Summer, 2018, during a brutal silent meditation retreat: It’s been two days since I’ve had significant human contact. Worse still, my thoughts are dominating me. There’s no corner of my mind that isn’t overrun by fears about work, love, loss, the past, the future, and… everything. I’ve given up attempting to sit still, and I decide to go for a walk in the forest.
It doesn’t help.
Out of quasi desperation, I try something new. Instead of trying to fight against the difficult thoughts and feelings, I accept them. I accept that – at least for now – my mind is a mess.
When I stop fighting against myself, things change. My mind slows down a bit and I feel more present. For the first time, I’m able to take in the forest.
As I sit with the conflicting experiences of being dominated by my mind, and stunned by the natural beauty, something surprising happens: I feel months of existential weight leave my body.
Though I hadn’t realized it, I was being owned and defined by my recent past and clinging to it’s darkness. Now, seemingly without intention or effort, its grip is loosening. I’m coming back to myself. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be light like this.
As many readers know, the first three quarters of 2018 kicked my ass. Deaths, breakups, lawsuits, professional missteps – the whole thing. It left me feeling weak and exposed to the elements. In truth, a lot of it was my fault. I drifted out of integrity and suffered the consequences.
As anyone who’s gone through a difficult time knows, the darkness has a quiet seduction to it. Friends shower us with care and attention, giving us an easy excuse to mope around and watch TV. As our motivation tanks, being down and out starts to feel familiar and almost comfortable. What should have been a week or two of pain turns into months of shit.
The trick is to dust yourself off, put the darkness behind you, and come back to yourself. For some, this seems to happen automatically. For others, like me, it helps to go through an emotional decluttering process and address any lingering anger or tension. Think of it as spring-cleaning for the heart and mind.
In this article, the first of a two part series, we’ll cover different techniques to help you complete your past and create optimal conditions for letting go. Concurrently, you’ll free up mental and emotional space for you to grow into the new – often better – version of yourself
Begin by holding time for yourself
When life sucks, one of the first things to go is our connection to ourselves. The loss of connection is subtle; we often feel connected because we’re mesmerized by the darkness, but to focus on the darkness is to lose sight of the rest of the world. And I promise you that there are plenty of beautiful things remaining in your life.
Begin the process of emotional spring-cleaning by holding space for yourself. Personally, I went to my favorite coffee shop and spent an hour or two journaling each day for two weeks. I’d grab a drink, sit down with a journal and pen, and process whatever was on my mind. A few times a week, I also went for long walks at night without my phone.
While these sessions may begin dark, they will allow you to shine light on what happened. Along the way, you’ll notice plenty of great things about yourself and your life that you likely missed. Allowing space for yourself burns off some of the negative energy that’s been following you around.
Understand that you may need white space in your life
Depending on the intensity of the shit you’re recovering from, you may notice that it’s changed you. I’m the type of guy who rushes head first into the future. While this makes my life exciting and fast paced, it’s little more than a thinly veiled defense mechanism. Rushing into the future prevents me from dwelling in the moment and addressing any lingering difficulties. Inevitably, the stuff I ignore catches up to me.
A far better approach is to move slow, rest, become reacquainted with yourself, and allow time for dreaming again. Erik Erikson, a psychologist, referred to this as a moratorium and considered it an integral part of maturing. In fact, future be damned – work to build a present that you fall in love with.
As dreams begin to capture you, talk through a few of your ideas with friends. Imagine how different futures would make you feel before you start work on them. Eventually your next real dream will start to capture you. For now though, just try to get comfortable with the in-between.
Reinforce the foundations
How’s your self-care? If your life is anything like mine, self-care tends to atrophy when life gets hard. If that’s happened, take some time now to reinforce the foundations. Clean up your sleep, diet and exercise. Reconnect with your friends. If there are books, albums or works of art that have influenced you, revisit them. If you have spiritual, religious or psychological practice that slipped through your fingers, now is a good time to pick them back up.
While you’re at it, consider taking care of all that personal maintenance stuff you’ve been putting off too: cleaning your home, balancing your accounts, getting a physical, going to the dentist, etc. The day after I got back from the retreat I went to the dentist for the first time in too long. Yeah. I was being a glutton for punishment that week. That said, there was a silver lining: no cavities!
Happiness can often be found in eliminating the stuff that drags you down. Take a bit of time to consider removing things from your life that no longer serve you. This can include moving, getting rid of an office you don’t use, making basic repairs, selling or donating stuff that’s been cluttering your space, etc.
If there are any hard conversations you still need to have, now is the time
To get back into integrity, I needed to have sticky conversations with a bunch of people (lucky me) including: business partners, a client and an ex. None of them were pleasant; all of them were 100% worth it.
As you work to complete your past, you should also be leaning into any pending difficult conversations. These can include asserting yourself more thoroughly, apologizing, asking for an apology, fixing a mistake, correcting a deception, or expressing appreciation. Though hard conversations suck to get through, having them will make rebuilding yourself far easier. You’ll no longer be weighed down by the feeling of needing to fix things with some of the people in your life.
Depending on the situation you can write an email, place a call, or talk face to face. Personally I’m a face-to-face guy when at all possible, but you do you.
More on handling difficult conversations here.
Thank the people who helped you through
My friends spent countless hours letting me lean on them and talking me through career moves, broken hearts, business decisions and other mini-dramas. As a thank you (and as a way of letting go of the past) I bought a bunch of correspondence cards and wrote notes to the people who helped me.
I’ve always hated writing thank you cards, but this was surprisingly joyful. It was nice to slow down and acknowledge the difference my friends made for me. I hope the cards were as delightful to receive as they were to write.
If you’re working to complete the past for yourself, I urge you to express gratitude and appreciation for the people who have supported you. If you only take one practice from this article, make it this one.
Finally do something nice for yourself
When the world beats you down, it’s important to become a champion for yourself. While there are all sorts of sophisticated ways of doing this, I’m a fan of a simple approach: do something nice for you. Schedule a massage or a spa day. Take a trip. Spend a long weekend with your best friend. Get yourself a gift or a chocolate cake. Skip work and spend the afternoon sailing. You deserve it.