Picture this: A life, where stress doesn’t exist; happiness is abundant, and love is all around us. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? What if I told you, we all possess the power to step into this existence? Would you believe me?
If your answer is no, keep reading.
In many spiritual practices around the globe, there’s a shared belief that discovering stillness paves the way to happiness, understanding, and inner peace. Such a beautiful sentiment. However, in our modern-day society, where most of us are conditioned to think our worthiness comes from what we accomplish each day, stillness is not quite a luxury many can afford. I certainly could not.
Being a highly motivated individual, I had always embraced the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality. Life was a whirlwind of schedules, stress, and deadlines, generously sprinkled with social engagements and a lot of fun. Just the way I liked it. The more on my to-do list, the more invincible I felt.
Like many in the western world, we put so much pressure on ourselves to be the best, as if there is an invisible scoreboard with track of our every move. The more we do, and the better we do it, the higher the score.
Stillness for me was non-existent, but I felt good. I felt alive; and most importantly, I felt productive. My score was off the charts.
That is, until it wasn’t…
Now, did you really expect the keys to this brilliant existence without a little plot twist? I didn’t think so.
Each autumn, as the leaves reveal their vibrant coats of amber and gold, moments away from making their delicate descend, I am always reminded, the significance of releasing what no longer serves us to welcome in the new.
This year as the trees begin to shed the weight of their leaves, I can’t help but reflect on the past year.
Let’s rewind to October 2022, I had just returned from Bali, having taken that first step in my quest for life balance. Traveling to Indonesia had always been a bucket list trip for me, I was fascinated by their way of life.
The Indonesian people exhibit a remarkable skill to adapt and find joy in simplicity. They believe happiness is a choice; not merely by experiencing joy, but actively choosing it, even in the face of challenges.
Despite my earnest desire to embrace this simplicity, upon my return, I was about to embark on the opposite. I was weeks away from uprooting my life to expand my New York City-based interior design firm to London. Life at the time was an ironic juxtaposition of tranquility and ambition, though as I stepped onto the tarmac at Heathrow airport, the world and my future felt so incredibly bright.
I arrived with a plan; settle myself, make the right connections, meet the right people, throw myself into whatever project came my way, and, in true Kristina fashion: hustle. Much like a racehorse determined to win, my strategy was ‘release the reins, blinders on, look forward, no distractions, and go.’
I am certain, the Indonesian people would have raised an eyebrow or two behind the scenes, but I was confident I knew how to conquer London – I’d worry about balance and simplicity later.
Upon arrival, life was magical. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The city, with its lively streets and iconic landmarks, became the sophisticated backdrop to my everyday existence.
As an interior designer, surrounding myself with beauty and elegance had always been paramount. I firmly believed my environment was responsible for my happiness. Even the air in London, exuded beauty, charged with the promise of endless possibilities; I almost felt as if I could conquer the world.
It wasn’t until one particularly gloomy afternoon, an unfamiliar wave of exhaustion came over me. This is strange, I thought; it almost felt like a surge of depression. Having cancelled my meetings for the day, I remember kicking myself for my unproductiveness; but I just couldn’t muster the energy to get out of bed.
I attributed my slump to the damp London weather. This had to be it. Spring was just around the corner, and I convinced myself I’d regain my energy then. With determination to embrace the Londoner’s mindset, I adapted the British saying, ‘keep calm and carry on,’ and the next day, picked myself up and forged ahead.
Fatigue became my new normal, caffeine, my new best friend. I pushed through, turning a blind eye to what did not suit me, until my body started to shut down without my consent. It was only then; life took the most unexpected turn. I was stopped in my tracks, quite literally, with three words. “You have leukemia.”
What? How could this be? I don’t have time for cancer! I thought. This is supposed to be the most exciting year of my life! Stunned with the news, I was unsure of what to do next. Leukemia was NOT on my to-do list.
I think back to that initial lazy day, a few months prior to my diagnosis. I went to bed that evening, still in my pajamas from the night before. I felt immensely undeserving of the sleep my body craved having accomplished nothing to warrant the rest. Uncomfortably wrapped in my mental blanket of idleness-shame; the guilt and disappointment absolutely consumed me.
I did not want to slow down, this much I was certain of.
The prognosis for my specific case of leukemia was clear cut. There was a strategy, experts in charge, and data to follow. There was no question I would survive. There were moments of fear, of course, but the real battle was to overcome the intensity of guilt that came with slowing down, and even more daunting, who I would become once doing so.
In a world that revolves around doing and sharing, the idea of stillness was, for me, even harder to comprehend than the cancer diagnosis itself. I knew though, something had to change.
