Caitie Whelan Writes on the Year of Living Mindfully
Living Out Your Wild and Precious Life Or What I Learned from a Year of Living Mindfully I want to tell you a love story. It doesn't start off as a love story, though. It starts off five years ago on a snow-swept Monday night in January. The kind of night that sucked the blood from my whole hands. Even though they were stuffed into my thickest gloves which were stuffed into the deepest part of my pockets. I was walking home from meditation. With bloodless hands. And, if I were honest, a bloodless life. On paper, mind you, things were terrific: I had a coveted Capitol Hill job. My phone calls got returned. I could finally afford to take a cab if I were out late. I was arriving to the life I'd been aiming at. The only hitch was I was miserable. I was up to my eyeballs in work I wasn’t crazy about. I took really crummy care of my body. Even crummier care of my soul. And I didn't feel like I was contributing to the world in a meaningful way. But I didn't have a clue how to reach for a life I wanted. So, I kept my hands in my pockets and stayed put in the life I had. One night, my mother cut to the heart of it: You're plain old stuck, she said to me over the phone. There's life in you you're not living, she continued. Go find it. Start by talking to Jonathan Foust. He runs this Year of Living Mindfully (YLM). It might open something up for you. My meditation practice amounted to a few minutes before hot tea in the morning and an unrelenting-but-unacted-upon intention to spend more time on the cushion. Maybe Mum's right, I thought while I took a warm shower. Maybe some long-haul mindfulness work could help get a little blood and heart and guts back into my life. So, that snow-swept Monday night in January, I went to one of Jonathan's meditations at a cold church near the Capitol. If you don't know Jonathan, he's a tall man with a soft voice. He uses simple words to explain complex things. He has a playful spirit and a big heart. The guy can make a cold church warm. YLM, he told me in that great soft voice of his, wasn't an academic thing. Or a book thing. It was - and I'm paraphrasing here - a sangha thing and a dharma thing. A living, breathing practice thing. It just might help free you up in your stuck places. Lighten you up in your heavy places. Pump you up in your deflated places. I walked home. Hands stuffed deep in my pockets. YLM sounded like a great thing. But it was also a big time thing. And a big money thing. Monsters and roller coasters didn’t scare me. But spending time and money sure did. I did a week of hemming. Another week of hawing. Bill Watterson, the Calvin & Hobbes cartoonist, once said: "With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are." At some point in my hems and haws, I realized that if I didn't do YLM, I'd be telling myself that fear mattered more to me than finding a life I loved to live. Our lifetime is so brief. I want to spend it doing what actually matters to me. I told Jonathan I was all in. Sent him my application. And got accepted. YLM kicked off in early springtime. There were about 25 of us. Over the year, we met in warm living rooms on cool nights. In airy churches on hot days. We focused on being at ease in our bodies. Finding spaciousness in our thinking. Holding fear and doubt and uncertainty with curiosity, even compassion. And this here is where the love part of the story begins. Not love for a person. Or an animal or vegetable or mineral, for that matter. But love for life. The - as Mary Oliver would say - "wild and precious" life we get handed when we come out of that small womb and into this big world. As YLM unfolded over the year, I started appreciating things. Like the taste of hot tea. And the touch of warm showers. And I started noticing things. Like how I was now spending some time doing scary stuff (back-of-napkin brainstorming about where I wanted to take my work). And spending some money doing healthy stuff (seeing a nutritionist). There was no denying it: I had some blood pumping in my life again. It was no presto-chango transformation type thing. As the designer Debbie Millman would say, "Expect anything worthwhile to take a while." But with YLM, transformation wasn't a solo journey. I was alongside 25 like-minded practitioners. There were hands in the dark when I got lost. Lifts up when I fell off the bandwagon. And a common experience of walking the road together. If, as they say, we are the average of the people we spend our time with, here were some people I wanted to be the average of. So, when all was said and done, what did I get from that Year of Living Mindfully? Well, I got all shook up and all freed up. I got new practices and new friends. I got guts and gumption. And I got my hands out of my pockets and into this beautiful, messy world of ours. And what did I do with all that I got? Well, last year, I left the security of my Capitol Hill job. Took one of those back-of-the-napkin brainstorms - one that I loved, believed in, was terrified of failing at. And made it real. In the spring, I launched The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features great ideas and striking stories to remind us that we matter and that improving the world is our matter. The Lightning Notes has no ads or paywalls. I don't like those as a reader and it's not kind to serve a guest cake I won't eat. So, it's funded solely by big-hearted monthly donors. It's all a big risk; I've never done anything like it before. But I did it knowing I can hold the uncertainty and fear with curiosity. Maybe even compassion on my good days. Plus, this risk matters to me. And I want to spend my life doing what matters. Now, I told you I'd tell you a love story. It's not a conventional love story. I don't get the boy. But I do get my life. The Year of Living Mindfully helped me find the wild and precious life in me - you've got it in you, too; every last one of us does - and, boy, do I love it. And there's one other bit of love in this story: The first official donor to The Lightning Notes? It was a friend from YLM. Caitie Whelan is the Founder/Noter-in-Chief of The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. Prior to that, she was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor on Capitol Hill, co-founded a school in India for lower caste musicians, and raised pigs in Italy. She’s a graduate of Brown University, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and is a 2007 Truman Scholar. iTunes podcast here, online listening here, stitcher here, and Jonathan’s YouTube channel here.