A Year of Living Mindfully: We come to our senses, when we’re aware of sensations


Have you ever written an email, full of anger, in white heat? Have you ever woken from your REM sleep, half unconscious, to find yourself composing this missive? You press send, you hear the ping, and then the voices start.

We all know the price we pay when we act without thinking, when we react out of our hurt or anger and later wish that we hadn’t.

We cringe when we remember those emails we sent that only made things worse. Or that sickening feeling in our stomach when we realised that we’d sent an embarrassing text to the wrong person.

If we are mindful, it affects everything we do, whether we’re offline or online. When we email and text mindfully, we remember to pause before pressing “send”.

What is it that provokes us into reacting impulsively? How come we can be reasonable and calm one minute and lose the head the next minute?

Reacting to shock
I’m most vulnerable to reacting impulsively, or what the Buddhists call unskilfully, when I’m packed full of feelings. It may be a moment of crushing despair or one of delirious happiness.

This week I got two bits of bad news. And there was no recovery time between them.

I felt like I’d taken a blow in the stomach. The timing of bad news is rarely convenient. I needed to talk to someone. Because I was in danger of being hoovered deep into self-blame.

I met a friend. And for a while we tried beating the truth into shape so that it wouldn’t look so bad.

Chaos to calm
Gradually we moved from chaos to a place where calm and considered thinking was possible.

Stepping back from the situation and letting my emotions settle actually loosened my fearful thinking and enabled me to see things more clearly.

We moved from hopelessness to some clarity and optimism. Nothing happened to soften the blows I had been dealt. But through conversation, we created a space around the news.

Bad stuff happens. Creativity is what we do with it.

It’s easy to be sucked into the experience, when it happens. We feel too much. We quickly move into action to counter feelings of helplessness.

Create that space
In the face of threat, our thinking narrows. We look at our lives with tunnel vision. We have no space to step back to un-stick our minds from imagining the worst.

To create that space we need to stop. When we return our attention to our bodies, to an awareness of the different sensations that are coursing through us in the wake of a shock, we can come to our senses.

When we breathe consciously, paying attention to the gift of our in-breath and the relief of our out- breath, we can let go the voices in our head – “This shouldn’t be happening”; “It’s your own fault”; “You should have seen this coming”.

Our thinking opens and we listen to a wiser, more grounded self: “You can’t control everything”; “Nothing stays the same, everything changes”; “It’s not your fault.”

Mindful action means, first of all, no action.

It means waiting until we can see the big picture again, and allow clarity to percolate out of the confusion.

It means not holding tightly to narrow fixed ideas, resisting the urge to act, knowing that we will either do something we regret or end up spinning our wheels and getting nowhere.

Stretching the brain
Responding mindfully is not so much about thinking outside the box.

It’s about making the box bigger so that our brains have room to stretch, and we give ourselves a clearing where life’s energies can flow through us.

With this fresh perspective, I can respond in real time in a way that opens me to radical possibilities instead of my usual doomsday scenarios.

Tony Bates is the founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health.

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