Living Mindfully: Nurturing our innate capabilities so that we can really live the life we have been given
I was in the company of a doe-eyed child this week. His eyes were so alive with curiosity and alertness. His why, why, why opened my eyes to something I had forgotten.
Each of us comes to mindfulness in our own particular way. You know that feeling of being so absorbed in gardening, cooking, fishing, painting or writing? You slip out of Greenwich mean time into a timeless reality. You are alert, absorbed, awake and present. That’s mindfulness. It doesn’t always require a mat, cushion or a dedicated time slot in the runways of our lives. Those things help, of course.
I came to mindfulness through working with people who had fallen through the cracks of our mental health system, people who had been hospitalised repeatedly and had been written off as chronically ill.
The staff were kind to them and accepted their recurring difficulties as inevitable. Our vision for them lacked any hope of recovery.
Our weekly sessions of mindfulness, sitting together in the spacious general purpose room of the occupational therapy department, gave them a way to see themselves and their difficulties in a new way.
Together, these “patients” began to see that there was something they could do for themselves that no one else could.
They stopped seeing themselves as people who could never be fixed and started to see themselves as people who needed to be healed in places where they had been hurt. They moved from seeing themselves as victims to seeing themselves as human beings.
Power of mindfulness
These people convinced me of the power of mindfulness more than any book or teacher ever has.
One man described how mindfulness gave him a “viewing platform” from which he could safely witness his emotional ups and downs without getting carried away by self-attacking thoughts.
Another learned to navigate his way through panic by placing himself “at the eye of the storm where there was stillness”.
One woman crippled by a severe compulsion to check repeatedly simple activities – turning off the cooker, locking the hall door – discovered that by concentrating her attention more mindfully on each of these routines she needed to do them less and less.
Another person, prone to visual hallucinations, learned to read these tricks of the mind as signs of stress.
Instead of reacting to something frightening that he imagined he saw, he learned to close his eyes, bring his attention back to his breath and steady himself. When he gave himself a chance to calm down and open his eyes he found the hallucinations had disappeared.
Of course no one achieved these benefits overnight. It took a commitment to daily practice – sitting quietly and focusing on the breath.
They began by practising for short periods – three minutes, say – every day and built on this at their own pace. They discovered that in moments where their attention was focused they felt at ease.
However, we come to regard the experience of mindfulness, those moments where our usual agitation and dissatisfaction are silenced as pure gold. Those moments nourish us, remind us who we are and reassure us that, despite our shortcomings and everything that seems wrong in our lives, there is still good in us. Our life is still worth living.
The practice of meditation is attractive because it offers us a way to find this same peace of mind, even when the going is rough. When everything seems lost and we feel deeply unanchored, mindfulness helps to plot a way forward.
Awareness becomes an anchor
The daily discipline of sitting still and breathing nurtures the seed of mindfulness inside each of us.
Allowing our awareness to be the sky, we witness our conflicts come and go, like clouds passing by. Our awareness becomes an anchor. It connects us with an inner strength. It reminds us that we are more than our pain. It is a part of us but it is not the whole story.
What mindfulness gives each of us is a way to nurture innate capabilities so that we can begin again to inhabit our lives and really live the life we have been given.
Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health