Breaking free from my self imposed mental prison
We moved to Shelton when I was in 7th grade. Middle school was already tough, and now I was the new kid starting in a new place, midway through the year.
I was mortified by the Puma sneakers my mom made me wear, because they weren’t Nike or Reebok, like everyone else had. I thought to myself, no one will like me because I’m not wearing the right sneakers. I didn’t talk to the people at the bus stop and kept to myself at school, because in my mind, they wouldn’t like me – so I beat them to it by not liking them first.
Then in high school, I was obsessed with losing weight because I saw all the pretty, popular kids having a good time. I obsessively created endless checklists to eat less and exercise more. Instead of looking for friends to enjoy lunch with, I sat by myself with a salad, telling myself, I’ll be happy someday. Once I get through this, I’ll have lots of friends.
In my twenties, I was in a rock band playing out in bars around New Haven. We were pretty good, and the other guys were really into it – but my internal dialogue was always focused on the negative: people aren’t paying attention and no one wants to listen to us, and I can’t wait until this is over. (Wasn’t that supposed to be fun?)
The truth is, I was NEVER happy where I was.
Was someone trying to sabotage my life? (Yes, me.)
Apparently, I didn’t want to be anywhere, so drugs became more appealing. I was aiming for happiness, but settled for getting numb. Eventually, I couldn’t function without both cocaine and heroin – every day.
I was in a dark and hopeless place, where my entire existence consisted of working to buy drugs, up until the point where no amount of drugs was enough to drown out the guilt, shame, and remorse I was feeling, caused by that lifestyle. Then … when I could go no further – I hit bottom.
I desperately cried out for help, and something snapped inside. I woke up. I became self-aware like never before.
Suddenly, it was clear that what I had been looking for was not “out there.” There wasn’t some magic job, girl, or bank account that would make me happy. I needed to find peace on the inside.
With the help of some amazing people and the 12 steps, I started to question every thought that popped into my head. I saw the lies – all that crap about me not being good enough, and not being worthy of love and friendship. Says who? I could see how all the stories I had been telling myself, about myself, were blocking me off from everything good.
The most critical moment was when I realized that I was neither my mind or my body, that there was this other thing – an awareness, that could see everything from an outside perspective. That awareness was the real me.
For the first time, I was able to dis-identify with the voice in my head.
The more I was able to step back and observe my thoughts, the more they slowed down, and I began to feel connected to everything around me. I was able to experience moments of presence, of just being right where my feet are, enjoying whatever was going on. You hear that? JOY! This was the happiness thing I had seen all those other people doing.
I could plainly see how that little voice in my head is not always right, and I became free.
Today, 15 years later, I’m still sober and I’ve never lost that essential awareness. But I need to constantly make a decision to NOT engage with every single thought that pops into my head (which can still be very difficult). But, without fail, when I follow one moment to the next, without giving in to that nagging desire to control everything through over-planning and worrying, amazing things happen. Inspired action happens. Luck happens. Synchronicity. God moments. Whatever you want to call it … things are overwhelmingly better for me when I’m present.
It’s like I now have access to power that I didn’t have before. It was always there, I just had to make space for it.
How we experience life comes down to perception, right? We see things happening around us, but we get to assign meaning to it. Is it good or is it bad? For most things, it depends how you look at it.
Thoughts happen. I can’t stop them. But, when I’m awake – aware – I can see them coming, and decide which ones to listen to.
How would your life change if you stepped away from your thoughts once and a while, looked back and said, “nope – that one’s bullshit. I’m gonna ignore that one.”
You’re probably thinking, how can I get to this place of awakening? Is suffering a requirement? For me, it took a crisis to wake me up. But, you may get there with just a little practice. Mindfulness is like a muscle – the more you use it, the more it grows. Here are a few things to try: Pretend you’re the Karate Kid, swatting thoughts away (remember, wax on, wax off … we’ve been watching Cobra Kai on Netflix!) You can say to yourself, “I wonder what my next thought will be?” then wait – see how long you can go. One of my favorites: all throughout your day, especially during conversations, occasionally push your foot firmly down against the floor to remind yourself to stay in the moment, to be where your feet are, and not drift into random thought. By shining a light on your thoughts, they start to slow down. Start by making a little space up there in your head, and more will be revealed.
Header image artwork “Rainbow” by Abigail Liebensohn, courtesy of Zen Mantis
Mindfulness, Music & Marketing. I’m obsessively curious about what makes people tick and what makes us all feel more connected.
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