You Can’t Fix What’s Not Broken

I recognized myself in his struggle. In an essay, the man — let’s call him Ned — described how, after four years of on-and-off meditation, he gave up. He did, however, find a new, perhaps more fitting companion, Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages ritual, and a bit of comfort in an old book from Joseph Campbell: There is more than one way to be mindful, and spirituality is as individual of an experience as it gets.

Like me, Ned admitted to being skeptical of “running is my meditation” folks. After all, only meditation is meditation. The whole point is not doing, not replacing your scary thoughts with some distraction or other that happens to feel immersive enough to get you away from your mind for a while. But for a man besieged with depression, anxiety, and dark moods, perhaps bathing in those emotions is not the best idea — at least not right off the bat. If a 30-minute writing session can make Ned feel more comfortable inside his own brain, perhaps that habit should take precedence over hour-long sitting sessions in silence. He can always add meditation back in later, should he still miss it.

What struck me most about Ned’s story, however, is the fervor with which he searched for a solution to his emotions. From meditating for eight hours in one day to running shirtless in a blizzard to gushing out page after page in his journal, Ned, like so many people in their 20s, is a seeker. He’s tried every morning routine, hack, and habit. He’s done them all for a while, but none all that consistently. And ultimately, he will realize, for all his seeking, there is nothing to be found — because you can’t fix what’s not broken.

You, dear Ned, are not broken. I don’t know which of the many parts you described are you, and which are just band-aids, but you don’t need any of the latter. You are simply human, and this existence comes with many challenges. Yours might lie in the mind-department, whereas someone else’s are more of the physical variety, but challenges we all face regardless.

How we deal with our trials is only a small part initial attraction to a solution, and a large part making that solution a lifelong habit. All habits are acquired tastes, and all tastes can be acquired. How do I know? I hated nearly all vegetables when I was 12, and now I love most of them. It might be that morning pages flow more easily out of your pen than thoughts through your mind during meditation in the first week, month, or even year. But sooner or later, you won’t want to do it. No matter what “it” is, on some days, it will seem tiring. Demanding. Pointless. It is on those days that it’s most important we continue, precisely because we are not in the process of fixing a broken human but merely living our lives, complete with the habits we’ve chosen to value above all others. Whether it’s meditation, morning pages, or a daily run: If you do it long enough, you’ll learn to like it — and if you do it even longer, you’ll follow through even on the days when you don’t.

The point of mindfulness is to make room to deal with our emotions. That room must be accessible every day. Even if we sometimes leave it empty, sometimes fill it until it bursts, knowing that this room exists is what truly creates lasting contentment and inner peace. We need to be able to trust ourselves that, yes, more emotional space is on the way. Always. The rest is flexible. Adjustable. The final pieces will fall into place automatically as long as the entire puzzle is on the table. The consistency of our mindfulness practice — and any practice, really — is more important than which particular practice we choose.

As human beings, we are already complete, and that’s exactly why there is much to do. To share. To create. To live. To experience. Habits are not blowtorches, meant to ratchet up and down in intensity until the meal is crispy — until the problem is fixed, the leg works again, the anxiety fades away. They are companions on our journey, ideally for the whole trip, and which habits we choose simply reveals how we individually want to deal with the universal experiences we all share. If you stop moving your leg after it’s healed, guess what? Sooner or later, it will stop working again. Worry, fear, and sadness will equally never make their last appearance. There’s always an encore from the emotions section of the orchestra.

Habits are a way to accept life’s many recurring patterns, and to invite them in instead of shooing them out the door, hoping they’ll never return — which they’ll always do regardless. Know that your habits are more than solutions to problems, and that, when it comes to your humanity, there really are no problems to begin with — only experiences, waiting for you to live, process, and share them in the unique ways of your own choosing. That choosing is the job we’re truly asked to show up for, and like any job, it gets a little easier with routine — but hey, when the draft doesn’t work, you crumple it up and try again. Even shredded paper can feed a fire, and at the end of the day, what matters is that your soul stays warm.