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Creating Calm in the Chaos: How I Found My Peace in NYC

“In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.” ~Deepak Chopra

I found my peace in New York City, where I spent a year as a consultant on a temporary work assignment.

It may seem counter-intuitive that living in a city targeted by terrorists, clogged with traffic, and punctuated by sirens and honking horns could instill a kind of tranquility unattainable in Minnesota, where I currently live. After all, Minnesota is home to over 10,000 lakes, comforting casseroles of tater tots and cheese, and generations of Scandinavians who make Minnesota “nice.”

So, what is it about the chaos and madness of New York City, as experienced in my year of living and working there, that helped me slow down, tame my neuroses, and rediscover a quiet place not present in my Minnesota life?

It turns out New York City is a pretty good teacher. It pushed me to my limits (and no, not just how long I’ll stay in a subway car with a puddle of piss) and taught me three big lessons along the way.

Lesson #1: Let go.

It seems simple, right? Who hasn’t received this advice at some point in her life? For me, letting go speaks to short-circuiting the wiring in my brain that causes me to spend far too much energy worrying about things that objectively don’t matter.

Back in Minnesota, I get hung up on things like people taking the parking spots in front of my house or the peeling paint on my neighbor’s windows or the landscaping crew that fires up when I step outside for my morning coffee.

I’m one of those people who adjusts the angling of picture frames and positioning of salt shakers and wipes the fingerprints off my phone screen with a persistent regularity. If I had lived in Victorian times, I certainly would have been treated for my “delicate sensibilities” and spent my days on a fainting couch or taking in the air on the Continent.

But living in my pre-war rented apartment on 23rd street in a building with over 900 apartments, I somehow managed to not care about a lot of things that likely would have triggered me back in Minnesota. For New York makes palpable the sense that I am part of something much larger than myself and my petty preoccupations. It puts my sense of my own importance into perspective.

My particular concern at a given moment is not more important than anyone else’s.

You don’t like sirens at 3am? Too bad—someone’s probably fallen down a flight of stairs or needs his stomach pumped.

You find it rude and annoying that the woman down the hall parks her cruiser bike in the hallway in a blatant disregard of apartment policy? Deal with it. It’s not worth the risk of months of awkward elevator encounters if you say something.

In those moments, instead of giving in to my frustration, I chose to let go of my urge to control and settle into a space of acceptance, knowing that New York City will not bow to my will and neither will most New Yorkers.

Lesson #2: Be present.

I know, this is another lesson that is boorishly common and desperately close to being trite. And it’s a lesson I’ve been trying to ace for a long time with fleeting success.

My mind lures me into the future, pulling me along on a subtle but sustained undertow of discontent that prompts wonder about how things might be different if I found a new job or started doing yoga again or any number of “what if?” scenarios.

It’s not uncommon for me to read or watch something or sit in a meeting and realize that I haven’t really absorbed anything—my mind was too busy thinking of other things. Sometimes it is serious stuff, like whether I’m saving enough for retirement, but more often than not, it’s random thoughts that could certainly wait, like what if dogs could whistle?

The city demands a certain degree of presence to avoid being hit by a cab or taken down by a commuter on a Citibike.

For me, the splendor of being in one of the world’s greatest cities inspired me to take in all the sights and sounds (but definitely not the smells) and feel truly alive.

I remember sitting precariously on the ledge of my 16th floor window on a warm October night with only the faintest whisper of winter in the air. I watched dogs come home from their nightly walks, saw the specks of other humans in windows across the way, listened to the hum of the bus as it let people on and off. Above us all and our millions of anonymous lives, a harvest moon shone bright, lending an intimacy to a night alone balancing on the edge.

In those moments I became more of an observer, experiencing the world as it was in that moment, divorced from any of my misplaced notions about how I think things should be.

New York City rewards those who pay attention, whether it is those beautiful moments of feeling connected to humanity and grateful to be alive or the ridiculously absurd things you can overhear walking down the street that will have you laughing for days.

Lesson #3: Simplify.

