Finding the Courage to Live Mindfully

I originally wrote this post as a contribution to Cait Flander’s blog.

I struggled to sit down and write this post, because I wanted to share something with you that I’m still struggling to frame — to frame into a narrative that is powerful and relatable, to frame into a parable that you can use to learn a deep lesson, to frame into an exercise that provides a cathartic release for me.

When Cait reached out to me and asked if I could write a guest post for her wonderful blog, I felt honored by the request, then excited to write about my own experiences with minimalism and mindfulness. But I quickly realized there was really only one story I could share with you today, and I felt scared because I was unsure of how.

After days of going to great lengths to procrastinate on this post, I finally got started tonight. I was alone in my apartment and the neighborhood street outside was quiet. With the windows open, I could feel a breeze that kept hinting fall is right around the corner.

It was a lovely environment in which, as Hemingway put it, to sit down and bleed.

And I knew I was going to have to bleed profusely in order to write this particular post.

I was working on a pretty nice little intro that slowly built up to the point I wanted to make with you here when my phone pinged. Looking down I saw a new text message, from my new ex-husband.

My concentration broke; my train of thought skittered off the rails. I put my head in my hands and stared through my fingers at the keyboard, wondering how I could possibly explain the enormity and complexity of the situation that led to my divorce.

Waking Up and Not Knowing Where You Are

Have you ever started driving down a road you knew in acute detail and, for whatever reason, you zoned out at the wheel — only to snap out of it, look around, and realize you have no memory of how you got that much further down the road?

I had that experience earlier this year, only the road was my life and the car was a relationship that I no longer recognized.

The feeling of waking up, looking around, and thinking, how am I already so far from where I wanted to end up? is a devastating one, especially when you feel trapped by what you perceive as an irreversible mistake.

To make what could be a novel into a short article, allow me to summarize what happened to me as succinctly as possible: I snapped. I came out of a foggy, dreamlike state where everything just kind of… was. I realized, this is my life and I am not living it how I want.

And then started furiously clawing my way out of the box I built for myself.

I built that box by disengaging from who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. I gathered the raw materials I’d need to construct it when I made decisions based off other people’s expectations. I hammered in the nails when, instead of doing the hard thing of creating my own path, I tried walking down other people’s in hopes that copying everyone else who seemed okay would make me okay, too.

The Struggle with Guilt and Other Useless Emotions That Hold Us Back

When I first realized that I wanted out of my marriage, I thought I would drown in the waves of shame, guilt, sadness, anger, and panic that slammed into me. I could not get divorced. It wasn’t an option.

How could I cause so much suffering and pain in this person that I cared deeply for? That I loved in a way that was still special and important… but who I could not spend the rest of my life with? Wasn’t sacrificing my own happiness so as not to disrupt the life of someone else only fair as punishment for making this momentous mistake in the first place?

What would my family think? How badly would I disappoint them? How much would I hurt them? What would my friends say, or people that I knew? How could I even tell them?

What would his family think? What awful, horrible things would they say about what a monstrous person I was?

Combined with these worries, an endless stream of thoughts about what a failure, what a selfish, cruel, evil human being, what a bad person I was swirled through my head. I was paralyzed by fear, self-loathing, and guilt.

Until a close friend of mine told me that if I was unhappy, then something needed to change. And if failing to make mindful, intentional decisions led me to this point, it was time to stop making that mistake. It was time to be honest about how I felt, what I needed, and where my life would go.

I needed to quit letting external factors dictate my actions. I needed to make the decision that was right for me. Because no one else is living my life and it’s the only one I’m going to get. Our experiences of this existence are valuable beyond words, and we shouldn’t limit our steps to the path that works for other people but not ourselves.

Guilt and shame will choke you to death if you let them. Don’t let them drown out that little inner voice that you know speaks the truth, that you know is in line with who you are and what you need to do.

Starting Over (and Why We Had To)

But why? Why did a need to change my life need to include the decision to end a marriage?

The closest I can come is to ask you to imagine two thin wooden beams. The beams are straight, and lying near each other. At one end, the beams are touching — but instead of running straight upward together, making two parallel lines, one leans toward the left and one toward the right.

As the beams run out from where they touch, they get farther and farther apart. You could rearrange them to make them touch, but assuming the ends are fixed — the ends where the beams touch — the only way to do this is to break one or both of the beams and rearrange the pieces next to each other.

The beams represent who we are. Not just what we want or our hopes and dreams, but who we are at our cores. And the length of the beams represents time.

I met my ex when I was 19 years old in college. I married him when I was 22. Though my gut felt uneasy about some things — things that indicated who we were as people — I did love him profusely. He was, and is, a wonderful person and one of the friendliest, kindest souls I’ve ever known.

But as time went on that gut feeling got stronger as I traveled farther along my beam. I felt unease every time we made a decision that didn’t reflect the path I wanted to take with my life. Try as I might to align my core self with his (while ever more frantically attempting to practice gratitude for all the things I couldn’t complain about), the beam resisted more and more each time I put pressure on it. Tiny splinters began appearing where I tried desperately to change who I was to suit the decisions I made in the past.

And one day I realized if I pulled back any harder, I would snap and find a path littered with a broken beam and full of what ifs, missed opportunities, and dreams that never even got a shot at becoming reality.

I wish I could more clearly express what lead us to this point, or why things ended this way. But this image must do because, while I’m okay sharing pieces of my life in a public forum, my ex may not feel the same way. I want to both protect and respect his privacy and emotions, because I do care deeply for him.

And as bizarre as it may sound to say about someone you divorced, I do want him to flourish and find the sort of happiness I felt didn’t exist in our old state of being. He deserves long days full of inspiration, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

We both do.

Finding the Courage to Live Mindfully

When I realized that my decisions within the relationship were not a reflection of who I was or what I wanted out of my life, I knew that I couldn’t continue making those mistakes. I didn’t know how to deal with the fear of judgment, I didn’t know how to stop worrying about what other people would say about me.

But I did know I didn’t want to live with the knowledge that I turned away from what was right for me, or stayed in a place where I felt unhappy, unfulfilled, and lacking direction and purpose because I was scared.

As soon as I blurted out to my dad one day that I was unhappy, I broke down in tears and felt immensely sad, ashamed — and relieved. As soon as I walked out of the courthouse after filing for a divorce, I silently cried all the way home over many things — and I felt like a massive weight had been lifted off my chest.

And as soon as I moved to a new city and took my first walk around the streets by myself, I felt calm. I felt like something that had shifted around unpleasantly for years within me finally clicked into place.

Living mindfully is not always easy. It is often unpleasant, scary, and painful in the moments you choose to step away from the herd and intentionally create your own path.

Living mindfully requires you to wake up from what might be a perfectly nice daydream, in which things are okay and you are content and everything is fine. It usually means turning away from something you know and accepting the risk, the challenge, and the potential for epic failure that comes with taking a leap into the unknown.

But living mindfully also means finding the courage to tune out everything else and identify what your own inner truth looks like — and what it’s trying to tell you. When you let that feeling take the stage, when you listen to it, and, hardest of all, act in accordance to what you know to be the right thing for you, you’ll have the opportunity to create a life full of meaning and purpose.