Finding Serenity

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Author and journalist Leslie Bennetts learns a new way to cope with chaos at New York’s Mohonk Mountain House

Years ago, Queen Elizabeth had her “annus horribilis,” when everything went wrong at the same time. Last year I had mine.

The spring of 2010 brought the unexpected end of my 22-year marriage, which triggered a nightmarish divorce whose bitterest battles revolved around the family home. My children were adamant about wanting to stay there, but my husband was so angry he threatened to make that impossible, and the resulting conflict sent the price of our divorce skyrocketing.

Already reeling from the terrifying barrage of related expenses, I spent the summer trying to control my anxiety about the impending expiration of my longtime employment contract. In a field devastated by the recession, at a company where many of my colleagues had already been disappeared from the payroll, my job was finally extended, although my income was dismayingly diminished.

Before I could heave a sigh of relief, two close relatives expired, and my 87-year-old mother fell and broke her hip in three places. I’d been trying to avoid self-pitying references to the trials of Job, but as my mother developed a nightmarish array of post-surgical complications, I couldn’t help but think: This too? Really? Even as I’m dealing with the loss of my husband and my children? With my home, my career and my income all in jeopardy? It seemed like an awful lot of challenges to absorb in a few short months.

Admittedly, losing the kids was not a surprise; my younger child was departing for college in September, so the empty nest was the only one of the year’s sucker-punches I’d actually been expecting. But that didn’t make the house any less empty when the kids went off to school and I was left alone with our elderly dog, who wasn’t in great shape either. “The next thing that happens is: The dog dies,” said a friend who recently endured her own marital implosion.

What to do? Clearly I had to find new ways to cope with all the stress. Drowning my sorrows in drink or drugs seems undignified; although I’m a baby-boomer who thoroughly enjoyed the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll of my youth, I cringed at the thought of my kids coming home to find me a sodden wreck in a bathrobe, hiccupping and dabbing at swollen eyes with disintegrating tissues. There had to be a better way.

Not to mention a better place. Much as I love my home and want to hang onto it, I felt a strong need to get away from it all — at least, for a few days. For Manhattanites, a conveniently close getaway is Mohonk Mountain House, a sprawling 267-room Victorian castle 90 minutes north of New York. I hadn’t been there in three decades, but the website invited visitors to “experience a rejuvenation of body, mind and spirit in an incomparable setting,” which sounded like exactly what I needed. Plus, the owner’s wife, Nina Smiley, was teaching something called Three-Minute Meditation, which sounded promising. Go learn to meditate or jump off the George Washington Bridge? I picked meditation.

Overlooking the deep glacial waters of Lake Mohonk on one side and the Catskill Mountains on the other, Mohonk is surrounded by thousands of acres of pristine forest and winding trails. In my frazzled state of mind, I decided that even driving 90 miles was too much of a hassle, so I took a bus to New Paltz and Mohonk obligingly arranged for me to be picked up at the station.

At first glance, the enormous mountain house was the same old captivatingly preposterous extravaganza it has always been. Bedecked with towers and turrets, the rustic wood-and-stone castle looks more like Hogwarts than the soulless corporate resort-and-conference centers that have proliferated in recent years. It was only later that I noticed the new spa wing, skillfully designed and harmoniously integrated into a century’s worth of gradual architectural expansions.

For the last few decades, Mohonk has been run by Bert Smiley, whose family built the place in 1869 and has owned it ever since. His wife Nina, a Princeton Ph.D., and her twin brother, David Harp, are co-authors of The Three Minute Meditator, a how-to guide for harried Type-A people who think they don’t have time for meditation but need it. This category would definitely include me.

The idea of Smiley and Harp’s quickie approach is to integrate meditation into your life and link it to regularly occurring opportunities, rather than feeling the pressure to set aside a larger block of time — a barrier that often discourages busy people.

