Mandalas, if you aren’t familiar with them, are these beautiful works of art typically made from sand. They are painstakingly designed and then created with great care grain by grain. They often take weeks to complete. Today, they have been adopted by other cultures, but the practice is attributed to Tibetan monks. The design is symbolic as the mandala itself is circular, a representation of the world. When the mandala is complete, the sand is carefully swept away. The mandala is destroyed and the sand is typically placed into water, as a symbolic gesture of giving it back to the earth.
In the past, I have shared the concept of mandalas with my students as a means of discussing the importance of the process itself; the journey. While that’s not untrue, – there certainly are some lessons in being a part of something bigger than one’s self and becoming part of a community to create and collaborate – there is actually a greater underlying meaning in understanding that everything is impermanent.
Truly, everything we experience, everything that is a part of the construct of our lives, is fleeting. Our emotions; our suffering, our joy, it is all impermanent. I bring this up because I think a big part of learning to love the journeys we are on, at whatever point we are at, is knowing that we won’t be here, in this spot, forever.
Through understanding the impermanence of each day, each experience, we can learn to hold on to those things that bring us joy and happiness. These are the things we should savor! And at the same time, we can take comfort in knowing that when we are in pain, the sorrow will fade with time.
(On the other hand, I want to make a point here that feeling hopeless is very different from feeling sad. Sadness does fade, but a sense of true hopelessness may indicate depression which is a serious condition. If you are experiencing this, I urge you to connect with a healthcare professional immediately to seek help. Please send me a private message if you would like additional information or assistance with starting the process.)
Today, I want to share with you some of my best tips (and those of others) which are likely to help you embrace, and eventually love, the journey on which you find yourself. Remember, you are the only person who determines how you experience your life. While we may encounter occurrences that we don’t expect, we always have the ability to choose how we respond to and move forward from these events.
Learn to be present. Ever tried to practice yoga with cats around? It’s almost impossible to let your mind wander because your cats will keep bringing you back to the present moment whether they’re rubbing their squishy faces on your legs, or batting their paws at your hair, or trying to take a nap underneath you while you’re in downward dog. This example often comes to mind when I think of being present because it’s all about fully participating in the moment and allowing your senses to be fully engaged with your surroundings.
Put the distractions away (yes, even your phone – OMG, don’t hyperventilate, I’m only asking you to do this for a short time each day) and be present in the moment for at least a few minutes each day. This may be while you’re out on a walk or spending time with family or friends. It may be while you’re getting a pedicure or back massage. It may be while you practice an art like playing the piano, or painting, or dancing.
Whatever it is, commit to spending some time in which you allow yourself to fully engage in the moment and the pleasure of the activity. At the same time, recognize that your mind will inevitably drift away and when it does, be gracious and lovingly bring your attention back to the present moment. The more we practice this, the better we will become at truly being present (and the less we will find our minds wandering).
Practice flexibility and adaptability. I find this to be very challenging myself, but honestly, the more flexible and adaptable I become, the better I truly feel. A wonderful teacher and mentor, Carole Westerman, recently reminded me that in whatever we are cultivating through our practice (in this case, the practice of yoga), we should become more flexible, not less.
We may adopt a trend or way of life that improves our well-being, like a diet or form of exercise, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of becoming less flexible. For instance, if you adopt an all-organic lifestyle, that’s awesome for you! However, if it means that you suddenly can’t go to dinner with friends or travel or simply enjoy your life, then maybe we should be asking ourselves why we’re doing it.
This doesn’t mean that a particular practice doesn’t have value or isn’t important, but it’s equally important to develop some flexibility. Maybe this means that you have to do some research in advance and suggest restaurants that would be most ideal for you (from the example above). Or maybe it simply means having some tolerance for ambiguity and understanding that you may not be able to control the circumstances of every situation – and that’s okay.
Most importantly, I don’t think it’s healthy to create lots of restrictions for ourselves which prevent us from fully living and experiencing our lives – why not have both?!
Discover things that bring you joy. Yes, just yes! Try new things or pick up old things that you used to love doing. Spend some time doing the activities that bring you joy and savor them. Smile, laugh, share these events with others, and repeat.
There is no judgement here. In fact, I would encourage you to connect with your inner child and really ask yourself what you find fun. Go play laser tag with your friends or just a group or strangers – don’t knock it until you try it, it’s seriously a great time. Go to a concert, go paintballing with zombies (this is something I actually just bought tickets for and I am stoked!), sign up for a 5K, take up dance lessons or learn to play an instrument, play video games, take up writing, or just go for walk!! Literally, the sky is the limit. Hey – you could even go skydiving (if that’s your thing – heights are totally not my thing!).
