A Skeptic's Path To Mindfulness
We hear a lot about mindfulness, it is coming forward as the next “thing”, and like everything that has it’s time in the limelight, it gives it a wider audience. But limelight doesn’t always lend itself to fully understanding what it can do for you – it just helps you to understand that this is maybe worth a try. So here to help you see how this could work for you is a snapshot of my journey, because I began it as a complete skeptic.
Mindfulness is very powerful, but it needs to be attended to in subtle and small ways to allow it to amplify your potential. I could easily remember to bring closer attention to what I was doing (and why I was doing it, what the action was on behalf of) for an hour or two, but as my day got rocking and rolling mindfulness was quickly swept aside in the tide of work and responsibility. This meant each morning I could stop to feel the warmth of the coffee in my mug, and how it was a moment in time just for me, but by the afternoon I was impatient with myself and my family members (as many others are by the time we start the “second shift” of our day, transitioning from work to home). Needless to say, this leads to less than optimal outcomes, plus now I felt guilty that I wasn’t being mindful. It became a “should”, and when you start down that path with something (I should do this…I should be more…I should have…) it moves from something sustaining and giving to something that sucks the life and energy out of you. No one does things regularly or consistently that suck. Not on purpose.
So I was back at square one…but I kept reading about mindfulness in HBR, in my Twitter feed, Linked In and Facebook, so I didn’t write it off, I just figured it was me – I was incapable of mindfulness. Well, less than motivated to really give it an honest try – you know the kind where I have to let myself go through the learning curve with it as opposed to thinking “If this mindfulness stuff is so sh*t hot then why doesn’t it work instantly?!!”. Nothing works instantly, even instant coffee, you still have to stir it or it doesn’t deliver on its promise either. Time to stir things up. I decided I wanted (needed) the benefits of mindfulness in my life. I wanted to feel more consistent access to wellbeing, I wanted to be better able to respond as opposed to react to the stressors in my life and I really wanted to have more energy left at the end of my day for myself and my loved ones, but you only get those kinds of rewards with effort…and an open mind.
Reading the articles more carefully, and doing a bit of research helped me to understand that mindfulness requires you to listen to what is happening inside you. This information is important (really important), and the listening has to take place in a compassionate and judgment free way. And it takes time to do that…so with a renewed thrust of optimism and discipline, I began a simple meditation practice. I would sit quietly and let my thoughts come and go for five minutes each morning…but I had decided I wasn’t going to let this lead to feeling emotions and stuff. Feelings and thoughts (I decided) were not the same (true, but they are joined at the hip). Needless to say, with that closed mind I found sitting to meditate (even for five minutes) a useless waste of time. I already knew my thoughts. Whoopty do!
Over time I embarked on new professional pursuits that really brought the benefits of meditation forward, and so on behalf of doing this for developmental reasons related to my profession, I kept coming back to it, failing, and trying again. Of course, the long lens of time has helped me to see what I could not “in the moment”. I was meditating for the sake of it, not because it meant anything to me. I was trying to accomplish this “nirvana” in my head, not my heart or any other part of me. You know that feeling you have when someone sticks just their head in your door, but they don’t come in? That was me and meditation, I was always “just leaving”, never fully coming in, never fully engaging my curiosity and opening up my mind to what could be there for me. Some part of me couldn’t commit because I was scared of what I would find – scared of what would come up if I mindfully and wholly listened to myself. I am not alone in this, there are many people like this in the world – maybe they aren’t scared, maybe they are “too busy”, or “feel unworthy” or “already know” or whatever your path of avoidance is. But I did get there, and not because of doggedly “just doing it”. I got there because one miraculous day I was curious and chose to listen. Really listen. And here for you is the first revelation that came up. My back ached. That was the thought that floated into my head (mind-blowing, I know). Except this time I could feel that ache and listen to it. Here is the difference:
Backache – No Mindfulness: My back aches, I am so out of shape I can’t even do the laundry without causing myself pain. I really need to get back to the gym…but it is so hard to find the time…I have that meeting tomorrow and the dog has to got to the vet, so there is no time left in this week! I am making excuses, I’ve been doing this for years, and if this were really important to me I’d be going to the gym regularly. Why can’t this be easier? Why can’t I be more disciplined?
On and on it goes…the Inner Critic takes over, and when that happens we are not “listening” to ourselves, so much as we are bashing ourselves and whining ourselves to death (well, maybe not death per se, but to a tangible and deep energy suck).
Backache – Mindfulness: My back aches. Stop. Breathe. Listen. OMG! My back aches because of how much I care about what I have to do today! My back aches because of the weight I am carrying in my heart, the felt sense of all my responsibility. WOW! I didn’t realize I cared this much about things! Whoa! I am really deeply committed to what I want to do today – this is so cool!
Can you feel the energy difference? One is all about making me feel bad about myself and the other is more about knowing myself. Back ache is not something I experience a lot of thankfully, but at certain times of the day it is there if I let myself feel it (as it is probably for many people). Since this meditation session I am now more attuned to it’s presence, and rather than reaching for a pill (or just mentally kicking myself for being out of shape) I am able to give myself the physical break I need (stretch) and the mental break, “high-fiving” myself for caring so much and so deeply. Because I do, I really do – which is more of a truth then the whole rant about going to the gym AND that truth is what keeps me going back to do the work I do. I know this truth does not live at the gym, it does not reside in the pursuit of body perfection, it lives in my heart and when you can hear yourself, hear your heart, you are able to access a whole lot more that is wonderful and positive.
Since this experience I have heard a whole other range of things from myself that I had never had access to before. I can better connect to what is causing me stress and why. I can better connect to what I am anticipating and find joy. I am now finally putting a vital part of me first, and in so doing allowing myself the time and space needed to prepare for what comes next in a meaningful way. Not in a “to do list” or a litany of “shoulds” but in a way that honours what is true for me, honours who and what I am without judgment and with greater access to empathy and compassion. Because I am spending less time in my day with my Inner Critic I am better able to meet the stress that comes with working and living. Because I can better meet that stress I have more energy at the end of my day. Because I have more energy at the end of my day I am more able to live life, enjoying it, and that gives me greater access to wellbeing for myself and my family. Don’t get me wrong, I still have bad days (and always will), but now I have another tool in my tool kit to support me in working through them, which has lessened their hold and impact.
This listening business is very subtle, but your body will tell you what is there, waiting for you just underneath the surface of your conscious mind, if you create enough quiet to hear it. You may not be able to get to that quiet every day, but practicing, creating the space for it, is what allows this to be something that keeps you healthy and whole. When you can hear yourself, you are also much better at tuning in to others and hearing them as well. In looking at the benefits, they are small, but iterative and incremental. A little thing, like taking 20 minutes a day to listen to what my body, mind and heart have to tell me brings so much more and now has meaning for me in both meditation and mindfulness. For you the two may not be linked, for you the path may be different, but the gateway is listening with an open and curious heart, without judgment of the practice, or yourself.
Hear what you have to say – if you don’t listen well to yourself, no one else will.
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