A Year of Living Mindfully: Making friends with experience and trusting it
Thich Nhat Hanh: Mindfulness can turn an open wound into a healing wound. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
This is the last day of my year of living mindfully. I came downstairs earlier, laid out my mat and cushion and took my seat. I was aware of the silence and darkness outside. I wrapped a cotton blanket around me and settled in.
There will be lots of coming and going, making and doing, later, but these few moments I give myself every morning are a time to rest, to come home to myself and savour the feeling of simply being.
I started out on this road a year ago because I was curious. I’d had an on/off relationship with mindfulness for the previous decade. I wondered what it would be like to make a real commitment to daily practice.
My interest was born from observing the way it helped people with mental health difficulties. It offered a way for them to safely drop inside themselves and learn to feel at home in their own skin. I was looking for that too.
I’d also heard the Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, speak in Dublin about how mindfulness can turn an open wound into a healing wound.
This practice, he said, was about cultivating a presence of mind so that we could appreciate what was beautiful in our lives and enable us to touch those places that feel broken and unloved.
Listening to him speak this truth after a lifetime of living it, I really wanted to give it a chance.
Sticking to the discipline
I would need help to stick to the discipline of daily practice. I suggested to my editor that it might be interesting to write about the lived experience of trying to be mindful and to be honest about whatever happened along the way.
She went for it and that was the green light I needed. I knew that once I’d said it out loud that I would now have to deliver.
Of course I could have run off to some monastery and become an ascetic for the year. At times I have felt that that would have been a lot easier. But I didn’t. Because I belong in the world with family and work and I love being with people who search for answers to basic questions about how to live life.
I wasn’t looking to be taken out of my life into some transcendent experience that would leave me breathless. I was and still am fascinated by ordinary experiences of being mindful as I move through my everyday world.
I’d written about mindfulness before, but describing the actual experience of living mindfully from the inside out has been a very different matter. There were times when I felt I was missing a layer of skin. And every time my deadline came around, there were knots in my stomach.
While it’s been much harder than I anticipated, it’s also been wonderful. It has stretched my heart, and opened it. And this practice that I have been faithful to for the past year, now carries me.
During the year I was struck by the number of men who came forward and told me about what mindfulness meant to them. I remember their kindness. When I sit each morning, I think of them and all the people I’ve met who in their own quiet way take time to be mindful every day.
As I get older, I realise that everybody struggles. When we do, we look about at the world as though we were the only ones to feel this way. The hardest part of our struggle is loneliness. We isolate ourselves, we hide out in shame.
Finding the reason
What mindfulness offers us is a way to make friends with our experience and trust it. Whatever we are feeling, there is always a very good reason why we feel the way we do.
We are stronger than we know and pausing mindfully can put us back in touch with our inner strength. When we look at it with acceptance and compassion we discover that there is a way to get through.
As we enter a new year, and before we become caught up in our resolve to make dramatic and impossible changes in our lives, maybe we could pause and remember how far we’ve come, what we’ve survived, and what has nourished our hearts along the way.
Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong , the National Centre for Youth Mental Health