People often ask me how I’m faring with this daily practice of mindfulness. Am I happier? Am I managing my life better? Am I on top of my game?
Mindfulness gives me the inner strength to live my life, to be open to whatever happens and to feel alive. It has also opened my heart to beauty and to what makes life worth living. But it certainly hasn’t made life easier.
Mindfulness may appear to some like another form of self-centred navel gazing. Something that allows us to shut out the world as we pursue our own individual path to happiness.
Teachers of mindfulness and contemplation in every tradition actually believe that it’s the opposite of self-absorption.
When I am mindful, I let go my ego, and its various desires, distractions and defences. I allow my awareness to move beneath the surface of my graspy self. I sit quietly and wait. Patience is critical.
And then something happens. If we can sit with ourselves, through awkward silences and shards of painful memories, we gradually connect with something in us that is whole and intact.
Something that has survived battles and traumas and got us from birth to where we are today.
Everyone calls the quiet place we touch by a different name.
Thomas Merton describes this as our "true self". He wrote: "(It's) like a shy wild animal that never appears whenever an alien presence is at hand, and comes out only when all is peaceful, when he is untroubled and alone. He cannot be lured by anyone or anything, because he responds to no lure except . . . freedom."
Everything that matters in life is invisible – love, trust, faith. When we stop, go quiet and be still, we can coax our shy true selves out into the open.
When I touch off this I get a fully-fed feeling. It sets me up for the day. I'm no longer in denial or delusion, I know what's happening and I know what's coming down the line.
I have worries about health and work and money. But I’ve connected into an inner strength that helps me face all these things.
Mindfulness brings me closer to my true self and clarifies for me what I can and cannot control in my life. With that clarity, I can move into action and do what’s really important to me. Most of us never get to do what we really want. We go down wrong roads and byroads of addiction, depression and endless self-improvement courses.
We don’t take ourselves seriously because we’ve never glimpsed who we really are. We go through life unseen and unknown.
Our deepest conviction is that we’re chancers. We try saying all those affirmations and thinking positively but nothing quite hits the spot.
And no one seems to get how unbearably hard we find it to live inside our own skins. It’s not easy to move out of denial and acknowledge any of this. Awareness on its own is not enough.
Unless it is tempered with compassion, we leave ourselves open to being drowned in self-blame. We hear the same old stuff and turn away from ourselves in shame.
In Ireland, we always hear the comment, "You're very hard on yourself," but no one tells us how to soften the inner critic or nurture self-belief.
Mindfulness is the route to the self-compassion that we are all looking for. In fact, there is no other road to that kindness until we pause, slow down, and stop so that we can become who we really are.
When we are mindful, we take time to be present and to get to know ourselves. When our awareness opens, we finally realise we are not alone. With practice, the way we relate to ourselves, the way we relate to others and the way we live in the world are transformed.
Tony Bates is the founding director of Headstrong – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health.