Last year, 2019, was a roller coaster, a heartbreak, an early midlife crisis, a creative feast, a new adventure, and just basically a hard year. When life gets chaotic, it is hard to see the big picture, so I decided to go for a short vacation to Joshua Tree National Park in California.
I am a trail runner as well as a yogi, so vacation, in this case, meant running, or hiking, or occasionally dragging and crawling about seven hours per day for days on end.
The first day my mind was still scattered, and I had a hard time seeing through the events of the year. I kept jumping from one problem to another, trying to fix, make sense and reason while moving my body seemingly as a separate entity. But the vast expanse of the desert landscape allowed me to put space between my thoughts, and the chaos slowly settled into order.
As my body fatigued from running, I felt my bones and my muscles ache more and more, but there was a sense of assurance, a sense of excitement in the pain of endurance. It was as if the body was shouting to my mind and spirit: you are alive, you are fragile, and powerful — love it and embrace it all.
So I did. Every switchback I cleared provided new difficulties and triumphs, and as I looked at the beauty of the desert landscape, I realized I was witnessing the result of eons of destruction. Wind and water all had left their mark. The horizon was nothing but a mirror into the past. But somehow this arid view held more life than a dense forest. The open space exposed the layers of time, the layers of life, the layers of struggle, and renewal.
The present is never just one lonely moment. It is a spiraling, ever-changing perspective of past and future as it reflects through our consciousness. And as I walked through the sandy washes, the longer I stared into the present the more peace I found with the past.
Things of beauty come out of a long journey of conflict and struggle, be it desert geology, human relations, or artistic creation. Nothing pops out of effortless joy that survives the test of time. Time, by its nature, is a test of durability. So why do we humans insist on living stress and adversity free? Why do we make conflict a bad thing? Why can’t we see the beauty in our own struggles? As Shakespeare’s Hamlet so famously said, “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Being fully alive is much like endurance running. You have to work the switchbacks and celebrate pain and hurt as a necessary part of human existence. It is through pushing through the switchback that we find joy and a surprisingly new and beautiful view.
After a long day, I finally stood on top of Warren’s Peak. I looked through the endless rolling mountaintops, and I smiled as I remembered what one of my students said this past year: “There are no problems, just issues.”
When there is honesty, clarity, and deep inner knowing, that vulnerability is a necessity, then everything is just a conversation. When we know we are all flawed and we all make mistakes, then there is no blame, there is no conflict, and there are no problems, just issues to figure out. Just like in yoga when we lose balance, we fall, we learn from it, laugh it off and move on.
Conflicts happen when we feel we need to put up a shield of protection when we believe that our struggles are somehow wrong and that mistakes are a reflection of our inner person.
Our most significant misconception is that we think that life without adversity would satisfy us. But the desert is perfectly happy showing its wounds caused by time, and that is precisely why we love staring into these open landscapes. There is something so inspiring and powerful about its nakedness and its vulnerability. Much of our current culture only celebrates power, happiness and control. But life’s joy is born from the unknown, from fragility, vulnerability and sensitivity.
I took a deep breath and I shifted perspective, and just like that, my year of challenges transformed into a year of creativity, new beginnings, and peaceful tranquility for my soul. I guess Shakespeare is right — things are only bad if we think so.
So I invite you to try shifting perspectives.
As you look back on your past year, see if you can see the storms as the source of beauty. Let the desert bloom. Don’t cover up and erase the parts that are uncomfortable and difficult. Learn to celebrate all your life. Vulnerability is like taking a plunge in cold water. At first, you want to run, but if you stay and start swimming, you will find more power and more vigor then ever before.
Life will always provide the cold waters, and at times it is all around us, but we can decide to embrace it or spend an endless amount of energy avoiding it.
Dora Gyarmati teaches yoga and mindfulness classes. She owns Spira Power Yoga in Issaquah and West Seattle. Her company M3Bmethod also lectures on resilience and stress management to corporations, communities and hospitals.