“Meditation is being totally focused in the moment,” Smiley says. “Anything can become a meditation if you clear your mind and do it with total focus. You don’t have to take time out of your day; the ability to meditate can be linked to washing the dishes or brushing your teeth or walking upstairs. No thoughts, only the action. When a thought comes in, let it go. As you meditate, you’re creating a new habit, a neural path that allows you to get to the place of mindfulness more quickly. You’re building mental muscle, and you develop a cumulative ability to relax and center yourself. Nothing is wrong with thoughts — we all have to think and plan and be effective — but when stress makes the whole body tight, that’s when we need a mini-intervention to let the body know we’re not in a fight-or-flight situation. We need to say, ‘Time out.’ Once we’ve had those two or three minutes of mindfulness, we can go back to our thoughts; the situation hasn’t changed, but we have. We’re more centered, more focused, and better able to deal with it.”

As Smiley leads me through some breathing exercises, I am astonished at how difficult it is to banish all thought, even for a couple of minutes. Breathe in. Breathe Out. I can’t believe my soon-to-be-ex-husband refused to take care of the family dog while I was gone. Oops — swat that thought away! Breathe In. Breathe Out. My foot itches. Swat! I wonder whether they’ll have those great homemade tortilla chips and guacamole at lunch again today. Swat! My mind seems to be buzzing like an angry hornet.

But when I do manage to clear some mental space, I feel refreshed, as if I’ve just had a quick nap. As the thoughts are swept away, so are the emotions that accompany them — and given the turbulence of recent months, that’s a huge relief. There are a lot of problems in my current life that I can’t control, so the task confronting me seems to be accepting them in a way that allows me some peace of mind.

“Meditation leads to having a choice,” Smiley explains. “I may choose to be angry, but I’m not owned by the habits or emotions of the past. I can make new choices, right in this mindful moment. I think that’s part of the empowerment of bringing meditation into one’s life.”

Smiley even credits meditation with transforming her own personality. “I used to be much more moody,” she says. “Now I use mindfulness to recalibrate. It’s smoothed me out and calmed me down. This has truly changed my life.”

Whatever happens, I’m dealing with my emotions a little differently. When I start to feel panicky about whether I’ll be able to handle everything, I remind myself to meditate. Time to banish all those negative thoughts, along with the frustration and anxiety that accompany them. I’m determined to make the coming year as positive an experience as the past one was wretched, no matter what new challenges arise.

Breathe in. Breathe out. No thoughts. Just peace and mindfulness.

I’m working on it.

Leslie Bennetts is a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast

9 comments so far.

  1. avatar Linda Myers says:

    I am one of those people with an overactive, hyperactive mind. To the point at times in the past I would just wish the thinking could stop – so I could rest for awhile. I would not call myself great at meditation, instead I allow myself to just zone out at times. Clearly telling myself and my thoughts to cease where they are and go into the space of silence.

    It does take some practice in taking control of your own psyche and allowing space for refreshing the mind and body. Time seems to tend to be suspended and what might seem like minutes can be an hour or two if allowed. It’s my getaway without going anywhere. It is the space where life becomes more creative and possibilities are seen which did not seem possible before.

  2. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    We have been told — usually by well-meaning friends — that, in life, we are never given more than we can handle.  As much as we would like to be super-women, there comes a point when life has given us one too many challenges, an array of sadnesses that sap our emotions, and responsibilities once shared that we find are ours alone.  If we have lived long enough, most of us have been there for longer times than we could have ever imagined.  

    The most unfortunate thing is that, in long term multiple situations, our own health suffers.  And I don’t mean colds and flu.  We learn the names of illnesses that we have never heard of before.

    As I have said before, I find the Albert Camus quotation the most inspring.  It says:  “In the midst of the darkest winter, I find within me an invincible summer.”   Those of us who have finally prevailed over that winter can say that – with time and tiny bits of positive thinking – we begin to see a few rays of sunshine.  In the end, we find we have learned by these draining experiences, hopefully become stronger in the process (because we are going to need that strength more than once I have found), and bits of joy have come back.

