Perhaps the most frustrating thing about pursuing peace of mind is losing it.
Except, perhaps, trying to find it again.
I’m not quite sure how, exactly, it began or when, exactly, it became intolerable. All I know is that—somewhere in the midst of bustling from store to store doing holiday shopping, running errands, and living in the clenches of the daily to-do list—my blissful, wide-eyed, loving awareness of the world disappeared.
I think peace of mind is a bit like gourmet, organic guacamole. Once you’ve had it, the other stuff just won’t do. And if you’ve made it yourself, it’s even worse. You know you can do it because you’ve done it before, so every missed attempt feels like regression.
Every moment of blocked up guardedness elicited a deep hunger for the peace I knew was possible.
Like a starving tiger eyes an antelope, I eyed each moment of silence, each touch, each conversation. I searched for connection—to myself, to others, to life—in every interaction. I grasped for serenity in every breath.
Surrounded by constant noise and unending responsibilities, I tried to find peace of mind—to no avail.
And, of course, finding only scraps of what I was looking for, I became even more desperate. It’s like being horribly hungry and having someone waft food underneath your nose for a moment before they take it away.
I knew that peace was possible. I know peace is always possible. So I would try to open to it, to allow it, to discover it. I would relax, be mindful, and extend gratitude. These tactics would make me feel better for just a moment before I’d tense up once again, in mind and body.
I felt completely frustrated and unspiritual (which, I’m sure, should be a word).
Where had my peace of mind gone? It didn’t seem like the sort of thing you should be able to lose that easily.
I decided to put even more effort into my search for peace of mind. All the tactics I learned over the years to help me deal with surges of anger or disappointment now lined up like ammunition in my war against my unrest.
I squeezed in yoga stretches and brief meditations wherever I could. Instead of helping stretch my body, the exertion began to grow the knots and discomfort in my back. The meditation helped, for as long as I was doing it, but its effects wore off in about half an hour. All in all, it didn’t help.
With purpose and dedication, in my few free moments, I practiced releasing my judgement of myself for being blocked up. I told myself that, no matter what, I am allowed to falter. I acknowledged and accepted my deviation, ready to return to myself. The judgement was gone, but the darkness wasn’t. It didn’t help.
On my way from one errand to another, I wrote myself encouraging, loving journals—a practice that has proven most therapeutic throughout my life. I spoke to myself, in my head and in writing, in the same way that I’d speak to one of my clients or to a friend in need. I’d feel better in the moment, but by the next moment, I would feel empty again. It didn’t help.
As often as I could muster, I reached out and extended kindness to people around me. I doled out more genuine compliments, more donations, more hugs. It felt good while I was doing it. It felt good when I saw their smiles. But then, I was back to the same strange lack of peace and inspiration. It didn’t help.
I had some long breaks from my plight surrounded by wonderful people on Christmas eve and day. In laughter, smiles, and embraces, I found temporary solace and peace.
Yet each time I found myself outside of deep conversation, the unease returned.
That is, until yesterday.
Yesterday afternoon, I went, with my partner’s family, for a little expedition to a beautiful tea shop situated in a historical building. I felt something shift within me the moment we entered the gates, met by snow-covered hills and tall maple trees standing quietly in the sunny frost.
Inside, the little four-table serving room had exposed brick on one side and floor-to-ceiling windows on the other side, which faced out onto the grounds. The sound of acoustic Christmas carols danced to my heartbeat and the smell of warm sugar hung in the air.
We sat at a table adorned with black and green silks, each of us faced with a petite, hand-painted china teacup. Small, silver teaspoons sat gently on the matching saucers.
All around, the walls were holly and Christmas paintings. The owner was a bubbly, well-dressed, small-framed woman who had obviously spent most of her life smiling and making others smile.
Somewhere between stepping onto the intricately woven rugs in this cozy haven and taking a gentle sip of my first cup of Chai, something within me released.
All in one, beautiful, majestic wave, I was washed over by that peace I’d become so accustomed to, the peace I lost, the peace I craved. I felt it pour out of my heart and wash over my arms, legs, fingers, and toes. It coursed through my body with blissful ecstasy.
In-between gentle strums of guitar, there was total silence which was broken only by whispers. (You know a place is peaceful when people are compelled to whisper without being instructed to do so.)
Looking at my partner, I felt like I was seeing him for the first time in weeks. I felt his gentle touch on my hand with a vibrant power that, in my closed off, guarded world of holiday worries, I’d nearly forgotten about.
Holding his hand, I gazed out of the window as a squirrel hopped by with a snow-covered nut in its mouth. Looking at the prints of its paws on the snow, I could imagine the texture of the grooves on my fingertips.
Everything, from the trees to my own skin, began to feel familiar.
I was, finally, peaceful. I was, finally, home.
The whole experience felt as refreshing as it would be to drink a glass of water after being terribly thirsty. For years. In the desert.
All of a sudden, I felt like myself again. Suddenly, I could be effortlessly open, laugh at nothing at all, and love everything in sight. I filled with a powerful urge to give, listen, and embrace each person, moment, and opportunity.
As we stepped outside, our smoky breaths hanging in the air, my eyes drifted to the sky. I saw two seagulls circling one another in the winter sunshine, and smiled broadly as I remembered a story I heard Gangaji retell. It went something like this:
A guru comes to his class of eager students seeking the answers to inner peace. He tells them that, once, a man came up to him and said:
“Teacher, I am so lost. I try to meditate every day, each and every day. I seek inner peace within myself, but I live over a 24 hour automobile repair shop. It is noisy there all the time. Each day, I try to meditate, but the noise distracts me, and I find my mind wandering and my chest clenching. What do I do?”
The teacher turns to the students and asks them what they would tell the man.
One student suggests that the man relax deeper. Another says that peace is always available at any time, and he should be able to find his peace in any chaos. Yet another tells him to quiet his mind.
One by one, the students call out their answers. All are in the same vein: find peace only within yourself.
The teacher remains quiet. After all the students have spoken, they grow quiet as well. After some moments of silence, one of the group pipes up and asks, “What did you tell him, teacher? What did you say the man should do?”
The guru smiled, and said, “Move.”
With that in my head, a smile on my face, and a song in my heart, I watched the grounds of the beautiful haven fade away.
It’s incomprehensible to me how I managed to keep emotionally healthy while I recovered from a mental breakdown, faced traumatic memories, spoke publicly about my experiences, and wrote a book, but then got knocked down by holiday stress. It’s funny, really.
What I needed wasn’t another tactic. I just needed to let go, completely. I needed to find an environment where I could surrender to the sounds, sights, and smells of the air, and allow myself to be unwound. I kept trying to unwind in unsupportive spaces, so I had to keep a small measure of control.
Sometimes, to get back control, you have to totally lose it.
That is a lesson I’ve learned this season.
A small part of me hesitated before posting this story because it does, after all, show that I’m not perfect, I don’t have it all figured out, and I have so much more to learn. It’s a good thing that part of me isn’t in charge anymore.
Even though all the gurus will tell you that peace, love, and happiness are always accessible within you, this doesn’t mean you must always and only find them within.
Sometimes, we must rearrange the outside in order to remind ourselves of what lies inside.
And there’s nothing unspiritual about that.