A Year of Living Mindfully: Learning to let go of limited, rigid notions of identity

Mindfulness transforms our core relationship with ourselves and with each other

There is something different about meditating before sunrise. With the back door open, I can barely make out vague shapes in the garden outside. In summertime, the morning light was already up before me, but today darkness still rules over the land.

Birdsong is noticeably absent. I can hear only the occasional rustle of leaves and the low bass drone of an aircraft passing high overhead. I squat on my cushion and soak up the silence.

I have been in the air and on the road a lot in recent weeks. This has shot a hole through my daily practice. For each day I am travelling, it takes me about three days to restore a routine. I try to maintain some discipline when I’m away but it’s hard.

So this morning I am grateful to be back in my own home, where I feel the friendship of familiar things.

I practise to de-clutter my mind. To simplify my life by letting go of some of the noise in my head. I practise to calm my mind and allow what really matters to percolate to the surface.

“Let’s waste time chasing cars around our heads,” the Snow Patrol song says. That’s so true. It is a waste of time. When we chase these cars in our heads we increase the mental traffic to congestion – that point where we can barely move.

Stream of thoughts
When I'm tired and stressed, an endless stream of thoughts, memories and sensations parades through my mind. An endless to-do list beats in my brain like crashing cymbals.

Some thoughts are tinged with pleasurable sensations, others with unpleasant feelings. I chase the former and I run from the latter. This grasping after good feelings and pushing away the bad ones only makes things worse. Battling with any kind of traffic can be frustrating and tiring.

Focusing on the breath, I choose instead to step back on to the footpath and watch what’s happening. I let go of any judgment about what I see happening in my mind and allow my command and control centre to stand down.

I notice how often I am pulled back into the game of grasping and avoiding. But when I’m anchored to my breath, I allow my thoughts and feelings to pass before my mind. I see them, I let them be, and I allow them to move on. Focusing my attention and accepting rather than chasing my thoughts and feelings gradually reduces the volume of mental traffic.

Stepping back from what’s happening, taking time out to sit on the footpath and observe what’s happening, helps me to reduce the clutter. I notice how my sensations, thoughts and memories rise and fall away. I just let them be. I recognise that when I do battle with them, I get tied up in knots.

If that’s all mindfulness did, it would be enough. But what’s kept it at the forefront of spiritual traditions, both East and West, for more than 2,000 years is something even more intriguing.

Deeper truths
Mindfulness also invites us to let go of our attachment to limited ideas about who we are, and wake up to some deeper truths.

This is hard for a western mind to understand because the thrust of all our psychology has been to define and hold fast to some image of ourselves. We are encouraged to build a solid sense of identity and project this persona into the world around us.

But this sense of identity usually comes from a rigid identification with certain experiences in our lives, such as “I’m Irish”; “I’m good at sports”; “I’m a depressive”; “I’m not good with money”. Mindfulness invites us to let go all of our notions no matter how familiar and reassuring they may feel. These notions actually eclipse a much deeper truth about what we are and what we’re not.

Mindfulness doesn’t just help us to get by; it transforms our core relationship with ourselves and with each other. It is not just about finding my self, it’s about dying to limited notions of who I am and waking up to a more roomy truth that I’ve been missing.

This truth is waiting for all of us, not just some of us.

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