Time to pause for thought in a year spent living mindfully


Midpoints are a good place to pause and take stock. After 26 weeks I need to pause and ask myself some hard questions: Why am I doing this? What difference, if any, has it made? Why would my daily discipline of sitting in meditation be of any relevance or interest to you, my reader?

Motivation is key when it comes to anything that requires discipline over an extended period of time. From the beginning of this year I suspected that what I hoped to achieve could either open me to the experience of mindfulness or lock me even further into the prison of my ego.

I wasn’t very clear why it was that I found it so compelling. I had read lots and practised on and off for years. So I had my preconceptions, some helpful, some not so helpful. In January, I had to let it all go, to start afresh with an open mind.

So what’s changed? I am not so different now from the person I was. If I harboured any fantasy of being transformed into a calm, fit, radiant being, whose very embodiment of mindfulness made words redundant, such hopes were mercifully dashed. And I suppose that realisation is itself a kind of enlightenment. The freedom that comes from trading in one’s ego for a humbler but more secure sense of knowing one’s place in the world. And that the very weaknesses we despise in ourselves are in fact our path to truth.

Slow magic
Something has changed, but it’s subtle. Mindfulness works its magic slowly. It drops below the rational mind and opens new connections to the heart. I may not have morphed into the Man of Steel but I am a lot kinder to this person who persists in the face of glorious imperfections to try to deepen his life and appreciate the gift that it is.

I remember the poet, David Whyte, comparing sitting in mediation to the equally courageous act of facing a blank page as a writer. Both of them, he said, are doorways to remembering who we are and sharpening the attention we give to our experience.

All of us are trying to find a way of belonging that doesn’t let us down; to feel that we can be at home in our own skin, and to discover we have a unique contribution to make in this world. All of creation is waiting for us to take our place in the very particular way that only we can.

Setting aside time to be still in a day of immense busyness is “an act of courage”, Whyte said. He might even have gone further and said, “act of revolution”. We live in a world that is constantly working on us at the level of our fear, always calling on us to be on our guard. We are reminded every day that the enemy lurks in the shadows waiting to destroy us, or at least to break our hearts.

True home
Taking time to go quiet and be mindful teaches us to live in the world without fear. It gives us a way to live with the unknown, even to move towards it, with curiosity, rather than to hide from it.

We begin by overcoming the fear of silence. We learn to befriend the unknown. We discover that the present moment is all we have, and that it is our true home in the world.

Kindness is the most important lesson I’ve learned these past six months. I’m not talking so much about acts of kindness towards others – which of course are vital to nourishing our links with one another – but the act of compassion we make towards ourselves. Self-compassion is truly an act of revolution in Ireland, because it seems to contradict everything we learned about survival in our upbringing. We were taught to beware of being soft on ourselves, to be intolerant of any sign of character weakness, to grit our teeth and force perfection on ourselves.

So as I take a break from writing – but not from my daily practice – for the summer, let me thank you for your support and leave you with this: try punctuating your busy days with spaces where you go quiet.

These moments will help you find your home in the world and to speak with your own true voice. And be kind towards yourself. It will make your mindful moments not only possible but immensely enjoyable.

Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health.. This column will resume in September.