This lesson gets to my inclination toward accumulation and the sense of satisfaction I get from filling my house with beautiful things. Being married to a general contractor who likes projects, I live in a big turn-of-the-century house built for a family with servants, yet currently home to only my husband, dog, and me.

Despite acknowledging when we bought the house that it was far more space than we needed, I found myself becoming more and more attached to my house and cultivating an unconscious belief that I need a big house and lots of pretty things to be happy and feel successful.

Living in my little rented apartment in New York City, with its sliver of a kitchen, I learned that not only can I be happy with much less, but the weight of those possessions and responsibilities creates a not insignificant amount of stress and anxiety.

While NYC real estate certainly brings its own burdens, I discovered the value of scaling down and living a simpler life that is focused on how I live, not where I live and what I have.

As my project comes to an end and it is time to return to Minnesota, I’m challenging myself to bring these lessons home and maintain my New York state of mind. In my own version of “What Would Jesus Do?” I need to ask myself: “’Would NY-me care?” If the answer is no, then I’m just going to breathe and let it go.

About Carolyn Brouillard

Carolyn Brouillard is technical writer rediscovering her creative voice. She uses personal stories to support healing, personal growth, and transformation in herself and others. She shares her experiences and insights, as well as poetry and artful affirmations, at carolynbrouillard.me.

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Life Is Far Less Painful When We Drop the Story in Our Head

“You will never be free until you free yourself from the prison of your own false thoughts.” ~Philip Arnold

Every meditator knows the dilemma of trying to find that perfectly quiet place to meditate, where silence is the golden rule and voices hush to a whisper.

Oh how perfect our meditation would be if only everyone would be quiet.

As wonderful as it sounds, we know it just doesn’t always work out that way.

And that’s what made this particular meditation experience so insightful. It gave me an opportunity to see how my judgmental thoughts can make life far more painful.

The setting was a camping trip in Northern California. Even though I was in this beautiful place and it’s generally quite peaceful, not everyone was there to commune with nature.

On the day in question, I was heading back to my campsite after taking a leisurely stroll with my dog. I was relaxed and content as I started preparing for my afternoon meditation.

Before any sitting I start with some stretching. I don’t know if it’s old age or just tight hips, but I cannot sit without some movement first.

So as I was preparing my body to sit, my neighbors were preparing for a party.

I could hear the preparations going on but didn’t give it much thought—that is, until I heard the music.

Led Zeppelin at full throttle!

I am a fan under most circumstances, but not at full volume and definitely not when I’m about to meditate.

So in came the thoughts…

How can I meditate with such loud music?

What kind of horrible person would do this?

The whole park should be quiet right now—I need to meditate!!!

My initial thought was to forget about my afternoon sitting, as there was no way I was going to be able to meditate through this.

So, instead of meditating, I just sat there, becoming more irritated and frustrated over the loudness of the music, my anger toward my neighbors increasing.

At this point I was painting them as serial killers who should be arrested for being so inconsiderate. I imagined all the things I would say to them and how I would get the park ranger to shut this clearly unlawful gathering down.

Because doesn’t everyone know this is the hour we meditate? Everyone should be quiet!

The noise that was coming from the music was nothing in comparison to the noise in my head.

By this time I was furious.

After mentally torturing myself for about thirty minutes, having my neighbors arrested and convicted multiple times, I finally had a flash of mindfulness and asked myself, what’s really bothering me?

Is it the music?

Is it my neighbors?

Or is it the story I’m telling myself about why they shouldn’t be playing the music?

The music, in fact, was not painful; as I said, I like Led Zeppelin.

And my neighbors, whom I had met earlier in the day, did seem like very nice people—highly unlikely there were any dead bodies lying in their trunk.

What was upsetting me was the story of why they shouldn’t be playing the music and how this made me a victim.

So I decided at that moment I would meditate, but I would also be on guard for what the real disturbance was. Not the music, not my neighbors, but the story of why they shouldn’t be playing the music.