Don’t be afraid to be explorative. See what’s happening nearby you. This doesn’t have to be something costly (in fact, it could absolutely be free!). Consider finding an adventurous friend to try some things with you or go on your own!n Above all, have fun and discover some joy.
Find some gratitude. This sounds so simple, but we often forget to do it. A few months ago, I read The Book of Joy (which I highly recommend) and I believe it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who simply reminded readers to “count your blessings.” We (or at least, I) tend to spend a lot of time complaining about things in our lives – all of the shortcomings and disappointments, but we don’t designate much recognition or time to the things for which we should be grateful.
This may sound silly, but it honestly gets easier the more you do it. I always think of my friend and former colleague, Beth, who posted a blank sheet of paper to our shared office door and labeled it, “Things I am grateful for…” She gently encouraged me and our third office comrade to participate in her activity (which we rather grudgingly did – at first).
Amazingly, it didn’t take long for us to fill that sheet and even others throughout the building stopped to add their thoughts to the list. Tiny little scribbles barely legible appeared in the margins until there was virtually no space left. So many things I hadn’t even thought of (and can’t specifically recall now) appeared on that list and reminded me of how full my life was (and is) – how many things for which to be grateful.
This is an easy task you can do on your own or with friends or colleagues. Take a blank sheet of paper and write down one thing for which you are grateful. Work on adding just one item each day. It won’t take long for you to fill your sheet and chances are, you will often have more than just one.
Leave the past in the past. Forgive yourself and move on. When you lie awake at night, do you agonize over all of the should-ofs and could-ofs from your life? Stop torturing yourself. We cannot change the past (although sometimes we really, really wish we could). All we can do is learn from those experiences and try our very best to avoid making the same mistakes again.
Have some grace and remind yourself that you are human, which means you (and all of the rest of us) are fallible, imperfect beings. Everyone – EVERYONE – makes mistakes. Stop comparing yourself to others. We can’t possibly know all of the experiences of every person, so we should just stop worrying about other people and instead, focus inward.
If you find it difficult to have some self-compassion (like most of us do), try imagining what you would tell a friend in the same situation (and then, give that very loving and compassionate message to yourself).
Look forward to the future. Put simply, plan with intention and make it happen. Did you know people who write down their goals are more likely to achieve them? It’s true and it’s actually supported by science – in fact, one study found that people were 42% more likely to achieve their goals and dreams when they simply wrote them down on a regular basis.
What does this mean for you? First, you need to spend some time really thinking about your goals and dreams. Don’t limit yourself (at least not a first) — really indulge your wildest dreams and make a list with everything on it. Challenge yourself – it can be exciting and highly motivating to envision yourself reaching new heights. Once you’ve done that, you can start shaping your list into a more realistic set of goals, both long-term and short-term.
Recently, while standing in the entryway of a friend’s apartment, I noticed a whiteboard which hung next to the front door. There, clearly written out and even numbered (I think to indicate the priority of each) was a list of this person’s goals. It occurred to me that this is the level of commitment we need to actually achieve our goals. It’s important for us to see them and remind ourselves of what we’re working towards frequently, because it helps keep us motivated.
I’m not at all saying that you need to hang your goals next to your front door (though it’s not the worst idea), but I challenge you to actually take the time to write down your goals and keep them close. Check those goals frequently and ask yourself if you’re on track to meet them. Are there things that are keeping you from achieving your goals? Do you need to adjust your goals because of recent changes in your life? Whatever the case, commit to revisiting and even rewriting these goals on a regular basis. Seriously, the science supports it.
Fill your mind with the right stuff. Everything we take in is being filtered by our brains in some way and absolutely impacts our mood and behavior. Be selective about the music you listen to, the books or magazines you read, and even the television or movies you watch. I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever indulge in watching a scary movie, but if that’s all you ever watch, you’ll probably find that your anxiety and paranoia are constantly activated.
Opt for music that helps relax you or lifts your mood. I was at the gym the other night and saw this guy who was in his own world, totally blocking out anyone else in the gym, and he was busting out some pretty serious dance moves to whatever was playing in his earbuds. It made me smile because that’s exactly what our music should do for us – it should move our souls and make us want to dance like no one is watching.
Read books and articles that leave you with a sense of wonder, possibility, or inspiration. This doesn’t mean you have to stop reading fiction (because I love a good suspenseful murder mystery) if that’s your thing. Just consider mixing in some material that leaves you with that feel-good buzz. I already mentioned The Book of Joy, and I’m currently reading Girl, Wash Your Face (both of which I highly recommend), but there are literally tons of great books our there! In fact, just google, “great books that leave you feeling good” or “best inspirational books” and you will find many (many) suggestions.
