, and even though I continue walking, meditating, and reading inspiring books, it’s rare that I don’t feel the pain of some ancient grief bubbling up.

The difference now, after the Camino (A.C.!) , is that I don’t take any pills to muffle the gnawing, nibbling discomfort. As I learned from the gentle teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, I say to the anxiety, “Oh, hello old friend. What do you have to tell me today?”

My old friend anxiety says: Keep walking. Keep writing. Breathe deeply and slowly. Listen deeply. Be patient.

Chattahoochee River, Late Summer

Chattahoochee River, Late Summer

*** If you take medications, please don’t stop taking them because of what you read here. I’m not a professional therapist of any kind, and I only speak of my own experience. I have taken different anti-depressants for decades, and I think they might have helped me at one point or another. They certainly seemed to help. But I have the support of a therapist, my family,  and many years of life to help me face my inner demons, and I believe I am ready to do this one day at a time, breath by breath.

My True Home

My true home is life itself. My true home is the here and the now.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

Kennesaw, Spring 2015

Kennesaw, Spring 2015

Filed under the label stuff I tell myself is the adage that we shouldn’t postpone our happiness.

When I came home from the Camino, my heart was cracked wide open from the effort of walking by myself from the Pyrenees in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

A woman whose heart has cracked open looks like this: she cries over the littlest things, or she experiences sympathetic joy (not the typical jealousy or envy she used to feel); she’s in tender mode; she’s patient with those who still don’t know they are on a pilgrimage.

Because we are all on a pilgrimage, whether we know it or not.

Lately, though, I had been postponing my happiness and slowly I felt my heart begin to harden. I had been caring for my mother-in-law for a month and a half, and walking had become an escape from the fact of her constant presence in the house. Rather than walking to reconnect with myself, I was walking to escape.  I was postponing my peace of mind until the day she would go to Chicago.

I found myself already planning my next pilgrimage to France without having fully processed and integrated my recent journey to Spain. An escape maybe?

But I have found comfort and redirection in the words of one of our time’s greatest sages,  Thich Nhat Hanh, a world-renowned Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who has helped refugees and war victims recover from their trauma through mindfulness meditation.

In his audiobook titled Living Without Stress  or Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh explains how mindful walking can reconnect us with the present moment, the only moment where life takes place. He suggests while walking to breathe in and think “I have arrived,” and on the exhale to think “I am home.”

Mindful walking does not have any outward destination in mind, but rather it is inward. When we reconnect with the simple act of breathing and walking,  we rediscover happiness in the present moment. That’s how it works for me, and it works for others, too.

Today while walking I also let my mind drift to the many refugees that are trying to escape Syria by any means possible, whether on foot or by makeshift boats. I dedicated my walk to them, wishing that they find inner peace as well as a means of escaping the physical threats they are under. We can’t experience inner peace while our very lives are under attack. They have to find a way out of danger.

And so I felt much gratitude for having the freedom to step out of my house and walk, with my only goal to connect with the ease of my breath, the ease of being. Walking is not an act that we can take for granted. Connecting to the joy of being alive is what I am grateful for today.