For those of us who had particularly difficult upbringings, for instance, who were exposed to some form of abuse as children, creating the life that we want may seem impossible because as adults we are likely to have much negative thinking about ourselves and others, suffer from low self-esteem, anxiety, depression or other mental health problems and physical health problems and experience a lack of direction in life. This is where I was at before I discovered mindfulness.
I had been in therapy on and off for several years but I was still stuck in negative thinking and cycles of depression, over reacting emotionally to everything around me, feeling overwhelmed by stress and strong emotions like anger, fear and sadness. I had low self-esteem, was constantly looking for external approval and felt powerless much of the time.
Since I have been practicing mindfulness, the ways in which I have been looking at the world and experiencing life have changed significantly. Mindfulness has given me a more positive outlook on life, enabling me to recover from depression, manage and reduce stress and anxiety, be less reactive to difficult
situations, gain more self-confidence, find direction in life, take steps to pursue my dreams and generally feel much more empowered.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990) defines mindfulness as: `the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally to things as they are.’ We spend so much time thinking about past events, anticipating what may happen in the future and judging ourselves and others that we often miss out on experiencing the present moment. Indeed, we tend to move through life in auto-pilot, functioning mechanically, doing what we are used to doing everyday such as getting out of bed, brushing our teeth, taking a shower, eating and so on, without paying much attention to it, usually thinking about something else while doing it. Through mindfulness practice we learn to be fully present with the activity that we are engaged in at that moment and really appreciate what is happening right now. After all the present is all there is. As Eckart Tolle (2004) points out:
`Most humans are not fully present in the now because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.’
For a long time, because I felt unhappy, I waited for my life to start, thinking that in the future once I had what I wanted externally like the right job, the right partner, enough money, I would then be happy. Of course I realized that this was a state of mind. By always waiting for things to happen in the future not only was I missing the opportunity to live now, there would also never be the right job or the right partner or enough money that
would make me happy if I was not able to feel good within myself first.
Mindfulness is a way of being and living. Mindfulness is about being present, accepting whatever thoughts and emotions are there at that moment and not trying to achieve anything. In that sense, when we are practicing mindfulness we do not try to create the life that we want otherwise it would mean that we are trying to get somewhere which is the opposite of mindfulness. When we are trying to get somewhere we cannot be fully present and accept what is happening right now. However, mindfulness practice can help us create the life that we want by giving us a more positive, accepting and holistic way of looking at ourselves and others. Through mindfulness we also become aware of our thought patterns and behaviours, and it is only through this non- judgmental awareness that we can make different choices and take action steps to create the life that we want.
While therapy and other personal development work have also helped me on my journey, mindfulness has changed my life in five specific ways, helping me create the life that I want in the process. This change has occurred by first, realizing that only the present mattered; second, realizing that thoughts were not reality; third, learning to accept what was happening in the present moment even if it was unpleasant; fourth, becoming less reactive and more resilient; fifth, developing more compassion and patience for myself and others.
The next five sections discuss the five ways in which mindfulness changed my life. Each section ends with a mindfulness exercise for you to do so you can start changing your life.
- 1. Realizing that only the present matters
I used to spend much of my time worrying about everything that might go wrong or spending hours trying to predict what I wanted to happen in the future and being frustrated and resentful if it did not happen as I wanted it to. When I was not worrying about the future, I was thinking over and over about things that had happened in the past in ways that reinforced my negative view of the world. This meant that I was rarely living in the present moment. By watching the movement of my breath and feeling the sensations associated with it in my body or by bringing all my attention to the activity I am engaged in, I am now able to bring myself back to the present moment and really appreciate what is going on in this instant. This brings me a sense of inner peace and joy that was unknown to me before starting to practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness has made me realize that only the present really matters. Indeed, there are no problems in the present moment; problems are only created by our minds because much of the time we engage in incessant thinking that we are not aware of. This incessant thinking is dominated by what we want, what we like or don’t like, have or don’t have and judgements about ourselves and others that can create much dissatisfaction, severely limit our ability to see situations clearly and, thus, take action. When we fully engage with the here and now, we feel happier within ourselves.