Okay, you get the idea. Just to be clear, I’m definitely not encouraging you to ignore things that may not be pleasing to you (like the news, for instance – this is not an excuse to be ignorant), but I do think there should be a healthy balance of the type of information we’re receiving each day. This is especially true if you find that your mood is being largely impacted by these things. You know yourself better than anyone else, so listen to what your mind and body are telling you and go with what’s best for you.
Love yourself. Give yourself a virtual (or literal, if you prefer) hug. I mentioned both gratitude and self-forgiveness previously, but these aren’t really the same as actually loving yourself. Do you think you are a good person? Do you like yourself? Do you love yourself? You should! And if you don’t, you’re the only person keeping you from doing so.
That may have felt harsh, but it’s the honest truth — if you don’t love yourself, you are the only person on the planet who can change it. Start focusing on the wonderful qualities about yourself that make you awesome — Are you reliable? Always have a friend’s back? Always willing to help? Genuinely care about your friends? Trust me, there are reasons for you to love yourself and that’s where you need to place your focus.
However, if you find that your list of awesome qualities is shorter than you would like it to be, or if there’s qualities about yourself that you don’t admire, then decide if these things are really important to you. And if they are important to you (don’t worry about other people), change them! If you don’t like that you are constantly breaking your word or bailing on friends, figure out what needs to change so that you can stop doing that.
I want you to love yourself today and tomorrow and always, but recognize that we are all works-in-progress and that is completely okay. It doesn’t make us any less lovable, it makes us human.
Have a sense of humor. Practice laughing when things don’t go the way you planned (instead of exploding with anger or simmering on the inside). Our reaction to unexpected events determines how we experience the world around us. It’s definitely not always easy, but it can really help us cope with life when we approach things with a sense of humor or lightness. And I think it actually helps us with becoming more flexible and adaptable as well.
I will admit I have a tendency to take things a bit too seriously (just ask any of my friends or family members), but I am ‘seriously’ (pun fully intended) working on this and I think I’m making improvements. And to be honest, when it feels like the only options are to laugh or cry, I would just rather laugh (because no one likes to cry).
If you’re blessed with the gift of quick wit, this can be particularly useful in providing comic relief. It’s not always appropriate, but sometimes what people really need is a reprieve from the seriousness of life and some comic relief can often provide that. I don’t really know how to tell you to read the ‘right’ situation, but I trust you to use your best judgement in knowing when and where this could be useful. It’s okay to laugh, people!
Focus on others. This may sound counter-intuitive initially. But truly, if you’re trying to find some joy in your own life, the most effective way to do that is by focusing on others (in fact, that’s almost the entire point of The Book of Joy — I’ve referenced this twice already so I trust that you can navigate your way to one of the above links if you’re interested in reading it!).
You may consider taking up a cause or volunteering at a local community center – both of which would be great ideas and worthy endeavors. However, there’s something you can easily do today that doesn’t take a lot of time or effort and that’s to simply listen. I mean really listen to the people around you.
Most people in [emotional] pain just want to feel heard and you can offer that. It’s easy (well, maybe it’s not that easy)! Just shut your mouth, stop talking, and pay attention (you can reference my earlier point about learning to be present if you’re not sure how to do this, but I have a feeling you do).
You don’t need to have all of the answers. You don’t need to have access to lots of resources. You don’t need to provide any solutions. All you have to do is listen. Just try it, what do you have to lose?
Trust your instincts when it comes to doing things that will help you learn to love your journey. Like I’ve said before (and will definitely say again), you know yourself better than anyone else.
Remember that we only have today – tomorrow is not promised to us. Recognize the impermanence of everything and start embracing your journey today.
Bluerock, G. (2017). 6 ways to love your life more. Life. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/6-ways-to-love-your-life-more_b_8295318
Morrissey, M. (2016). The power of writing down your goals and dreams. Huffpost. Retrieved October 11, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/marymorrissey/the-power-of-writing-down_b_12002348.html
Priebe, H. (2018). 33 simple ways to fall back in love with your life. Thought Catalog. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://thoughtcatalog.com/heidi-priebe/2015/10/33-simple-ways-to-fall-back-in-love-with-your-life/
The Pluralism Project. (2018). Creating a mandala. Harvard University. Retrieved October 10, 2018, from http://pluralism.org/religions/buddhism/the-buddhist-experience/creating-a-mandala/
Photo Credits (in order of appearance)
- Mandala, Photo by Bharet Dass on Instagram (@bharatdass108)
- Smiling woman, Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
- Chasing the light in Yosemite, Photo by Grant Ritchie on Unsplash
- Just laugh, Photo by Jenna Anderson on Unsplash