Demystifying Meditation

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The best way to eat. The best way to parent. The best way to train. Social media, news, forums, parents & friends: we are constantly  flooded with these “best way” approaches to living. It can be consuming if we allow  it. Instead of letting myself feel overwhelmed by dogmatic viewpoints, I have grown into a mindset that there are many right ways to do things. I’m constantly reminding myself to value various perspectives. Open mindedness is so much easier in theory than practice, especially when the beliefs aren’t too far off from our own. This doesn’t mean I don’t have my own set of values and ways that feel right for me. It just keeps me in check when I have an instant judgment about myself or how others are going about life.

Which brings me to meditation. When I was first introduced to the idea several years ago, I wrote it off as mystical voodoo. The prayer beads, the incense, and goddesses. Not for me. Big fat judgements going on in my head about the “type” of person who meditated. I quickly wrote it off and vowed to stay clear of the new age nonsense. But as I started exploring yoga, I realized that all these people I wrote off as hippie freaks actually had a lot to teach me. I started to appreciate their way of cultivating a present and content life and realized they weren’t such freaks after all. They were stopping long enough to be present. And so what if they had these rituals that weren’t for me. And whether or not it was a passing trend, they were on to something.

And so I started exploring.

Six or seven years ago, I first started dabbling in yoga and meditation. I came to it like so many others do. To find stillness in my monkey brain and to ease stress. At first I felt out of place and like a total impostor. I remember feeling uncomfortable sitting for so long in one position. I had run races so hard that I puked. I had traveled alone in foreign lands. But the thought of sitting still with nothing but my mind and my breath scared me more than anything I had tried. I’d fidget, get up for water, count the seconds in my head, and squint my eyes open toward the clock. But eventually something clicked. Once I realized that there was no competition, no right way to do it, no end goal, I was hooked. I started to crave this time.

Over the years, my meditation practice has evolved (maybe devolved?), but it has adapted to my life at each stage. It used to be routine, long, connected to a yoga practice. But now, with a totally full plate, I’m sure many purists wouldn’t call it a meditation practice, but back to my original point: there are many “right” ways to do things.

I do it because it makes me more capable of living my life. I meditate because I know that true happiness comes from internal peace. Not to say things won’t be noisy and messy and unfortunate around me, but I know that if I can have a baseline sense of internal contentment, unfortunate circumstances will have less of an impact on my overall contentment. I love all the scientific evidence that it can actually rewire how our brains respond to stress, that it makes us more productive, and allows us to ease our reactions. It’s why it’s as trending in Silicon Valley as it is at Wanderlust. But all that aside, for me, I do it because it helps me get out of my own way. I am able to see situations as they actually are, not just how I perceive them. I can say “yes” to whatever happens and to learn not to judge whatever the circumstance is at that time. The less combat, the more ease.

Here’s what my meditation practice looks like. I don’t do it every day, although maybe someday I’ll make time for that. Also, it was incredibly awkward and unsatisfying the first few times when I started a home practice. A few times a week, I wake up before my alarm, and I’m lucky if the kids are still asleep. I do everything to not pick up my phone or computer for a digital hit. Because then it’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of email and Instagram. I turn on the hot water (so I can have coffee ready right after!), put on my coziest sweats, fuzzy socks, and waltz into the living room half asleep and slightly grumpy that I’m awake. I roll out my yoga mat and prop up some pillows. I sit down on the pillow and start feeling my way into my body and the practice. I’m usually cold and a little fidgety when I first sit down. Then I allow myself to just be there with myself, my breath, my body. As I get more comfortable, I begin to follow my breath and watch it grow slowly and fully. I don’t force anything or put any time frame on it. I envision my breath like a revolving circle and this helps move my breath fully in and out through my nose as my stomach expands and my entire body relaxes. Sometimes I’ll last a minute and sometimes I’ll sit for 10 minutes. Eventually, I feel like the practice is over, and when I stand up, my senses are heightened and I’m calm and aware. Exactly what I need to carry me through my day.
Soon after the kids are up, breakfast is spilling everywhere are we’re all running out the door, but that imperfect, brief inward practice is enough to kick-start my day. It’s a space I can remind myself of throughout the day, no matter how out of control the outside world feels. Meditation is my favorite underutilized tool toward contentment, and I’m glad I was finally able to see past my own judgments to appreciate what the practice has to offer.