    But – in the meantime.  .  . it is trial and error to find what can give us moments of freedom, and what I call “renewal” of our spirits.  In the hard times, it is hard to find even moments to ourselves.  Long ago, a spare bedroom in my house was transformed into my sunshiny yellow room with a door that closed, giving me a time to refresh and renew.  It is my “sanctuary”, my world apart.  

    I find that writing out my own thoughts on the things most stressful is imperative.  When multiple things are drowning us in sorrow, we find ourselves carrying a huge load that I equate as a large stone on our backs.  By spilling out our thoughts, our trials, it allows us to go on to the next day without that weight.  Sometimes in writing, we actually come up with a solution of sorts that WILL lighten our load.  

    We should give ourselves permission to say NO to our friends.  One more thing – even a lunch when every step is too much – can put us over the edge.  Saying ANOTHER TIME is permissible.

    If we want to take to our bed in that free hour, I find that a comforter is as soothing as a teddy was as a child.  No bed that we take to should be without a puffy comforter.  

    Bad times are bad times.  Stay away from anyone who tells you to snap out of it.  They will have their own turn sooner or later and only then will they understand.  Having a counselor or friend who cares enough to just plain listen gives relief also.  There is something about sharing.  And if they say, as i usually do, “I will be with you throughout this and you can call on me any hour to talk” is a gift like no other.

    “Finding Serenity” – lasting serenity anyhow - is like grabbing at something ephemeral.  Not that is not worth trying for in the bad times, but if instead, you finding you are inching forward in baby steps – finding tiny moments of peace – you may be on your way.  

    And that day that you notice you have turned that corner should eventually come.  . and then you know that you have found that bit of heaven again.

     

  3. avatar Linda Myers says:

    The majority of medications people take daily for depression, BP, sore joints, pain, etc.. are created with the intention that by taking them, a cycle will be broken and the body will need to re-establish a new cycle, when that happens another pill is taken to repeat the process.

    At the same time, the body tends to produce swelling at the point of distress, which in itself is blocked energy flows in the body. By meditation or other methods available which unblock the same energy flows and break the cycles of distress without medication – a person is less apt to develop the side affects or possible greater points of blockages produced by medications which counter act against the normal flow of energy in the body. When I work with people and the energy body, it is not to replace medical assistance, though many cycles of the constant need for medication to relieve pain can be eliminated by aligning the energy body – altering the flow creating the distress without the side affects of chemical altering medications. Largely, it is mind over matter, just as with medication vs placebos. Even as Joan says, with her writing and a room reserved for refreshing herself, changes occur when you change a cycle that is present.

  4. avatar Bella Mia says:

    I find as the years go on, I am more sensitive to upheavals and surprising problems because, older and wiser, I understand how complicated things can get when a problem rears it’s ugly head and has the potential of becoming a “wicked mess” – (an actual management term). Now I do my best not to go numb and hyperventilate – especially while I’m driving.

    You know who had a great take on drama and trauma – Erma Bombeck. I picked up one of her books at a flea market while on a road trip. I read it out loud to my husband while he drove and we both laughed until our sides hurt. Now when I face a dilemma I ask: What would Erma Do?
    and even better – How would Erma turn this into a funny story? I remind myself that Tragedy +Time = Humor. But not always.

    Alas, many things in life are just tragic, not funny, and cannot be made so, especially when a friend is suffering. I was notified that a friend was in the hospital with more tumors and complications from surgery. Ugly business. That sux. Plain and simple. I did send her an email via the hospital’s service that prints out the emails and brings her the messages. It always helps me to know that people love me, and are praying for me and sending kind and wonderful thoughts my way. That thought breeze feels real. I believe it is.

    I have a mantra: Be brave, and be calm. It relaxes me.
    I have bookmarked favorite comedic routines on Youtube – doesn’t matter how many times I watch them – always make me laugh. That flood of laughter hormones is like a good spring shower on a hot day.

