The Scourge of Modern Life
“Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
Chances are, you have been affected by stress at some point in your life? Stress in modern times is unavoidable. It is the frontier for worry and anxiety, reflecting the conditions our ancestors faced on the plains of the Savannah centuries ago. The mention of stress has found its way into everyday use nowadays, teenagers often use the term to describe rising stress levels studying for mid-term exams. But are we stressed or feigning the symptoms to drawn attention to our struggles?
One thing is certain, stress is real. Yet how our body interprets it varies from person to person. In fact, our tolerance for stress is different to a trained Navy Seal soldier. Yet, we can all agree, when pushed beyond our stress point, our health declines. The good news is, we can use mindfulness to help us navigate the torrents of stress and manage our lives better. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; with purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. It helps us cope with life’s challenges by being present and inhabiting our body with attentiveness. This is in contrast to runaway thoughts which pass through our mind without our conscious awareness.
Practicing mindfulness can help us reduce stress because it shifts our autonomic nervous system from a stressed state to a calm state. As you’re reading this, there are minor stresses taking place in the background you are unaware of, yet your subconscious mind is attentive to. Stress is insidious. It lurks beneath the surface and strikes when we least expect it, carrying with it accumulated stress from the past which can tip us over the edge. I liken it to a sequinned pearl necklace, cut at one point and left to unravel into pieces. Stress has the same effect causing life to crumble if left untreated. Mindfulness can help us cope with the habitual patterns of thinking that dominate our everyday life.
Mindfulness helps us notice the stream of thoughts passing through our mind moment to moment. It is a means to check in with ourselves to notice what is taking place beneath the surface of our thoughts. We may be prone to reacting to external conditions, yet seldom take the time to note our emotional well-being. It is often too late when we sense something is wrong because an emotional crisis has occurred. Our thoughts can pull us into the past, where we re-experience uninviting events. We are not present, but recalling a mental screenplay taken place long ago. This becomes a stressor because we bring unresolved emotions into our interactions with others, contaminating the beauty of the present moment. Have you experienced something like this in which you were pulled into negative emotions you can’t break free from? Mindfulness helps us notice this change of state and bring our awareness back to the present moment, though it is a skill that requires training.
Carving Out Time for Silence
“Don’t let your mind bully your body into believing it must carry the burden of its worries.” — Astrid Alauda
Mindfulness can go a long way when we devote regular time for silence. This is attained through meditation and the sensations created in the body. Meditation anchors our mind to the present moment, so we become attentive to our present moment experience. It is important not to fight our thoughts or add a commentary to what we feel, but allow ourselves to connect with our feelings. As we become comfortable sitting in silence, we may wish to advanced our practice via structured meditation. This is ideal to strengthen our knowledge and take us into a deeper meditative state. The benefits of meditation allow us to detach from our thoughts. We become a silent witness and less invested in the stream of activity created in the mind. We are less reactive because we interact with what is taking place before us.
Stress abounds because people believe their thoughts. So, if you are driving home after a hostile encounter with your boss or colleague, and an inconsiderate motorist cuts you off in traffic, you may offer them a piece of your mind. Yet, by practising mindfulness you become attuned to the physical sensations of anger before you retaliate, since you are mindful of your emotional state. Mindfulness also has a positive effect on our relationships. Our emotional well-being is enriched, instead of succumbing to external stimuli. The success of mindfulness-based stress reduction lies in noting our thoughts non-judgmentally, through the eyes of equanimity and compassion. In doing so, we recognise that thoughts pass through the landscape of our mind and they needn’t turn into negative emotions. Knowing this, are you willing to give more attention to your thoughts instead of being succumb by them?
We are heavily invested in our thoughts and have a negativity bias when challenged. This is an evolutionary mechanism to help us make sense of our environment. So, as a practice over the coming weeks, when thoughts, feelings or sensations emerge, don’t ignore them or suppress them, nor analyse or judge them. Note them as they occur and observe them intentionally but non-judgmentally, moment by moment, in your field of awareness. If your mind wanders say to yourself: “wandering” and bring your attention back to the present moment. If you wish to be happy and live a peaceful life, be mindful of your thoughts before they lead you down a perilous path. Stressful thoughts are not the source of your unhappiness, but a by-product of unconscious thinking left to run wild. Mindfulness helps you to reduce stress because it anchors you to the present moment where your body inhabits. After all, if your body is present doesn’t it make sense that your mind also be here and now?