Moving With Grief

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I always want to know if something is going to work out. I want to jump ahead to that elusive finish line and just know that it’s going to work. If I can’t see the success through the sliver of light in the tunnel, I tend to retreat into safety. Vulnerability, and the ability to go all in with no guarantees, is one of the hardest things for me to embrace. I can look back now and see when I’ve fallen hard, and now it’s more clear that I dusted myself off and kept on. And in hindsight, I can say, “wow. That was pretty epic.” What I would have given then to have my hindsight wisdom. But rarely do I rise with strength. I nearly always rise begrudgingly, frustrated that I fell in the first place, and only getting up and trekking on because of my bruised ego, not because I embraced it as part of the process of living a wholehearted life.

So as I step back now and look at my running and my old and new personal, professional and creative pursuits, I am learning to coax myself along knowing that there are no guarantees. I’m not signing up for success, I’m signing up for my passion.

As I continue to walk into my story without a known outcome or even expectations, I face vulnerability squarely. Leaning into all the emotions–knowing that I can’t have joy and triumph without fear and pain and falling face down. I cannot selectively numb emotions and live a wholehearted life. This is hard, but I know it’s part of the process.

The more I’ve been learning about this process and loving every bit of Brene Brown’s recent book, my mind keeps turning to a young woman and her courageous walk. A young woman who has walked hand-in-hand with vulnerability for the past 19 months and in the most profound way. I went to high school with Kristina Ponza, a talented, beautiful girl. Then she spent some years living in Sydney with her husband and two kids and didn’t hear much of her until tragedy struck her hard. Then it seemed like the whole town knew of her tragic story. None of us could wrap our minds around the idea of how does she keep living?

Then she moved back to town, and she started sharing her story. She was living in a big way. Her story of grief and living wholeheartedly is unlike any other I’ve personally known. She honestly engages with her emotions–the dark and the light. She accepts her struggle as part of her path toward courage, identity and knowing her life is worth living. She’s my constant reminder to show up. She’s my reminder that despite deep fear and grief, we can walk always into our gifts and power.

Even though this blog is about running, it’s more about a journey, about going for it and learning along the way. Something on various levels and perspectives  we can all relate to. I love when people share their authentic journeys, so I wanted to reach out to Kristina and see if she’d be willing to share her journey, and how she’s going for it and learning and living with tragedy and grief. I bring to you a courageous young widow, her story of picking herself up again, moving with grief and seeing through it a beautiful life.

Welcome, Kristina (Ponza) Swilley!

 

Please tell us a bit who you are and how your life has changed the last two years.

My name is Kristina Swilley and I am a proud mother of two beautiful children. Over the past two years my life has changed dramatically, in fact that may be an understatement. In the early hours of March 7, 2014 my world came crashing down. My husband of 4 years tragically died while we were on holiday for a friends wedding. I went from living in Sydney, Australia with my husband and two young kids, to packing up and selling off my belongings and moving back to the States. I had to leave friends and a place I called home for almost 6 years. I spent the rest of 2014 and the beginnings of 2015 in Georgia, living with my mother while I learned to navigate the world as a single mother and a widow at age 28. The first year of grief I learned so much about life, about love and about strength. I discovered my love for writing and for helping others. I am now living in Santa Cruz, finishing up my college degree with plans to continue on to get my Masters Degree in Psychology. My ultimate goal when I finish my masters is to help bring a voice to those who are grieving. To help people find the strength inside themselves to move forward with life while honoring their loved one. I want to show the world that we all will grieve at some point and if we can educate ourselves on how to help others while helping ourselves, then the sting of death won’t paralyze us so much. I believe that grief is one of the most powerful human emotions. It has the power to either break you or make you stronger and more compassionate. I lost my husband and if I decided to lay down and let his death defeat me one death would turn into two- the death of myself while still living. Through Matt’s death a new part of me emerged. A new path laid before me. I felt a true calling awaken in my heart. A calling that through living a life of passion and determination I can bring awareness that despite tragedy and grief, life can still be beautiful.

You’ve been so open about sharing your story following Matt’s death. What has compelled you to share your grief and your story of healing?