    When my computer starts acting quirky – I RESET. Developing a mental survival skill set and having these options tucked away for when life’s tsunamis hit, helps me not feel like I’m are going under to a deep dark place. We can be bouyant, resilient, thoughtful, gracious under pressure, and continue to be a resource to others without succumbing to become the catatonic rocking lady in the corner who compounds the problem instead of functions as an asset. The problem with illegal drugs is that the mental muscles aren’t developed to deal with tough situations. Start seriously doing drugs at 14 and stop at age 24 – and guess what – you’ll probably have the coping skills of a 14 year old. Opportunities for emotional growth have been bi-passed.

    My friend the therapist always reminds people: “No problem is so bad that you can’t make it worse.” In other words, don’t be stupid and reactive and aggressive and compound the problems you are already struggling to deal with. Learn to cope, and cope well.

    • avatar Joan Larsen says:

      Bella Mia, I loved your writing and second your thoughts.  I have continued to find “the good in the bad” in that I make most things in life a learning experience that I am alert for.  Yes, in our efforts to move forward – to help ourselves or others – we can and do make mistakes.  But as the years go on, I have the belief that most of us handle the downfalls of life — and we all eventually find we have to deal with things we could not have believed — as we have used the experience we have gained earlier.  If possible (and there are times when fast decisions must be made in health situations especially), we must give ourselves time to think, to ponder the possibilities — and look into “choices”.  We cannot bury our heads though.  I find that we actually gain not only knowledge but confidence as we step forward, always asking questions and more, and keeping our minds active with what we are dealt with.  Stirring our own pots, going into the “poor me” stage is counter-productive. , but for many is hard to crawl out of the futher they burrow into it.  Then you multiply the issues at hand.

      In life, when confronted by the many challenges that seem to multiply over life – or so I think – we find ourselves actually feeling better if we even the tineiest forward steps to help.

      Now if we can get everyone to think that way . . . .. 

  5. avatar Lila says:

    Very interesting and I have learned something here. “Meditation is being totally focused in the moment.”

    I have a very noisy mind and have never been able to banish all thought. But I CAN focus. In fact, NEED to focus if I am performing any kind of task, even something as mindless as weeding the garden. So – my mind is still not quiet, but it gets filled with lazy-feeling thoughts about which things are weeds, what kinds of bugs are crawling around, and how the plants are doing.

    I guess that kind of thing is as close as I can get to real meditation.

  6. avatar calgal says:

    This is all immediately relevant for me. This week, my sister accidentally ran over her beloved 17-yr-old cat (who had absent-mindedly walked back under the car after my sister made sure she was out of the way). We spent the evening frantically driving all over town looking for a vet, found one, and had to let the cat go. Severe stress. Two nights of sleeping with the light on, trying to keep images of the suffering cat from invading my mind. These are thoughts I cannot “send away”. I can’t shut off my mind. But I can distract it, by diving into a book. Thank goodness for the worlds of imagination available on my shelves.

    In my own mental suffering through an abusive marriage I never found a way to shut off my mind, and like Joan, found it imperative to write it all out. But the thing that saved me was a tip from cognitive therapy: change something, anything, to break the cycle. I was always running in circling ruts, trying to find the best solution. Sometimes there is no good solution. But doing something different brings a different response which opens up new possibilities. I didn’t always have to be right, or even sensible, just different. I had to take action, any action, rather than continue to stew in the nasty mental soup. Eventually a way opened up to get out. And because I was now tuned to taking action, after 30 years, I got out.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Calgal, condolences to you and your sister. What a terrible experience. You are obviously two very caring people, and despite how his life ended, your sister’s cat was lucky to have her. Not many cats make it to such an age.

      On the up side, good for you for breaking a nasty cycle and leaving the abusive marriage. I hope many years of happiness await you.

  7. avatar calgal says:

    Thank you, Lila. Yes, the cat was lucky, and so was my sister, who said that when she first arrived in the same household as the cat 10 years ago, following a bitter divorce, the cat always sensed when she was down, and would jump up on the couch to cuddle with her. The cat had a very long, loving life.

    I’ve already had 7 very happy years following my escape from the abusive marriage, and hope that having learned to take action to honor my own needs will ensure that the happiness continues. Thanks for your condolences and good wishes.