The thing about life-or-death moments is, they have a striking ability to inspire necessary course-corrections. Like many amid cancer treatments, allowing our bodies to properly rest during and between treatments can be just as important as the various cocktails of drugs themselves.
Perhaps for the first time in my adult life, I was tasked to re-evaluate how I live, – and how I rest. The Italians have a wonderful phrase, ‘il dolce far niente,’ which means, ‘the sweetness of doing nothing.’ I am Italian after all; how difficult can it be?
I initially turned to meditation, although the journey was far from serene. Figuratively dragging myself, kicking and screaming into sitting silently each day was unbearable. Guided, unguided, mantras, sound baths – I just couldn’t get there. There must be another way.
As I searched for ‘best meditation tips’ I remembered a particularly peaceful experience I had in Bali. I’d rise before the sun on most days because of jet-lag and watch the brilliance of nature wake before my eyes. It was magical.
Prior to my move to London, such moments of serenity were rare. The concrete jungle that is New York City, swallowed me, and my interaction with nature throughout the week mostly consisted of an intentional run along the Hudson River. Finding solitude amidst hundreds of motivated runners was nearly impossible.
With Kensington Gardens now at my doorstep, brisk walks amongst nature, became part of my daily routine. However, locked in the familiar grip of multi-tasking, these walks were often accompanied by fielding calls and emails, engaging in an occasional social media scroll, or listening to a podcast.
However, one fateful morning, a simple oversight became a catalyst for change.I realized I had left my phone at home, and instead of returning to collect, I made the decision to continue without. I felt naked. A sense of vulnerability came over me.
Unsure of what to do with my free hands, I walked for a while then settled onto a bench in observation of the world around me. As I watched the graceful swans in Round Pond effortlessly glide through the water, listened to the trees rustle above me, and felt the warmth of the sun on my face, I noticed my senses and how alive they were.
It occurred to me I had never taken a moment to sit, with absolutely no agenda, no running to-do list in the back of my mind, and just breathe.
Had I just found stillness?
When I realized the act of doing nothing that morning, was something, I felt a strange sense of fulfillment. It was as if I had just tapped into this unknown path of calm only the elite were privy to. A secret power was unlocked.
That evening I slept better than I had slept in months. It was as if my brain said, ‘thank you.’
Our brains are the most formidable organ in our bodies, yet we take such ill care of them; filling them with irrelevant content, overcrowding them with ideas of how we should be, how we should act, programing them to believe abundance equates to excellence.
When I allowed my brain to accept ‘nothing as something,’ and this ‘something as excellence,’ guilt seemingly washed away.
As I welcomed this new daily routine, I began to see life through a different lens. The quiet that I allowed my brain and connection to nature seemed to recharge me. I felt clarity; a strength I had never felt before.
With summer approaching, I decided to take some time away from work and spend more time in nature. Like a true European, I hit pause on the business my life had become and allowed myself to embrace the beauty of the world on these new terms.
I wasn’t running from place to place with an agenda. I began to take inventory of how each moment in my life truly made me feel, finally having the heightened awareness to do so.
For as long as I could remember, I had been focused on trying to create abundance from the world outside of me; through my accolades, my social calendar, through the beauty of the spaces I’d design. When peeling back these layers, what became apparent was that true abundance originates from within.
For the first time in my life, I wasn’t seeking happiness externally; instead, I directed my focus inward, finding it within myself.”
No longer tethered to the pursuit of external validation, the scoreboard, once a relentless judge, vanished.
The clarity that started to reveal itself was remarkable. I noticed my gratitude and appreciation for the people and places around me soar. My own happiness soared.
I started to treat myself with kindness and grace. It felt okay to say no and, without remorse. I learned that a chaotic life isn’t always a fulfilling one, as sensational as it may be sometimes.
My newfound clarity became a conduit for unleashed creativity, unlocking doors to endless possibilities.
In the whirlwind of life’s demands, we tend to find solace in perpetual motion, thriving on this relentless pursuit of productivity, but what if we collectively considered the opposite?
Whether you can dedicate a summer to initiate this practice, as I did, or simply carve out 10 minutes each day, the discovery of stillness can be a powerful catalyst.
Could this diagnosis have been a blessing in disguise? I think so. I know there is a bit of a road ahead, but today, I sit here near cancer free with a fresh perspective on life, profoundly transformed by the past year.
Now, with the first signs of winter around the corner and a new year upon us, I find myself, like the trees, shedding. I’ve officially let go of a part myself that no longer serves me to allow space for the unknown; to find purpose beyond chaos, and success within stillness.
I now invite you to this beautiful existence. Handing over the keys. The entry code: “il dolce far niente.” ■