After Matt passed away, I started to journal what I was experiencing on my journey through grief. It was a release for me. I could be as open and honest because no one else would read my inner thoughts. On top of journaling, I also joined a few widow support groups. I was looking for others who knew how I felt. What I noticed, was how different and difficult the world of grief truly is. I was reading countless stories from other women about how their families deserted them or tell them it is time to move on after the loss of their loved one. These women were in pain and felt so alone. So, I decided that I would start a blog and be as open and honest as I could about how I was coping and what I was learning about the human spirit. I wanted to share my story to help those who felt as if their voice was unheard or to help other widows not feel so alone in their journey.  Grief can be a dark place to live. My goal was to be a light and shine some hope for others who have experienced such heartbreak. I wanted to show that there can be life after death.

kris2How has exercise played a part of the healing process? 

While living in Georgia I joined the YMCA and started taking Barre and Vinyasa yoga. Yoga appealed to me because I knew the practice was not just about stretching my body and becoming more flexible. Yoga was about finding my center and radiating my true self through my practice. It was about developing a deeper connection with myself and those around me. Seeing each other as one and transforming that feeling into an off the mat way of living. By doing these two classes, it gave me an hour each day that was devoted strictly for the betterment of my mind, body and spirit. It was a moment in time where my heartbreak wasn’t front and center. The internal pain I felt would disappear and my focus turned to going deeper into the pose or pushing harder to finish the reps of pile squats. I was in the moment of loving and taking care of my body. Exercise is a mind clearing escape. I didn’t have explain myself or my situation to anyone. I wasn’t a widow when I was in class. I was Kristina. I loved seeing how my mind and body transformed with the addition of exercise. I felt stronger and proud of what I would accomplish after every class.

Now that I am back in Santa Cruz and my schedule has become more hectic between driving over to San Jose and back, then finding time to study, my yoga practice has turned into a home based practice. If I am not doing yoga, I am going for walks by the ocean or in the woods. Connecting with nature helps ease my soul and reconnects me with my inner-self. It is the best form of inspiration for my writing as well. Being away from technology or the distractions of every day life allows my brain to think more clearly. I can hear my inner voice more loudly. If I didn’t find a form of exercise that worked to clear my mind and reinvigorate my spirit, I think my grief would get the best of me. Movement pushes all the negative energy that becomes blocked in your body and replaces it with positive energy and I am all about finding the positive in all aspects of life. Exercise for me isn’t just about transforming my body, it plays a bigger role than that, one that is more important for me in my life now and that is taking the weight off my spirit and allowing it to be more free.

Do you have days where you don’t feel like moving? What do you do?

On the days when I don’t feel like moving, I am reading. I have this problem with wanting to read so many different books that Im usually reading 3 books at a time. If I am not reading, I am writing. But mostly I spend my down time with my kids. They keep me moving.

What other techniques have you learned to allow yourself to live with bravery and to own your story?

Other techniques I have learned to allow myself to live with bravery is meditation and learning how to better listen to my intuition. Meditation has taught me how to calm my mind and let go of all that doesn’t serve me in a positive way. Following and trusting my heart allows me to own my story because I am being true to myself.

Do you have any advice for those trying to live a brave life or for those who must regain their footing after a struggle?

My advice for those who are experiencing their own personal struggles is to keep finding the beauty in life. If you want to find your footing again you can’t shy away from the pain, the heartbreak or the frustrating emotions. Let them wash over you, release them and move forward. Your emotions do not define you. Don’t compare your journey to others. We all go about things differently so it comes down to perspective. Are you willing to change your perspective on life as you know it? Surround yourself with people who don’t shy away from you when you are struggling the most, these people will make themselves known. I can say that my friends and family helped me get to where I am now. Lastly, be selfish. I don’t mean in a nasty, it is all about me and I don’t care about anyone else kind of selfish. What I mean is take the time to put yourself first. If you don’t want to do something because it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Own your no and don’t be sorry for putting your heart first. You have the choice every day to create the life you truly want, you can stay in the dark or you can take a deep breath and search for the light that still exists inside you.

Thanks for your time and authenticity.kris3

Read more on Kristina’s journey at lovelostlive.wordpress.com