Friday, March 10, 2017

5 Ways Sarah Ban Breathnach's "Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy" Changed My Life

In 1997, at the ripe old age of 27, I thought my life was awful.

I was broke and in debt. I had five mid-range digits of debt that included many thousands in student loans plus the credit card debt racked up because I had to take a job making $5 an hour plus commission (that I never earned) for 18 months while I was between "real" jobs. I finally had a "real" job that I loved but I had just gotten a new boss and she was hateful. I had moved into a house with my then boyfriend, now husband, but our relationship was a mess. We had just been through some ish and I wasn't sure what was going to happen to us. The lovely cherry on top was that my mother had stopped speaking to me the year before because I asked her to tell me who my dad was. She wouldn't speak to me again for four years. So, you could say that life wasn't great. And despite a history of having some sort of internal ballast that let me get right whenever I was buffeted by life, this time, I was being pulled under and I didn't know how to stop it.

Then one day, I walked into work at the headquarters of Rich's Department Stores (now Macy's) where I worked as a copywriter in the advertising department, and was surprised to see a good old-fashioned Scholastic Book Fair in the lobby. And on the table facing the door where I couldn't miss it, was a pretty little pink book. It jumped right out at me as if rays from Heaven were shining down upon it: Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. 

I came back on my lunch hour to check it out. I was a little uncertain about spending the money, but after flipping through the book, I really felt like it was something I needed. Comfort and Joy? I hadn't felt either of those in a while. Sign. Me. Up.

So, I bought the book, and I started reading. One day at a time, beginning on the date I bought the book. Taking 20-30 quiet moments of solitude each morning, just me with my cat curled in my lap, reading. In fact, although I'm about to tell you the five greatest take-aways of this book for me and my life, there was actually one overaching lesson bigger than those: let yourself be still.

In my twenties, I thought stillness meant laziness and a lack of ambition. I was the kind of person who went to work with a 103 degree fever and the flu thinking my bosses would notice my work ethic and reward it. Instead, they just asked for more and more and more. So, simply by starting my day with a pause to read and breathe and take a moment for myself was one of the biggest and most important lessons I ever could have learned. Unfortunately, I've had to re-learn it many times, but I think finally, over the last decade, it has sunk in. Beyond that core lesson, Simple Abundance changed my life with the following lessons.

1. Gratitude is Everything
One of the stories that really stuck with me was of the author being upset over some minor tragedy in her own life and encountering an acquaintance whose husband had abandoned her after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The take-away? No matter how bad your life is, someone wishes it were hers. Feeling sorry for yourself and dwelling on all the things you wish were different about your life isn't going to change those things. It's just going to make you feel worse and the worse you feel, less likely it is you will act to change those things. Ultimately, you create a vicious cycle that leaves you depressed, angry, and bitter. On the other hand, feeling grateful for even the smallest things in your life raises your vibration and can change your life.

Maybe that's counterintuitive, but there's actual scientific research to back this up. Feeling and expressing gratitude, when it becomes a habit, changes the way you think, feel, and react to the world. Gratitude can lessen the effects of depression. It can make you feel more energetic and show greater determination. When I started keeping a gratitude journal, I was so sad and empty that I struggled to know what to write. At first, I could only count the most basic things: shelter, food, my pets, my boyfriend, a car that ran most of the time, my friends, having a job even if I didn't love it. Over time, I found my lists growing and with them, my hope that my life could become something better. Within a year, I found a new job that I loved; I was engaged; I traveled for my new job; I felt healthier; and yes, happier. I began to shed the bitterness and anger I held toward my mother for abandoning me and was able to reconnect with her six months before she died of heart failure. As the author quotes, "Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow."

