A Year of Living Mindfully: Keep an open mind as life rarely sticks to our plans for it

Ease, we are told, can be ours for the asking. But things we find difficult constantly show their face, regardless of how well we eat, pray and love.

Things constantly erupt and go wrong. Life refuses to settle down.

We each have our personal dreaded situations, which puncture our equilibrium. Being alone for too long. Distressing conflict with someone close. Failing at something and feeling useless. Sundays with no fillers. Losing your phone.

One of the many things that I find hard are meetings where there are undercurrents of tension and frustration but everybody is being apparently so reasonable.

Any traces of anger and resentment remain wrapped in a clock of denial. Awkward issues are avoided or kicked to touch.

These meetings eat up time and leave you feeling drained. When they are over, nothing has changed, everything remains the same.

Anxious and uneasy
During one of my early morning meditations this week, I became aware that I was anxious and uneasy. I had a pretty good idea about my edginess.

I had a meeting later that day where this game of pretence was likely to be played out. My mind was anticipating different ways the conversation could go, and each version I came up with was worse.

I was worried and preoccupied about that meeting because it was important to me. I wanted it to be different. It mattered that we could put our cards on the table, sort things out, and start over.

But in my imagination I kept bumping into a wall of resistance as we danced around the problem, smiling through the sheer awkwardness of the whole charade.

But just as life can catch us off guard and destroy our best-made plans, it can also surprise us in pleasant ways.

It turned out my deepest fears about that meeting, which filled me with dread, didn’t happen.

There was honesty that I hadn’t expected. We both owned up to the mistakes we had made. We both listened and gradually understood how trust had been eroded. We remembered the early days and the shared sense of purpose that had brought us together.

As our conversation unfolded, the tension that had been building, unwrinkled. Squaring up to each other took courage.

As we looked creatively at where we could go from here, threads of trust began to knit our working relationship back together.

Invigorating meeting
Our meeting could have gone so differently. It could have been a wearing encounter instead of the invigorating one that it turned out to be. I could have allowed my foreboding to rule the day.

My wariness and my defensiveness could have made him uneasy. He might, in turn, have stepped back, kept his cards close to his chest and remained distant.

Fears coming true
I would have read this as proof of my worse fears coming true. Our encounter could have become trapped in a futile, frustrating impasse.

What had made the difference? Did my practice that morning help?

It helped me to pause and notice just how uptight I was before I arrived at the meeting. When I could see that and when I named what was happening, I was clearer about the challenges and the pitfalls ahead of me.

Once I acknowledged the dark feelings that were winding me up, I was able to move beyond my defensiveness. I was more in control and less inclined to provoke the very encounter that I’d been dreading.

As I took time to see what was happening, it became easier to detach from my worries and get some perspective on the situation.

My practice that morning reminded me of something I’d heard a teacher say many years ago: our thoughts are not truths.

It is helpful to consider a range of possible outcomes and strategies before stepping into an important meeting.

Sometimes our predictions can be right on the money. But if we hold on too tightly to our fears, we may drive the conversation into a tight corner and over the edge.

It’s smart to think ahead, but even smarter to keep an open mind and be prepared to be surprised.

To remember that life rarely sticks to our plans for it.

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