This was a mantra that I adopted when I was first introduced to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) when I was suffering from depression and anxiety. It is an extraordinarily hard thing to do, and more than hard, it can be really, really scary.
When I first started meditating, my mind would wander constantly (as I now understand is completely normal). But, very, very occasionally there would be glimmers, moments, peace and stillness. And that would be disturbing to me.
Prior to learning about these practices, my entire life had been one big rumination about the past, interspersed with intense fear and uncertainty about the future. This caused my head to hurt a great deal, and resulted in many hours of lost sleep. I just could not still my mind. This constant thinking felt like important work to me. The way I saw it …. “This is my only shot at life. Therefore I have to get it right. Therefore, I must think a great deal about where I have gone wrong before, and what I am going to do differently in the future, to make my life fulfilling and find some peace”. Unfortunately, my method of trying to achieve this, in fact, meant I got absolutely no peace at all.
Suddenly being introduced to a practice that could, even just temporarily, calm my mind, felt very much like cheating. In fact it felt like copping out. My ego would tell me “Okay, so thinking about all this hard life stuff is too difficult for you is it? I get it. You are just going to escape from it then and pretend this stuff doesn’t need thinking about. Typical!”
I struggled with this a lot at first. I was trying to untrain a mind whose life’s work had been thinking things through, analysing every move, and picking apart every experience. How was I ever going to fix things if I wasn’t thinking about all this important stuff and what to do about it all the time?
It was during a coaching session with an ex-boss of mine that I admitted to some of these fears that were preventing me from getting any rest and moving forward with my life. It made complete sense to me that if I could just apply my brain to the problem “What the hell am I meant to be doing with my life?” enough, the answer would eventually emerge. My ex-boss pondered this and she said “You are one of the smartest people I know, and you have been chewing on this issue for as long as you can remember right? And you are exhausted by it. If the answer was in your head, given how much time you have spent on this problem, don’t you think you would have found it by now?”
She made a very good point.
And so, as with many turning points in my life so far, having battled and battled and gotten precisely nowhere, I did the only thing left for me to do. I tried something else. Knowing that I would actually need to get some sleep at some point, and with a headache from the constantly clenched teeth, and a lot of anger in my poor overworked brain, I decided to give mindfulness another try.
I started to attend a weekly session of mindful yoga at my local Buddhist Centre. And I also started, once a day when I could, making use of some of the meditation tracks I had been provided with on my MBSR course. And gradually, with a lot of practice, I was managing to calm my mind and become more accepting of my thoughts as they passed through me. Instead of latching onto them like a dog with a bone and grappling with them for hours, I would instead recognise them, greet them with kindness, and then let them pass, drawing myself back to the present moment as I did so. Learning how to “Be Here Now” (I describe in greater detail some of the methods and resources that helped me in these early days in a post I wrote previously entitled: ‘My Anxiety Anniversary – Part 2’ )
Over time, I learned I could start to do this anywhere, any time. I wouldn’t have to be practicing yoga or meditating. On any given day, during any given task, or just walking down the street, if I felt my stress levels rising, and my mind starting to whir with some thought I had got stuck upon and was starting to chew, I would stop, in that moment and think, “Look around you. Does a single person here know what you are doing in your head this very minute? Does it impact any on them that you are doing it? Does it impact in any way, upon any scenario in your life, that you are thinking like this? Or is it just giving you yet another tension headache? Are these thoughts a real thing in the world it is worth spending time with or, in fact, just an escalating negative invention in your head?” Invariably I learned to recognise that the answer was usually the latter, and that the only person I was harming or impacting by allowing this to continue was me. As I started to learn this truth, rather than allowing such thoughts to prompt hours of increasing tension, I would instead look at these thoughts and say to them “I see you, I recognise you, I am not ignoring you, but I am not sure you are real and so, for now, I am just going to let you be, as I return to the work of Being Here Now”.
I haven’t cracked it. Not by any means. I’m not sure if that is actually possible, because we are human. You tell me? I still have mornings where I spot a problem that has landed in my head and I start to work on it, painstakingly building on the thought, brick by brick, until it becomes a panicked construction frenzy and suddenly I have built a house that looks ridiculous to me, and certainly would not pass a building inspection.
Even though this still happens to me on more occasions than I like to admit, my mindfulness practice now enables me to take a step back (eventually) and witness what I have got myself caught up in. I look at my handy work and I think “You ain’t putting no roof on that. That is not a real house. That is a candy house you invented and it just isn’t fit to live in (or good for your teeth). You are not going to take it down brick by brick. You are not going to take a wrecking ball to it. It simply does not deserve any more of your time and you most certainly don’t want to live there. You are going to turn and walk away now. You are going to continue with your day and waste no more energy on this construction. Instead you are going to Be Here Now, in this true moment, surrounded by these true people, under these true clouds, and soak up the rain or the sun or whatever is truly happening. Set down your hod of bricks and walk away. It is a load you have no need of and is slowing you down. Ease your burden and walk on my love”.
And what I am discovering is, as I get better at doing this, without all the constant thinking, I can hear myself better, and gradually the right answers do emerge, all on their own, without the headache attached.
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