Because I was so prepared for the disturbing thoughts, the moment they started to arise, the moment those first few words would creep out: “But they shouldn’t…” “How inconsiderate…” “Why does it…” I dropped them like a hot potato.

The link between the thoughts and the pain was crystal clear; their seductive power crippled. And as long as I didn’t give the story any fuel it couldn’t sustain itself, so there was nothing to bother me.

As I sat my concentration got deeper, even as the music blared on.

When the meditation was over I could hardly believe what had happened.

I finally understood this teaching I had heard thousands of times: It’s not the situation but what I’m telling myself that’s causing me to be unhappy.

But why did it have to take so long?

Our thoughts have enormous power over us, and we tend to underestimate just how much control they really have. How sneaky and insidious they are, how they sweep in and take over before we even know what’s happened.

At that point it’s too late; we’re so justified in our anger, our rightness, our pain that we can’t let the thoughts go.

As I reflected on the music, the meditation, and what I could learn from it, I realized what made it so much easier was that I was on the lookout for the thoughts.

I was expecting them.

So I started making a list of other recurring thoughts that disturbed me. The same thoughts I had been rehashing my whole life, allowing them to sneak in and steal my happiness over and over again.

That’s when I came up with my Top 10 Playlist.

My Top 10 most recurring thoughts that just drove me nuts and had no benefit.

After writing them out and staring at them in black and white I recognized my theme immediately. It was aversion.

We all have two main modes of thinking (everything else is a subtext of these two modes). They are wanting/chasing/desire and aversion/not wanting/resisting. We all spend time in both modes, but often we have a preference for one over the other.

For me, it looked like this:

I wish I hadn’t said that.

I don’t want to be disturbed.

I don’t want to go to this event.

How many times had I walked away from a conversation and immediately replayed it in my head, to find that one thing I shouldn’t have said? Nothing mean or unkind—just that I would agonize over that one stupid sentence, imagining the other person thinking about me disparagingly because of one measly sentence! Meanwhile, the other person was probably agonizing over the one silly thing they said!

Or maybe I’d want to be alone and then spend hours disturbing myself (while I was alone) with the thought of not wanting to be disturbed.

Or I’d dread some upcoming event, spending hours torturing myself ahead of time, only to say afterward, “That really wasn’t so bad.”

Now that these were added to my Top 10 Playlist, I was on the lookout.

Just like in the meditation, every time I started to see the familiar thought wanting to arise—“I wish I hadn’t said that,” “What if someone disturbs me,” “I really don’t want to go”—I would say to myself, “Oh that’s a Top 10,” and drop it right away.

To be clear, I wasn’t suppressing any thoughts; that’s a bad and ineffective strategy.

I dropped them because I had done the work already. I looked at these thoughts on paper in the light of day, and I couldn’t deny the pattern.

I knew how long I had been dragging them around with me—my whole life. But what I also knew was that the thoughts were making me unhappy—not the other person, not the situation, not the upcoming event. ME! I was the one causing the pain by always being ready to fuel the story.

When I’m asked, “How do you let go of negative thoughts,” my answer is always the same: it’s easy to drop them when you see the pain those thoughts are causing you.

And that’s the problem: We don’t see the pain, or at least we don’t see that we are the ones causing the pain.

Once we are caught up in a thought-stream, once we’ve created the story where we are once again the victim in this tragedy of our life, it’s too late. So we stay with the thoughts and the pain until we exhaust ourselves and then repeat.

Keep in mind I’m referring to situations where we haven’t actually been victimized—when life may seem annoying or even unfair, but no one has literally violated us.

That’s why creating my Top 10 Playlist was such a game changer. It helped immensely to see them all written down and reflect on how many times I’d been caught in these stories, how many endless hours I’d tortured myself, and nothing ever changed.

But something did change. I brought them to the surface, I wrote them down, and there is enormous power in that exercise.

For the first few weeks I would look at my list daily, typically before I would meditate and right after. This was when my mind was the most clear, and allowed a great deal of separation between me and the thoughts, because there was no emotion tied to the thought.

