Back in the mid-90s, I was on a college tour in Boston when I came across a bookshop in Copley Square. One of the first books I saw as I walked into the mahogany wood-panelled store was Wherever You Go, There you Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I bought the book and have held onto it through 9 moves, two of which were overseas. Interestingly, it's not the topic (mindfulness) that still calls to me. It’s the title.
Wherever you go, there you are. Yes, indeed. No matter where you put me, on a kayak on breathtaking Lake Banff, at a table for two at French Laundry in Napa Valley, or in front of the most inspiring paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, there is my inner world with me--my inner world with all its beauty and all its demons.
Sometimes it sucks. There is nothing worse than being somewhere special and not being in the mindset to enjoy it. Sometimes it’s great! Like when I am stuck in traffic with my kids but I am in such a good place that I get us all singing and laughing.
Wherever I go, there I am.
I recently had an experience that got me thinking about ways to shift the mood in my inner world. It happened after having a terrible night with our 1 year old. Burdened with the physical exhaustion of being up every hour and the emotional strain of hearing a baby’s constant piercing cry, I went down to the family room feeling utterly defeated at 6 am.
I sat on the sofa to nurse her. Before I knew it, my mind had drifted to the time over Thanksgiving weekend two years prior when we revealed her sex to the family. I stood before our rowdy bunch of loved ones holding two signs. One for “boy,” one for “girl.” I first took a tally. “Raise your hand if you think it’s a girl!” A quarter of the hands went up with cheers and laughter. “Raise your hand if you think it’s a boy!” Half the hands went up with a little less excitement (we already had a boy). I counted to three, paused for added suspense, and held up the sign that said “I’m a GIRL!” The family erupted with joy!
Thinking back to that night’s excitement and enthusiasm filled me with so much warmth that I was actually smiling as I was sitting on the couch at 6 am that gray morning.
“Change your thoughts, change your life,” came to my mind. Of course, it’s not that easy in practice. My day did actually get better from that point on, but I still felt exhausted. I still felt anxious since I didn’t exactly know what was wrong with Ella. And my temper was much shorter than usual.
But since that experience, I have been practicing with this method of shifting my mood by directing my thoughts to a place that makes me feel happiness. I have come to find that it actually works if I don’t expect too much.
If I force myself to sit on a chair, close my eyes and go to a “happy place” when I am in a bad mood, I just get angrier and more frustrated. But if I do little things that make my attention wander to a better place, like engaging in my favorite work tasks, playing good music while I am driving, calling a friend and focusing on what’s going on with her, or trying a recipe I have been curious about, then those small shifts slowly lift me out of the dark place. One by one, they begin to build a ladder I can use to climb out of a bad mood.
And this is key: once I find myself rising out of the bad place, I do not allow myself to think about the issues that got me there in the first place. Of course, my mind goes there, but before I allow it to engage with the thoughts, I change the channel. The fact is, even if those issues are problems that need to be solved, I will not be able to come up with good solutions until I am in a better place. So, I wait until I regain some strength, gain more perspective or am surrounded by people who bring me comfort. It’s not that I’m avoiding the issue, it’s that I’m allowing myself the time to get to a place where I can better deal with it.