Even if I don’t have everything that I want in my life at the moment, I can still feel a sense of joy and lightness simply by connecting with my breath, paying attention to nature and sounds and fully appreciating the present moment without
judgment. By doing so, the ways in which I look at the world around me and myself have changed. I now feel much more connected not only to myself but also to my surroundings. I have been able to look at trees and flowers and even people with a new refreshing curiosity, noting the judgments that may come into my mind about what or who I see but without getting caught up in them, letting them go and bringing myself back to what I am experiencing in the moment.
For example, ask yourself when you go to the park for a walk if you really look at the trees and flowers around you? Do you stop to `smell the roses’? Do you feel the grass underneath your feet and connect to the sensations in your feet as you are walking? Or do you find yourself thinking about other things or making judgements about what you see, hear or feel rather than just being in the moment? Next time you go for a walk notice the thoughts that you have and how much time you are present with your surroundings or absent thinking about other things. Then gently bring yourself back to what you see and try to look at a flower or a tree without judgment with a curious awareness as if you had never seen a flower or a tree before.
Through mindfulness I have also found more joy in simple everyday activities. Rather than trying to escape mundane activities either by thinking about something else or watching TV, I have been able to enjoy everyday activities, such as walking, eating, washing my hands, brushing my teeth and even washing the dishes! This means that I find contentment and joy in ways that I would not have thought possible before because I kept thinking about unhappy I was.
~Mindfulness Exercise: Washing Your Hands Mindfully~
Pick a daily activity, for example washing your hands, and bring your full attention to what you are doing in that moment. Feel the sensations in your hands as you rub the soap against the palm and top of your hands, your fingers, feel the sensation of the soapy water then the clear water running against your skin. You can also smell the soap and feel it against your skin. Continue to feel the sensations in different parts of your fingers and hands as you are drying them and notice how different your skin feels once it is dry. If your mind wanders off during this activity, simply note where it has gone to and bring yourself back gently to feeling the sensations in your hands.
- 2. Becoming aware that thoughts are not reality
Becoming aware that it was the ways in which I perceived and looked at the world that made me feel and act in certain ways was a very powerful realization to me. For a long time it was very difficult for me to smile at people because I did not feel good within myself. In fact, having experienced a lot of conflict growing up, I viewed the world as a battlefield and therefore experienced a lot of personal conflict in it. After I started practicing mindfulness I started to smile more and, to my surprise, not only did people smile back and were more welcoming, I felt significantly better for doing so. As I became calmer and more centred within myself, I experienced the world much more peacefully with significantly less personal conflict. For a long time I believed that what I thought about myself and others was actual reality as if this was really happening externally. Because I thought I was unhappy, to me this meant that it was the reality of my life. Then I understood that it was only how I viewed the world and that it was possible for me to change my view.
Mindfulness made me realize that we all have different ways of looking and experiencing the world and that if I can change the way I look at a situation, I will change how I feel about it and how I respond to it. It all starts with bringing awareness to our thought patterns, behaviour and emotions as it is only from this awareness that we can then take steps to act differently if we wish to do so. By observing without judgment my thought patterns, behaviours and emotions, a different dimension has already been introduced. I now have a choice to either continue to behave in the same way or behave in a different way rather than simply reacting unconsciously to thoughts and situations.
The problem is that we identify with our thoughts and our beliefs. We gain a sense of identity from how we think about ourselves and the world around us. As a result, we can be very resistant to letting go of the incessant thinking we are used to and the ways in which we have identified with it for much of our lives because we feel that this is who we are and we will be lost without it. Through mindfulness I understood that thoughts are events that are happening in the field of my consciousness. But that they do not define me, that I am not my thoughts. This in itself has been very liberating. If we were our thoughts we would not be able to take a step back and observe them but we are all able to do this once we know how. Nowadays, when I notice that I have engaged in old negative patterns of thinking I tell myself for instance, `this is just a thought’ and by distancing myself from it and observing it I am able to look differently at the situation.