As each day went by I felt more and more space and peace in my mind. Nothing changed, except that I wasn’t thinking these thoughts anymore. These thoughts that had tormented me for as long as I can remember.

If I was alone and someone did interrupt me, it really did only last a few minutes because there was no story around it.

As soon as my mind wanted to start replaying a conversation I just had, I’d drop it. I knew the pattern; I knew where the thought would take me.

For every recurring thought on my Top 10 Playlist, I was prepared. They didn’t have the same emotional trapdoor they had before because I was expecting them.

Are We Really Free?

A prisoner isn’t free to choose even the simplest of things—to go outside, to look at the sky, the trees, the birds, the flowers, to feel the warmth of the sun or the breeze of the wind.

But how free are we when we go about our days not seeing the world around us? Not appreciating even the simplest of things, not because they are not there but because we are always lost in our thoughts: worrying, fretting, constantly rehashing, and replanning our lives.

We stay in this prison because we think we don’t have the keys.

But we do.

Do this exercise for one reason and one reason only—to free yourself. Step outside and see for yourself how much more beautiful life is when we experience it without a story.

About Meredith Hooke

Meredith lives a simple life dedicated to her spiritual practice; traveling in her RV between Mexico and California doing workshops, talks and retreats, helping people find more inner peace. Sign-up for Meredith’s newsletter to receive Meredith’s free 6-minute guided de-stress meditation. Meredith is a Certified Meditation and Mindfulness Instructor, Certified Life Coach and has a Microbiology degree from Miami University.

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Your Enthusiasm is Contagious, So Share Your Passion Loud and Proud

“Enthusiasm is the electricity of life.” ~Gordon Parks

Have you ever noticed how powerful enthusiasm is? It can be contagious.

If a friend or someone around us is enthusiastic there’s a certain energy or presence that shines from them that can be infectious. It doesn’t even matter what they’re enthusiastic about; if we’re in their presence, it’s easy to be lifted up by their energy.

I’ve always loved seeing people express their enthusiasm. It brings such an authentic quality of who they are through the things that excite them. The thing they’re excited about may seem insignificant to others, but their enthusiasm shines with something very special—a quality of their presence that’s beyond words, beyond the stress, dramas, or stories that sometimes take hold in life.

I had an experience recently with a friend of mine that inspired me to share my enthusiasm for enthusiasm.

I’d just finished having dinner when I received a text message from my friend, telling me she’d just finished making some home-made chocolate and had a piece for me. She was keen to know what I thought about it.

She said, “I’ll bring it to work tomorrow,” but then quickly followed up with “Or, I’m going to visit friends soon and I’ll be passing by, so I could possibly drop it off.”

I could really feel her enthusiasm, and I don’t mind some good homemade chocolate, so I said, “Sure, bring it over.”

To give some more context to the story, the previous week, I was sitting next to her in the staff room at work as she was eating some chocolate she’d made at home. She offered me a piece, but did warn me, “It’s a little dry.”

Dry, yes! Pasty, very!

She’d made it using leftovers, peanut butter being a main ingredient. But not just any peanut butter, probably the last part in the jar, where all the oil has risen to the top, leaving the bottom extremely dry and pasty. Mixed with some cacao powder, a little honey, and I can’t remember what else, the taste was good but the texture made it hard to swallow without some fluid.

We both had a good laugh about it, and she told me when she makes a new batch she’d give me a taste, no doubt to redeem herself.

So now, a week later, she was now dropping off her new chocolate creation.

When I saw her, I could see her excitement to share it with me and know what I thought about it. As I tried it she made the comment, “Was it a little creepy asking if I could drop it off?”

It’s interesting how we can often feel self-conscious about our actions when we’re enthusiastic. It doesn’t actually happen when we’re enthusiastic, it’s when we drop out of it, into our ordinary thinking mind and start questioning ourselves. We can be so spontaneous, but then have moments of thoughts like, “Is that okay?” “Am I crazy?” or “What will my friends think?” that disconnect us from the experience.

