I recently read a very thought-provoking article by Shannon Harvey, author of “My Year of Living Mindfully”, about the current ‘epidemic of mental illness’. It’s well worth a read, mainly for the insight that a lot of what we are starting to describe as ‘illness’ is really more about ill-adapted responses to the very real and difficult circumstances that life is bringing all of our way these days. This is in no way to say that mental illness isn’t real and causes great suffering for those afflicted with various shades of mental distress. But for many of us, the background anxiousness and depressions that result from dealing with continual uncertainty and today’s rapidly changing landscape are natural responses to, well, continual uncertainty and rapid changes. All this to say, it is normal to feel anxious and worried when seemingly unsolvable problems come our way. That is the very definition of stress.
So maybe we just need to pause for a moment and reconsider our response-ability? Our brain’s natural tendency to look out for threats is in overdrive right now, but in fact, in this moment, even with the uncertainty present, is there another response we can make?
What we are collectively experiencing right now is a massive opportunity to notice our biological and mental responses to stress, and with mindfulness, recognise what is a real and present danger, and what is being jazzed up by news conferences and reports and hearsay. We are in the midst of a pandemic, sure, but there is also an offer being made by Life in these times. As there is always, as long as we breath. An offer which says, “Notice what is actually here and now”. 9 times out of 10, when we can really tune into the texture and feel of this present moment we realise that we are actually ok. Maybe a bit jangly and out-of-sorts, but essentially ok.
If I were to write a ‘listicle’ about this, the steps to take, here’s what I’d say:
- When you find yourself in recursive negative or anxious thought for a period of time, stop for a moment.
- Notice the thoughts, the sensations, the feelings. Don’t add to the negative dung-pile by blaming yourself or deciding to be ashamed about finding yourself here – again.
- Breath. Feel the sensations of the breath, slow down and gradually deepen the breath. Five minutes of this will work wonders, but just taking three conscious slow breaths will shift perspective too.
- Open your heart as wide as you can. It helps to sit up straight, thrust your chest forward just a fraction, and feel the space around the heart. Breath into this space and let a sense of compassion and kindness arise for yourself, for your humanness.
- Move forward. Repeat this sequence as many times as you wish on any particular day, especially on days of prickly sadness, or fearful worrying.
- Say “how human of me“ when negative thought patterns arise. Keep letting the thoughts pass on through. You will notice how they change, and how some thoughts recur again and again. Don’t believe them. Just pay attention and without judgements, notice what’s there. You will start to realise your own tendencies to worry or fantasise or obsess or plan or whatever.
This may seem like a passive approach, and obviously there are times when you need to act quickly. Think of a bus barrelling head on towards you on the highway. Or a fire on your stove. Or a car accident. These are high-adrenalin super-charged moments and quick action is needed. But even here, noticing and awareness can be present, in fact, these are the very moments when you really need ‘presence of mind’. This is a muscle that grows with use, giving a sense of capable calm, even in the midst of emergency. The offer of Life doesn’t (almost ever) come in the way we’d imagined. It’s not all peaches and cream.
Yet there is sweet beauty in this whole experience that can be seen and felt all the more as space from busy thought/judgements/worries etc is created. Then the thinking that occurs is creative and solution-oriented, seemingly impossible things become possible, or the need to achieve those things becomes less important. We still act, we are not passive and waiting around for the knock on the door. But action comes from a new perspective, a place of inner balance, and confidence grows. It’s a simple process, to stop and notice without judgement. Easy. A discipline that yields surprisingly powerful results. The challenge lies in actually practicing this, regularly.
I learned about all this ‘mind-play’ many years ago when I was a participant in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, the one I am so pleased and proud to offer into my world these days. (Next round kicks off 12 October for eight wonderful weeks… live and online) I invite you to consider this for yourself.
We are creative beings, us humans, and I believe this is a highly optimistic time of potential on all levels – learning about our selves and our minds and our tendencies can only give us each a better idea of how to navigate through the waters yet to come. There’s sure to be more waves, but we can learn to surf them with pleasure and competence.
Reflections + Resources
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