Have you ever been scolded or warned or advised to, “think carefully before you say (or do) something stupid!” Or, “Don’t react so emotionally!” Or, “Calm down!” It’s easy to agree with the command, but very hard to obey. In so many situations in life, we are caught up in the anger or in the excitement of the moment and our words or actions burst out before we realize consciously what the consequences might be. It may be minutes later, or days later, or years later. Then we’re kicking ourselves wondering why we didn’t see it coming or stop ourselves before our life got out of hand.
The problem for me was that the teachers in my life were telling me to ‘stop and think’ before acting, but no one was actually teaching how to make that happen. I may have had some natural inclination toward introspection and figured out some ways to do this on my own, which worked for perhaps only a few parts of my life. But in other parts, I was helpless before the waves of internal and social pressure like anyone else.
Sailing Through Storms
It was later in life that I came across the formal teaching and practice of mindfulness meditation that finally presented an approach that made sense and was accessible to everyone. Had only some person in my life introduced me to a palatable form of this earlier in life, I think I would have taken to it right away. If only I had these skills when I was younger, I think it could have helped me sail more smoothly through some of the storms I faced in childhood and adolescents. But I am glad to have found it later in life nonetheless. Even now, after some years of practice and growth, I wouldn’t say it removes many of the storms, but it certainly helps me sail through them better than I ever could without.
I have not been an every-day-of-the-week practitioner, but I could say that the practice of mindfulness is a regular part of my life – even to the point that some of the manners of mindfulness have become habits in how I handle many experiences, especially difficult ones. Yet, I would still not consider myself advanced in the practice. Fortunately, there are benefits and treasures to be found all along the path, from novice to elite, so it is worth it to begin the journey no matter one’s starting point, or how slowly he progresses.
Anyway, there are many unforeseen storms in life that we simply will not be able to avoid. If we worry and try to escape, we’ll end up missing the good things as well. So mindfulness gives us a way to anticipate, accept and interact with those difficult things, and to reduce or remove the trauma they might cause.
One way I would summarize it, is that mindfulness creates space in the situations we face. It slows things down. It blunts the blow that would otherwise do a lot more damage.
Let me use a few examples….
Instead of feeling tense and impatient, ready to rage at the selfish drivers around me, I can view my own car as part of a fluid in a messy traffic system. I can accept that my car and the cars around me are hindered or released to flow by today’s complex conditions, far outside anyone’s individual fault or ability to trace out.
Instead of having my appetite for some new gizmo set off suddenly by an excited friend showing it off, I am now familiar with the nature of this feeling, then observe the wave of attraction rising, and trust it will pass just the same, sparing my budget, if only I will wait a while.
Instead of being surprised by an angry blast of emotion from one of my children and blasting back, I notice early the pressure building under the surface, survey the possible causes, and see that I am the last one in a long line of frustrations he has faced today. I don’t take his anger quite so personally, so I can then help him look at the other things stressing him out.
[Note: These are all negative analogies, which may be easier to appreciate. I won’t dwell on it here, but I would like to point out that mindfulness will enhance positive situations as well.]
Progression Of Benefits
I would like to describe for you the progression of benefits I’ve enjoyed as I’ve made progress in mindfulness practice…
First, I begin to notice that before I have a debate or dialogue in my head, before I have emotions, I have some arrangement of sensations in my body that are the direct manifestation of stress. The first skill I developed is the ability to simply notice the physical sensations that are underneath virtually all emotion and dialogue happening in the mind. Whatever is happening in the mind is first happening in the body.
Second, I get familiar with just noticing and identifying these bodily sensations, and that act of sensing pulls part of me back just a bit from the physical and emotional sensations – I am feeling them with one part of me and I am observing them with another part. I can then see that there is a chain reaction – the physical symptoms trigger emotional feelings, which my mind detects. The emotional reactions trigger inner dialogue which follows the regular narrative I have on hand to make sense and choose a response. Rather than being completely caught up in this chain reaction and end up where it always leads, part of me zooms out to witness what the rest of me is experiencing. I develop the ability to withdraw from the action to simply observe this connection between what’s happening in my mind and what’s happening in my body. Part of me is now tracing the sequence of events that start with sensation and end with taking some action with consequences.
Third, in some situations I started to notice the appearance of the physical sensations of stress, and the subsequent emotion BEFORE they turn on the inner dialogue. This gives me the opportunity to look behind the physical sensations (looking inside and outside my body) and see if I can detect what caused that stress before my regular dialogue wakes up and takes over. I develop the ability to actually prevent the dialogue from happening and start a different one. I then have the opportunity to seek out more information before I decide what to do.
Fourth, I realize more and more that there are other useful perspectives out there on why my body is feeling stress. What I know already may not be all I need to know. I can then seek out those perspectives when I am not feeling stress, so that new information is available to me the next time I do feel stress. By having multiple (or at least more than one) viewpoint ready to participate in that inner dialogue, no single one can dominate and control, and send me off in some careless direction as quickly as before. The inner dialogue is tamed, because my narrative is being modified by new information that I have assimilated outside those times of stress.
Fifth, eventually I am able to notice the triggering earlier, before the feelings get so strong, then more easily consider which perspective available to me would be more productive or more peaceful to use.
It’s Not Quite Systematic
It sounds nicely straight forward and systematic, yes? Only in hindsight, assisted by study of how mindfulness works, can I recognize and describe these steps I’ve experienced. It’s convenient to write it out in this orderly fashion, and convenient to read it this way, but the process is much more fuzzy and individual than this. It certainly doesn’t look this clear cut when one is in the middle of it.
And, the sense of progress can be tricky to pin down. On one hand, I am getting better at handling, even preventing some kinds of storms that have been common in my life. Some areas of life seem to be calmer overall. On the other hand, I am also facing new kinds of storms, or more intense ones which can overwhelm me. The situations that cross my path in life are not obliged to stay in the same league as my skills, however advanced I become.
So, it is important I try to realize both that I’ve made genuine progress in how well I can handle some portion of life’s challenges because of these mindfulness skills, and that there are plenty more situations out there that could still wipe me out. This provides both humility and incentive to keep working on them.
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Great post and a very honest account of the advances and obstacles we are all likely to encounter in our efforts to make mindfulness a part of our daily consciousness. Sadly mindfulness is often represented these days as a cheap cure all for all of life’s difficulties and as something that can be easily acquired at a weekend intensive. This description of your own journey is both helpful and encouraging. Thank you.