The bold and beautiful Olivia Dillingham, dear friend and fundamental member of the Cook Space community (and integral component of the design and development of Life Beyond the Recipe) channels her insatiable curiosity and creativity to support individuals in and burgeoning businesses by curating unique expressions of their missions. Here, she shares with us how she came to discover Mindfulness, and how she applies these practices in both her work and home life.
THE PURSUIT OF SELF
I first started meditating when I was a junior in high school. The lacrosse coach at the time, Doug Worthen, had decided to share his mindfulness journey with the school, and he started an introductory course for anyone interested. At the time, mindfulness wasn’t quite the buzzword that it is now, and most of us knew nothing about it. What had drawn me to it was one of the items on Doug’s list of mindfulness benefits: self-awareness. I was obsessed with the idea of understanding the self - not in a philosophical way, but in an egotistical way. It drove me crazy that I could think of myself one way and be perceived completely differently by those around me. I wanted to understand how I was seen so that I could “fix” it somehow, so that I could make up for all that I felt I was lacking (social energy, self-confidence, charisma, everything that ‘popular’ people in high school seemed to have and I seemed to lack).
And so my journey began, in a dim room in the basement of the theater that everyone called the Green Room. It began simply and slowly, manageably, Doug leading meditations in our small group followed by a long conversation about the experience. We were given books to read about mindfulness and tapes of recorded meditations, and our homework was to practice on our own for at least ten minutes every day. We all struggled to stick to this religiously, but we loved the class and the comfortable quiet space that Doug provided. I identified with the quiet, with the idea that it was okay not to fill space up completely, that silence did not necessarily mean awkwardness or lack of social prowess.
That summer, my parents were living on the Big Island of Hawaii, and Doug, along with a group of instructors, magically happened to be hosting a teen retreat there in June. I signed up and dragged my twin sister (who had no mindfulness experience) along with me. We shared a tent and spent five days meditating and practicing yoga in a beautiful clearing by the ocean. We opened up to strangers and shared our deepest fears and most painful memories, and we were present for each other. We had a yoga teacher, Julie, who loved to use the word ‘delicious’ to describe her physical feelings. I didn’t feel like I had lived much yet at the time – I was eighteen and had never even dared to kiss anyone, and yet our fellow teens and instructors held sacred space for us. We were allowed to be seen as full beings with fears and desires and suffering, and it didn’t matter what external forces had triggered those things. I remember distinctly our last night of the retreat, walking back from a closing ceremony on the beach and feeling like a young child again. So many hours of silence with myself had opened something in me, and I just felt alive. We all laid down in the grass and stared at the amazing sky of stars, giddy at the chance to be a part of it all.
Of course, I fell out of my daily practice just about as soon as I left the retreat, and I went back to school and sort of picked it up again, and then over the course of months I would forget about it again, and repeat. Every time my life seemed to be going well – something exciting was happening, I was working on an exciting project at school or college, I became involved with some boy – I let the external take over and hold my feelings up. And as soon as those external things stopped feeling good, I had nothing to fall back on. Many little rock bottoms occurred in this space. But each time I fell down I would eventually pick up again with meditation, knowing somehow it was guiding me somewhere important – to myself.
The work of mindfulness is so subtle that you don’t necessarily notice what happens when you go a day or two without meditating. But another teacher once told me that for them, it often makes the different between an A day and a C+ day, and that’s the work – it’s knowing how you want to feel and setting yourself up for that. And then changing your brain to do this automatically over the course of time, too.
My life, I figured out, seemed to work in a pattern: as soon as I dedicated time to myself, meditating and journaling and practicing yoga and self-care, some wonderful-looking shiny thing would come along, usually a love interest. I was shining and so I was attracting shining things to me – a basic law of the universe. But I always made the mistake of running away from myself to have that thing. I would stop doing the things that supported me before the thing came along, I would forget about the other things that were sacred in my life, and I would do everything I could to be the person that thing needed me to be. It was almost as if my subconscious mind didn’t think I could have a relationship with myself and with someone or something else at the same time – I had to sacrifice something, and it was so easy to let someone else take care of me instead of doing it myself.
Finally, after moving through a relationship I found dreamy at first and soon totally lost myself in, I put my foot down. I needed to listen to myself. I needed to stop letting myself get interrupted in the middle of working on myself just to pursue and feel worthy of romantic love. I preached to the end of the earth to my friends that they were totally and completely OKAY without this piece in their life (yet!), but I finally needed to find that truth at the depths of myself. What is it like to just be okay being alone? To just be okay being? To just be okay? We are always chasing the job or person or home that we think will FINALLY satisfy us. But what if we just practice loving ourselves? Loving where we are? Loving the loving space that we can create for ourselves even when a significant other is nowhere near being in the picture?
And what did this pursuit of self-love look like, exactly? Well, a lot of the time it looked just like chasing external things looks, except I was chasing internal things. I moved in by myself and confronted the deep loneliness that came with that. I sat with it. I still do. I sit with the feeling of dread I often wake up with knowing that I am in charge, as an entrepreneur, of my whole day and what gets done and how and how fast. I notice my anxiety and often, when I take a few breaths with it, I realize that it is grief and sadness trying to come through my body. And I cry. And I do manifestation work and I read self-help books and I have existential crises. I don’t let anything outside of myself push my stuff down into the depths of my being. I let it move through me. And as soon as I get through this egotistical phase of spirituality (the shift I am undergoing now), I remember that we are all love and light and that my purpose is to help other people find that – not just to chase it myself.
Most people spend their daily lives on autopilot, pushing all of their real feelings and desires down so that they can just get by. Mindfulness does not allow us to do this. Mindfulness calls for presence, and with that comes richness. My life has depth – darkness and light - and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.