If I didn’t feel her enthusiasm I might have thought it was a little strange; however, I’ve always found it easy to feel people’s excitement and passion. The thing they’re excited about may not always be my cup of tea, but their enthusiasm always is.

For me, interacting with people is really about human connection, so in a way, the content of the interaction is secondary. In this case the chocolate was delicious, but connecting with her enthusiasm was more important!

It’s so easy to connect with people when we’re expressing feelings like enthusiasm. It creates a warmth that’s instantly uplifting.

Enthusiasm is like a joyous fire, and for me, when someone is in that state, it’s easy to meet them there. It’s connecting on a level beyond words.

The Sun Inside

In astrology the sun refers to the highest aspect of our self, or Higher Self.

I like the metaphor of the sun, because when people are expressing feelings like enthusiasm, wonder, curiosity, compassion, or love there is something of this sun principle shining through.

The sun inside.

When we see people shining with enthusiasm, it’s usually about something; in this story, it would be my friend’s chocolate creation, but for me the “something” is more a handle into their sun inside. Their presence.

Like knows like. When we witness this shining it’s easy to be uplifted because we recognize their sun from our own sun, and the reason it feels so good is because we’re in touch with our own sun.

Why is this important?

The sun inside is the source of our true happiness. It’s an unwavering force of vitality, joy, and fullness. It’s the spark of life, beyond the limitations of the mind.

If we look at the word “enthusiasm,” we can find its roots in the Greek word entheos. Entheos comes from en, which means “in” or “inside” and theos, which means “god,” so entheos can be translated as “god inside.”

Whether you resonate with the word “god” or not, what it’s pointing to is that there is something very special about the expression of enthusiasm. Something that comes from deep inside us.

Think of a time when you were doing something enthusiastically.

Take a moment to feel it.

What were you doing?

How did you feel?

Was it easy to lose track of time when you’re doing it?

It felt good, right? There was a fullness inside. The things that might usually weigh on your mind just don’t exist in that state.

Separating Sun from Fear

I’ve found a powerful observation to make is that when we’re in a state of enthusiasm and those thoughts come in and we start questioning our spontaneity, they come from a very different part of our mind, a part that is usually graspy, controlling, and fear-based—not our sun.

When I feel enthusiastic, I feel a fullness and warmth in my heart and a that sense I could do anything, but if I have a thought of something like, “Is this okay?” or “Am I just weird?” I feel small, empty, and fearful.

The next time you’re having a moment of spontaneous enthusiasm notice the sense of freedom and aliveness that comes. Then, if doubting thoughts come in, notice how restrictive and lifeless they are.

This is important because it helps us separate the real, authentic parts of ourselves from the fearful and disconnected parts. The more clarity we gain here, the more choice we have to live authentically from our sun.

Cultivating Enthusiasm

To start cultivating your sunny enthusiasm, simply start by noticing it when it comes and pay attention to it. In those moments when it comes, just allow yourself to feel it. By feeling it, I mean enjoying it! Resist the temptation to question it.

What are the things you’re passionate about? Do them! These are the things that will bring out your enthusiasm.

Notice how your enthusiasm, your sun, naturally uplifts people. Your enthusiasm, besides making you feel good, is a gift to others. There may be people who react negatively, but keep in mind that’s more about them than you. If they weren’t reacting to you, they’d be reacting to someone else.

Notice other people’s enthusiasm and how it can spark something in you.

Enthusiasm is awakening. It makes us feel alive and part of something greater than just ourselves.

Just the fact of keeping it in your awareness will naturally help you discover and cultivate more.

Remember, it is contagious, but this is something the world needs more of, so go ahead and share your enthusiasm.

About Ben Fizell

Ben is a meditation teacher, “stillness coach,” and founder of the Peacekeeper Project, a community dedicated to impacting humanity by helping more people silence the mind and live from the heart. Ben believes stillness is a superpower available to anyone. You can learn more and download a free meditation at the Peacekeeper Project and find Ben on Facebook and Instagram.

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