The one thing we can seem to count on, is that life changes whether we want it to or not. In fact, sometimes it feels as though the changes far outweigh the status quo, especially in 2020. Even without a global pandemic, changes in life are continuous, every day some encounter or experience can shift our thinking whether infinitesimally or profoundly. Just the passing of time presents changes invisible on a daily basis but over a decade or more, we realize the change can be significant. How often do we look at our children and wonder where did the time went or we reach our 25- year anniversary in the job we were only intending on staying in for two years!
Change is constant. Change is a given. Change happens whether we welcome it or want to run from it. The good news is that how we react to change can profoundly shape the experience and at the centre of what can sometimes feel like a turbulent sea we can, with awareness and practice find a sense of calm – within ourselves [through mindfulness]. Often we look outside ourselves especially when things are not going the way we had planned, hoped or wanted. It feels good to blame others. And yet how we react to change is by looking inward, within ourselves. By shifting our focus inwardly, by paying attention to our mind and the thoughts and feelings that show up through self-observation we may find a path to living with greater satisfaction, wisdom and harmony. Even in situations where the change was the result of someone else’s actions or decisions and those actions cause us pain or unhappiness, blaming them or focusing on them, will not help us make sense of the change or ideally, learn and grow from it. We can’t change other people no matter how much we may want to, no matter how much they may love us or us them. This practice of looking inwardly and finding our sense of equanimity is achieved through mindfulness.
Mindfulness doesn’t mean you have to spend an hour a day, crossed legged on the floor in meditation, although that is a great way to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment…right now, on purpose and here’s the key, without judgement. Just taking a few moments of self-observation, noticing the thoughts, sensations in your body and any feelings that arise. If you haven’t tried mindfulness, all you need is your breath and that is why we can practice mindfulness almost anywhere at any time. Simply pausing and focusing on breathing in and out is the first step. Your mind will keep tugging at your attention, as it likes to be in control and is masterful at pulling you in the direction it wants to take you, but this is your chance to be in the driver’s seat.
Mindfulness is connecting to this moment without trying to achieve anything, not even relaxation although you may find feeling more relaxed is a by-product of mindfulness. By paying attention, by taking a non-judgemental attitude and trying not to label your thoughts and feelings as either good or bad but just letting them come and go, like leaves floating down the stream is mindfulness. Like any new behaviour, it takes practice. Our minds are masterful at controlling our thoughts and leading (or dragging) us where it wants to go and most often it takes us either to our past experiences or to a future and the thoughts and feelings that show up are worry, regret, shame, anxiety and sometimes anger, guilt, frustration or even hopelessness. So going back to the turbulent sea analogy, in Jon Kabt-Zinn’s book, Wherever You Go There You Are, he offers of a seventy-ish yogi, Swami Satchitananda, in full white beard and flowing robes on a surf board and the caption read: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” So with mindfulness practice, we can learn to be the calm in our storm. It is not what is happening to us, but how we interpret and allow the change to affect us. How we choose to think about what we are experiencing and paying attention to the feelings that show up. The more in touch you are with yourself, your feelings and your thoughts the more resilient we can be to the changes that are either self-imposed or thrust upon you.
Some changes or life events are so monumental and painful that we can feel knocked off balance to the point we can no longer cope or function, such as losing our job, a family member dying, divorce or being diagnosed with a chronic illness. Russ Harris (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) calls this “the reality gap” or the gap between the reality we want and the reality we have. The bigger this gap, the more painful the feelings that can arise such as fear, envy, grief, sadness, anger, anxiety, guilt, jealousy or envy, even hatred, despair or disgust. The key is striving for a sense of inner fulfilment as compared to external fulfilment which is less within our control and sometimes completely outside our control. Inner fulfilment is always available to us as it is a deep sense of peacefulness, well-being and vitality. Even when or especially when you are experiencing something troubling or your life isn’t what you want by being open and present you can obtain inner fulfilment and a sense of calm. Mindfulness.
In the early part of my career, I was presented with challenge and opportunity and my mind was saying “RUN”, just go get another job. And while I thought that was a brilliant answer, I looked inward and said “you can do this”. However, when I emerged on the other side, I realized that experience altered me in a good way. It shone a spotlight on an inner strength I wasn’t sure I saw before. That was a long time ago and it is still a defining moment in my life where by looking inward when faced with a challenge, I found strength. By processing what the experience means to us, by paying attention and allow yourself in its own time to work through the change, that is often painful or scary we can emerge on the other side altered in a good way. The gift if open to can be growth. Instead of being on ‘autopilot’ where our mind leads us and our thoughts and feelings, we wake up and that allows us to see potential new possibilities. The greatest gift is getting in touch with ourselves.
The time will come
When, with elation
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,
And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give Bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookself,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.