I’m reading a book by the venerable Buddhist monk and sage Thich Nhat Hanh called “Peace Is Every Step.” I discovered it way back in the late 1980s, a year or so after my diagnosis with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and it started my long—and admittedly stuttering—journey into the practice of everyday mindfulness. I pick it up and read it again every few years. It always re-opens my eyes and my mind.
In “Peace Is Every Step,” Thich teaches, with sweetness and gentle humor, that we can find inner peace in everything we do, from walking to washing dishes. Being mindful doesn’t require actual meditation. We don’t need to sit in the lotus position with our palms up, eyes closed, attempting to levitate. Instead, we can use frequent moments during each day to find our peace, our inner calm, and ourselves.
Mindfulness, of course, is currently getting a lot of attention as a way to manage chronic pain.
Having re-read the first short chapter or two of Peace Is Every Step before I slept last night, I woke with mindfulness on my mind this morning. I pushed the covers off. Ow! The tender joints of my right hand yelled at me. Grimacing, I sat up. Ow! My right shoulder sang out. I stood. OW! Both hips were stiff and ow! so were both knees as I straightened them. I took a step. OW ow ow! My feet joined the chorus.
As I stumped down the hall to the bathroom, I thought wryly, “Ow Is Every Step.”
And that made me smile in spite of myself. “No “ohms” for me, I thought. Mine are “ows.” I imagined myself meditating, chanting “owww… owww… owww…” slowly, over and over, and I actually laughed out loud at myself.
Hah! In an earlier post here at RheumatoidArthritis.net, I talked about how the physical act of smiling releases endorphins, our brain’s feel-good chemicals. And here I was, thinking about mindfulness, grumping because I was stiff and achy—and then laughing at the sheer silliness of it all. And it was only 6 a.m.!
Did my pain go away? Did laughing, smiling, and actively trying to keep my mind here and now, in the present moment, magically erase it?
No. Let’s be real: my early morning, just-out-of-bed achiness and Tin-Man creakiness continued for some time. As it does. But there was a difference. Instead of looking ahead at the oncoming day and anticipating, with some dread, continuing pain, I was consciously not worrying about it.
I thought about the moment at hand instead. I wanted to make coffee. My wee cat-friends were rubbing against my ankles, telling me in contact-rich cat-language that they were hungry and would really appreciate breakfast. And so, like Thich Nhat Hanh teaches in “Peace is Every Step,” that’s what I did.
I made the coffee mindfully, paying attention to each movement, each action, each sensation. It hurt some to pour water into the coffeemaker, but I used both my hands to spread out the joint-strain and said, smiling to myself, “Ow…ow…ow…” as I poured. I cleaned out the coffee filter under warm running water, and took an extra moment or two to enjoy how soothing it felt on my hands. I opened the coffee can—this hurt—but then smiled again as the aroma from the rich grounds rose to my nostrils. How I love that first cup of coffee in the morning!
While the coffee brewed, I cleaned the cats’ bowls—again under warm running water, which felt sublime—and fed the cats, enjoying their antics and their increasingly insistent meows. I love their faces, their soft fur and paws, and their overall friendliness. Yes, to them I’m mostly the Chubby Food, Treat, and Pets Woman, but still. Loving and caring for my wee beasties gives me joy. It always has, from the time I was a little girl. And taking my time doing this, on yet another painful morning, helped take my mind off my hands and put it on something better and far more useful.
Here’s the truth: finding peace in every step—the everyday practice of mindfulness-takes effort and a conscious desire to change a lifetime of fruitless thinking. Living in the future, a time that hasn’t even happened yet offers no benefits. I’m not saying you shouldn’t make plans. But the moment-by-moment anticipation of pain, the constant worry about what will become of us, and the outright fear of the future consequences of having rheumatoid disease really achieves nothing but more pain, more worry, and more fear. It’s a never-ending downward spiral.
By practicing my “ows”—smiling about them—and keeping my thoughts in the right here, right now, I choose to make my life happier and more positive. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.