The practice of being fully alive

This post was originally published in 2018.

As I write this, things are hard at home. My partner is struggling and so am I. It has been a challenging year and I feel discouraged.

About ten days ago, I went out for one of my regular runs. The weather was dreary and damp with the cloud cover mirroring my inner heaviness. I moved along my route with the familiar motions of lungs filling, arms swinging and feet pounding. Thoughts and emotions passed through me. I wasn’t particularly aware, I was just letting the comforting movements soothe me back and forth, back and forth.

I reached the turning point and headed back. I kept pounding and breathing, arms swinging in a silent rhythm. Slowly, I became aware of the increasing wind and cooling temperature. Sloppy snowflakes started to fall spreading messy blotches on my face and clothing. My feet kept moving and my lungs kept filling.

A marked shift in the wind turned my attention outwards to sharp sensations on my skin. The damp flakes had turned to pointed pellets, which pricked my face with surprising sharpness. I blinked the shards away and shook off an inner disorientation. Then, I closed my eyes, inhaled, and felt what I imagined as the pointed ends of these icy arrows. I let them touch me. I let them penetrate me. I let my body lean into them.

I felt them and I felt fully alive.

I ran like this for probably no more than a few moments. I wasn’t aware of time but I was fully aware of the ice pricking my skin and the wind pressing my body. And I know something happened in those moments of oneness with the ice and wind. I felt calm and I felt energized. I felt alive.

Over the next days, I found my thoughts returning to this experience. I saw it in my mind and I felt it in my body. Sometimes tears welled up when I remembered.

Shortly after, two stories crossed my path.

The first was a story about a rediscovered piece of music arranged and performed by prisoners in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The music manuscript was only discovered in 2016 and made its debut on November 30, 2018. See the article Why a piece of music last played in Auschwitz is being brought back to life or watch the video below.

As I read the story, I wondered if the arranging of the music, the playing of the notes, and the smiles of the listeners somehow made the prisoners feel fully alive.

The second story was a video circulating on Facebook. It showed the astounding reactions of people who were colour blind and who were able to see colour for the first time through a technology of eyeglasses.

My goodness, those people were fully alive.

These three instances so close together have caused me to think about the practice of being fully alive.

And I wonder how much those of us living with chronic stress could benefit if we seek, embrace and remember the experiences of being fully alive.

Even more so if we intentionally practice it.

Not just because it might help with stress – although it will. I want to do it because I am a human being. I want to do it to be kind and compassionate to myself. I want to do it because it’s the right thing to do.

I want to feel fully alive.

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Mary Oliver