2. You Can Let the Past Go
As I mentioned above, when I started reading Simple Abundance, I was consumed with hurt and anger over my mom's treatment of me. Hindsight, maturity, and knowledge gave me a clarity I didn't possess back then. And my willingness to let go and forgive did not happen overnight. In fact, I still have days – mostly when I'm PMSing or hurting for some other reason – where I get lost in the Land of What If. Still, there was something freeing in these words, "Realize the past no longer holds you captive. It can only continue to hurt you if you hold on to it." Over time, and with the help of some great therapists and loving friends, I realized that my mother very likely suffered Narcissistic Personality Disorder which helped me better understand her inability to ever consider my needs ahead of her own. And by choosing not to dwell on the past, that anger slowly dissipated. Now, I rarely think about how I missed out by not having a dad or feel anger toward my mother for creating that situation and if I do, I might feel a passing twinge of sadness, but the burning rage I once felt exists no more. Now there's room to focus on all the beauty and goodness in my life, including my loving husband and two beautiful sons and the amazing futures that lie ahead for all of us. 

3. Stop Waiting for Life to Be Perfect
In my twenties, I perpetually had this notion of "I'll be happy when _______." When I land the perfect job; when I make $30,000 a year; when I fall in love; when I get married; when I have kids; when I join the Junior League; when I lose 20 lbs. When...

It saddens me to think about the wasted time. Time I could have spent really being in the moment and enjoying Life. Now, I'm not saying I was a miserable wretch then. I wasn't. I had many happy times with my friends. But I spent very little time actively thinking about how to make myself happy. I'm not even sure I knew it was possible to make myself happy then. I was so focused on looking for some external factor that was going to make it all right...the bigger paycheck, the better job, the boyfriend, the weight loss. But even as those things came into my life, there was still this longing. And so many opportunities for adventure or fun or feeling free just slipped by me because I didn't feel ready for them or deserving of them. 

The moral of this lesson is don't wait to do the things that matter to you. Want to go to London? Max out that credit card and do it. You'll figure out how to pay it off. And, you'll have more fun going alone or with a girlfriend than that guy you were waiting on anyway. Want to wear a two-piece to the pool this summer? Go for it! You'll never be comfortable in your own skin until you risk something. Besides, everyone else is so busy with their own insecurities, they're not looking at you! Think you'll never have time for yourself until your kids are grown? Nope. Just stop, right there, and remember that unhappiness hardens into bitterness. You deserve better. Feeling sad, lonely, and defeated and waiting for the "thing" that is going to change your life? Stop waiting, Sweetheart! All you need to be happy is inside of you. You can do this. Trust me. Your time is now. Remember, "We can stop waiting for life to be perfect, and start working with what we have now to make it as satisfying as we can.... Today we can begin to call forth the riches from our everyday life. Today we can move from lack to abundance."

4. Self-Care
The art of self-care is one I'm still mastering. I'm getting better. This blog is one example of that. Writing is my heart. And it's an act I mislaid some time ago in the hustle-bustle of daily life. Coming back to it with passion and intent the last couple of weeks has felt like coming home. In fact, the last few months have been a revelation in regard to self-care for me, even though the seeds were first planted nearly twenty years ago when I first read Simple Abundance. Back then, I didn't know anything about taking care of my soul or spirit and barely managed to take care of my body. At times, I didn't, working 12-20 hour days depending on the season, drinking to excess, thinking rest was for the weak and powering through made me special. 

I rarely said "no" to any request or favor asked of me because I thought I had to say "yes," in order to be liked and that it would somehow win me the love and appreciation I so desperately sought, especially at work. I was over 35 before I gave myself permission to tell someone "no." Only after facing the worst health crisis of my life that left me physically wrecked when my son was three months old did I realize, fully, that I had to stop letting my needs come after everyone else's. And that it's okay to ask for help. At that point, I started getting regular exercise, sleeping more, and paying more attention to my appearance because it made me feel better about myself. I started paying attention to what I enjoyed. I learned to take a break when I was sick instead of pushing through the illness until my body collapsed. I recognized when my depression was not getting any better and didn't beat myself up for choosing to take an antidepressant.

These days, because I've learned to incorporate self-care into my life, those needs aren't nearly so extreme. I try to get some exercise daily. I'm writing. I try to find something to laugh at daily. I'm cooking with feeling and passion again which I will speak more about in a minute. I take time to get my hair cut and colored when I feel like it. When I need to and can, I let my mind and body just escape from it all with a good nap. I choose to eat a healthy diet, free of sugar, and I use all-natural essential oils and supplements to support my physical, mental, and spiritual needs. 

