Seven months ago, I found myself in an unhelpful place. It was something which had bubbled beneath the surface for many months and one which in truth, I would struggle to explain on paper. But it took me to a dark place; one filled with negativity, self-criticism, emptiness, guilt – guilt about everything – and depression. It consumed almost all areas of my life but none more so than my relationship with exercise.
Before this time, I had discovered a love of activity, particularly running. I’m not naturally a good runner, I’ll always be beaten, but I found so much joy in getting out into the open air, often on the fells and mountains of the Lake District in Cumbria where I live. I set myself challenges and pushed boundaries, without expectations of myself, enjoying the elation from realising I could do something I never knew was possible. That journey took me through my first off-road marathon and ultra-marathon. The joy of looking back and saying; ‘my goodness, I actually just did that!’ is hard to describe.
But then each challenge had to follow another. Each one had to be bigger or better or faster than the other. I was suffering greatly from a bereavement in my life and had mistakenly assumed I could forget about it by pushing myself harder. I was carrying emotional baggage – guilt and a sense that I needed to justify my life, and prove my worth, and so I was constantly looking to the next challenge and focusing on the next target. Simultaneously, everything I did in training for these events was never good enough – not long enough, hard enough, fast enough, challenging enough. I had to be better than myself, and better than everyone else around me. I had to improve more and try harder, or I was simply failing.
And to fail meant I failed myself and I failed everyone who knew me.
I was a failure.
Imagine running with that constant negative, attacking, critical voice. I couldn’t do it. Deep down I knew I didn’t need to, and I needed to get back to my happy running place. I’ve always been a driven person and a perfectionist, but this felt out-of-hand and all consuming, and so I sought help.
That help was a therapist, but at that time I also cancelled every event I had planned and every race. I’d found myself stuck in a place of constantly thinking about the next thing: the next event, next target, next aim… and never enjoying the moment I was in. And for what reason? What was the end goal?
Happiness is not about doing, it is about being
I believed that the greatest way to honour a loss of life in another, was to live mine well. What I’d taken that to mean was that I needed to prove myself and justify my life. Really, what it meant was that I was fortunate to be living, and that simply enjoying a moment knowing another couldn’t, was living the best way that I possibly could. My goal, I realised, was allowing myself to let go. It was acceptance, self-forgiveness, and perspective.
It has taken all of those 7 months to bring me to here. Here, now, is a place of being and a place of reflection. Previously I could never, ever contemplate being on the fell on my own because in all honesty I couldn’t stomach my own negativity for that long. Now, I love nothing more than getting out on my own. I do things at my pace not noticing targets or objections, and I observe the landscape, revelling in the quiet, calm and openness of having an entire mountain to myself. I can watch the clouds dance about the bracken, and the sun break through at times as though someone turned the lights on.
We can spend so long outside as a way of escaping from something, or getting to somewhere, that we don’t realise where we are. We forget to see the shapes and feel the calm, we forget to take in the moment and feel content. We forget to be.
Mindfulness has for a long time been recognised for its’ ability to aid our mental health. Mindfulness is the discipline and practice of being mindful of the moments in our lives. It is the practice of being. Because when it truly comes down to it, being present in a moment is all that we have, and all that is real: the past has gone, the future hasn’t happened yet.
I had to re-learn and re-find this. The process of re-discovery, simple pleasure, observation. I had to re-learn to look far enough ahead that I kept on moving, whilst not so far ahead that I forgot to take in the journey I was on to get there.
This recent quote was brought to my attention and perfectly sums this up:
There’s a reason we are called human beings and not human doings…. Happiness is not about doing, it is about being.
– Richard Branson, Letter to a stranger –