I also became aware that I was placing many limits on what I could do or could not do. For example, when we tell ourselves that we cannot do something, we will either not attempt to do it
or even if we try we will not succeed because we do not believe that we can do it. I had always dreamt of playing the piano and singing but I had never learned to play the piano properly and even though I sang in choirs, I had not tried to sing on my own as an adult because I lacked self-confidence. In fact, I did not believe that I would be able to sing solo and play the piano well so I thought that it was better to not attempt it.
After I had been practicing mindfulness for several years, in my mid-forties, I told myself `why not, maybe I can do it’. This change in thinking enabled me to open the door to new possibilities. I started taking piano lessons, found a singing group where I was able to develop my voice and perform as a solo act. I then learned to write songs, recorded a CD and embarked on a journey that I would have never thought possible a few years before. It is only by believing in our ability to do something and not closing the door on new opportunities that we can start creating the life that we want.
So if you have a dream, something that you think you would love to do but do not think that you can for whatever reason, become aware of the thoughts that are preventing you from doing so. For example, It could be `I’m too old’ or `I wouldn’t be good at it’. Recognize that they are just limiting thoughts, ask yourself, `why not?’ and start taking steps towards it, you might surprise yourself!
~Mindfulness Exercise: Letting Go of Thoughts~
Sit with your eyes closed watching and feeling the movement of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Imagine that you are sitting by a stream of running water that has leaves on it. As
soon as a thought comes into your mind, put it in one of the leaves and let it go down the stream. Keep doing this with each thought that comes in, not forcing or judging any thoughts, simply letting them come and go. If thoughts stop coming you can either watch the empty leaves move down the stream or bring yourself back to your breath until a thought comes in. You can do this exercise for 2 or 3 minutes at a time or during full meditation. With practice, in any situation you find yourself in, if judgmental thoughts come in, you can just observe them, place each one on a leave and let them run down the stream.
- 3. Accepting What Is
Another big difference in my life is that through mindfulness practice, I have learned to accept what is happening in the present moment. Indeed, mindfulness is also about accepting the thoughts, emotions and body sensations that are happening right now whether we perceive them as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Similarly it is about accepting an event that is happening or our life situation in the present moment whether we experience it as positive, negative or neutral. I used to always struggle internally with unpleasant thoughts, emotional and physical pain, wishing that they would go away. I refused to accept that this was happening but I noticed that, in fact, resisting and fighting it only created more tension and usually intensified the pain. For instance, if I experienced physical pain, because I wished it to go away, I ended up thinking obsessively about it not only intensifying my experience of the pain in the process but feeling very overwhelmed by it.
I used to think that accepting a situation that I did not like meant resigning myself to it, having to tolerate something that I did not want such as physical or emotional pain. Through mindfulness practice, I discovered that, for example, accepting that there was a feeling of fear in my chest did not mean that I had to be happy about it; it simply meant that I was coming to terms with it by recognizing that there was fear.
As John Kabat-Zinn (1990) points out, `healing is coming to terms with things as they are’. Of course some major traumatic events, like the death of somebody we were close to, will take much longer to accept, and this will usually only be possible after periods of denial and anger. However, it is only by coming to terms with what has happened that we can heal ourselves and move on. In everyday life, whether we have a headache or we are upset because somebody has behaved in ways that we did not like, accepting that this is happening means that it will be easier for us to take steps to change the situation if we are able do so.
Whenever I have thoughts about what I do not have in my life or something unpleasant that had happened, I now ask myself is there something that I can do about it right now? If so, what can I actually do? If I cannot change anything right now, then I am able to accept that it is the situation in the present moment even if I am not happy with it. I can then plan steps to change it in the future if it is possible for me to do so, if not I let it go.
This is a sample from the chapter How Mindfulness Has Changed My Life And How It Can Change Yours by
Dr Lise Saugeres published in Creating Your Life: Mindfulness and Meditation.