It's not easy, and it may feel selfish at first, to put yourself first. Start small. When it feels like the world is closing in and you feel overwhelmed by work, your partner's needs, the demands of raising a family, remember that you're no good to them if you're stressed, hurting, sick, and worn out. Start with a quiet moment. Sarah Ban Breathnach writes, "There is no companion as companionable as Solitude," Thoreau tells me as I carry a hot cup of tea back to bed. 

Find 15 minutes before the rest of the family is up or before you start your morning routine just to have some time alone and breathe or stretch. Start small and add the self-care regimens that make you feel wonderful. You won't regret it and your life will become richer for it.

5. Any Act Can Be a Form of Prayer
Now, if you're not religious, don't panic. I get it. I'm Catholic and I get squirmy with too much religiosity. Replace the word prayer with meditation, contemplation, reflection, presence (as in being present). What I'm really talking about and what SBB was getting at is the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness leads to gratitude and gratitude to joy and peace. But, you have to start by being present. So, how do you do that? Well, you try to get out of your head (as hard as that is for some of us) and focus on whatever you're doing at the moment. Yes, even if it is something you don't necessarily enjoy. As you're doing laundry, let yourself really feel the different textures of fabric passing through your hands. Enjoy the colors. Remember how confident you felt in certain clothes or feel love for the family member whose shirt you hold in your hands. Be grateful for the technology and privilege that enable you to do laundry in your home. 

When you're cooking dinner, take time to see the vibrant colors of the vegetables. Listen to the different sounds they make when you slice them and enjoy the aromas of each item as you prepare it. Instead of thinking about the tax bill or the kids' soccer game or the work you have to finish once the kids are in bed or that fight you had with your sister, really just stop and be present and aware of what you are doing. Mentally (or aloud) say thank you to the farmers who grew the food, the workers who picked the vegetables, truck drivers and warehouse employees and grocers who helped get the food to your kitchen. Feel love for the people who will eat the meal you prepare, even if it's just yourself. 

Taking these seemingly simple and inconsequential acts will make a tremendous difference in your life. You will find yourself slowing down and appreciating the world around you even more. You will find yourself feeling ever more grateful for the simplest blessings. And in turn, your sense of peace and joy will grow exponentially. You will become more connected to the world around you. 

I've recently re-visited this concept in an effort to reconnect with the joy that I felt had escaped me since moving. Now, instead of feeling lonely on the nights my husband is out for work or hanging out with the friends he made here, I prepare a meal for my kids, then I cook something delicious and fabulous for myself that I know my kids or husband would not enjoy. I put on music that I love – lately that's been Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, or Nina Simone – pour myself some wine, and indulge my senses in the ingredients at hand. I have had some lovely, lovely evenings in the kitchen lately after feeling completely disconnected to the point of really disliking cooking. It had become such a rote chore that I did for people who didn't appreciate it and more often than not would complain about what I made for them. By fully re-engaging with a craft I love on my terms, and doing for no other reason than to enjoy the process of it and be fully present to it, I found a spot of happiness that radiates far beyond the hour I spend in the kitchen. 

In Simple Abundance, Sarah Ban Breathnach quotes St. Francis of Assisi, saying, "The woman who works with her hands only is a laborer; the woman who works with her head and her hands is a craftswoman; the woman who works with her head, her hands, and her heart, is an artist." 

Don't you want to stop being a laborer? I know I do. The pay rate is way too low. 

What is something you love doing or used to love doing that has been corrupted in some way that you can take back by fully engaging your mind, body, and soul in the process? Try it and see if it restores a part of your soul. 

If you're tired of this treadmill of the disengaged life, the harried and hurried life, I strongly encourage you to click the link and order a copy of Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. When I was in what felt like a dark night of the soul, reading this book gave me the light to find my way out. Perhaps that's why it has been on my mind lately since I've been going through a bit of rough transition. 

I promise you won't regret reading it, especially if you're struggling right now. 

In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments or ask me anything. I'd love to hear from you!

Much love!