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December 04, 2013

The Wisest Decision I Made This Year

December 04, 2013

This year was full of all kinds of decisions for me, both wise and less than wise. So it's pretty challenging for me to think of the wisest decision I made in 2013. Was it getting a dog? Was it preparing Musical Family Tree to leave the SmallBox nest and become a full-fledged nonprofit organization? To have a monthly budget for record shopping? Perhaps it was the decision to start exercising on a somewhat regular basis again?

All of those were good (I would even consider them wise) decisions. However, the absolute best decision I made this year was so simple that it might seem like I'm kidding around or cheating my way through this prompt, but I will explain.

The wisest decision I made this year was to learn to breathe.

See? It may sound like a joke, but I am absolutely serious. I had to learn to breathe in 2013, and it was the best possible lesson I could have learned.

Let's back up a little. 2012 was the best year of my life so far, and even during last year's Think Kit, 2013 was shaping up to be an even better year. But privately, I was suffering from severe anxiety and depression. I wanted to love my life because I knew it was a good life - my "dream life" in fact, in which I had a job, home, and family I loved completely - but I was having a pretty hard time mentally dealing with very normal things. I'm not embarrassed by this now; I realize that there are lots of people out there who live with depression and anxiety worse than mine, so I'm far from alone.

I had worked my brain into a frenzy, and I couldn't figure out how to calm down. For months, even while I directed MFT and did marketing and community-building work at SmallBox, I was unable to find positive ways to reduce stress and enjoy life. It wouldn't have mattered if someone I loved and respected came up and slapped me in the face with the right answer either. My depression was just deep enough and my anxiety just harsh enough that I didn't believe anything could actually help.

Then one day, out of nowhere, I found myself at the local library with my wife, in the nonfiction section, and I'm suddenly staring straight at the cover of a slim, attractive little volume entitled Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society. The book was written by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and author, with whom I was unfamiliar at the time. 


Almost out of boredom, I picked up the book and started reading a random page. From an intellectual standpoint, I was attracted to Nhat Hanh's call for a "shared global ethic" to confront modern problems around the world. I'm not normally into nonfiction - and I'm definitely not into many religious teachings - but I quickly found myself compelled by the book and the philosophy it contained, so I checked it out.

Anyway, to make this long story as short as possible, one of the most important lessons in Good Citizens is to practice the art of "mindfulness," a term that is often found in Buddhist teachings. Mindfulness essentially means focusing your awareness on the present, acknowledging your negative feelings, and releasing them. Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings often return to the physical act of breathing in order to achieve a more mindful state.

It sounds like a bunch gobbledygook or mumbo jumbo, I'm sure, so believe me when I say I understand if you're just not into this stuff. The important thing, the wise thing, was that I gave it a shot. I was extremely unhappy at the time, constantly worried, and desperate to find an alternative to seeking professional or medical help (which would have also been wise ideas, and I'm not attempting to downplay their importance at all). 


(Taking walks also helps me calm down. Here's a photo of one of my favorite spots.)

After attempting to focus on my breathing only a couple times, I found that this simple exercise would help calm me down when I was feeling especially bad. By continuing to read a couple more of Nhat Hanh's books along with some other Buddhist teachings (Being Buddha at Work is another favorite of mine now), and through frequent practice of simply clearing my mind, focusing on taking a few deep breaths, and forcing my body and mind to return to the present, I began to feel significantly better every day.

Is life still stressful? Of course it is. Do I still struggle with anxiety and depression? Almost all the time. But this simple practice – breathing intentionally and mindfully – changed my life for the better and helped me make wiser decisions in general. Believe me, if it hadn't helped me so significantly, I would be way too embarrassed to write about it in such a public setting. Because mindful breathing works for me, I'm happy to admit it.

So there you have it: learning to breathe (in a new way) was the wisest decision I made in 2013. It's not any kind of cure or fix-all solution, but it's a first step. By returning to my breathing when I am stressed out, I am able to be more mindful of the people around me and their feelings. I am able to stop worrying about all the things I'm not doing at the moment and focus solely on the task at hand. I am confident in my choices, but also willing to question all aspects of life (which seems to be significant in many Zen Buddhist teachings as well). I recognize that life is in a constant state of flux and that only by being mindful in the present moment can I manage not to get overwhelmed.

Planning for the future and reflecting on the past, like all things, have their place. But breathing, and learning to truly appreciate each breath, keeps me happy, or at least not as stressed as I used to be. It's simple, it's easy, and it's completely free. I don't consider myself a Buddhist really, and I don't go around preaching about my wise decision, but I am constantly glad that I discovered this simple truth and put it to good use in my life this year.

This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox
Today’s prompt: What was the wisest decision you made this year? Did it change your "everyday", move something from Point A to Point B, or involve others?.

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